Today’s Navy is faced with hard choices. In the past, trying times led to innovative and disruptive improvements in naval warfighting that became game changers, enabling the United States to prevail in combat. The Navy stands on the cusp of achieving a huge operational advantage through the use of unmanned and autonomous systems—air, surface, and subsurface.
However, the current stovepiped legacy approach to design, acquisition, and use of these innovative technologies will prevent the Navy from realizing their full potential. A unified strategy is needed for the future unmanned vehicle (UV) arsenal to achieve an operational advantage and maximize return on investment in a time of increasingly austere military budgets.
Concern is growing for today’s Navy to serve as a strategic counterweight to China’s regional expansion in the western Pacific and its growing influence across the global commons. Further, there is an escalating sharpness to rhetoric and risk of confrontation with regimes that threaten world and U.S. economic interests as evidenced by Iran’s boast to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital chokepoint necessary to support the world’s economic engine. This, combined with more sophisticated transnational terrorist groups, has changed the Navy’s operating paradigms.
As the world economy continues to slowly recover from the 2008 recession, the United States and its coalition partners face the economic realities of declining defense spending. However, the requirement for naval services conversely is growing and necessitates a forward-deployed response-and-deterrence presence, thus providing strategic stability in politically volatile regions of the world.
With the aid of technological advances in unmanned and autonomous systems, emerging unmanned, or robotic, systems can deliver stability and power projection in a more responsive and agile way than traditional forces. This will be feasible even with a smaller Fleet. Advances in our nation’s research institutions show these unmanned systems can also be autonomous (the ability to perform without continuous human guidance or control). Such autonomy would offer new ways to address complex operational environments. Unmanned systems provide capabilities that would have once required manned aircraft, submarines, or other surface combatants being placed in harm’s way or in physically constrained waters.
To support the Department of Defense Unmanned Systems (UxS) Integrated Roadmap, the Navy is increasingly employing aerial, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems (all under the UxS umbrella), primarily in the information domain, for persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), signals intelligence, support to traditional warfare missions, environmental sensing, and extension of the Navy’s net-centric capabilities. Future Navy plans include use of UxS for strike similar to unmanned systems used by other DOD services and agencies.
‘Paving the Cow Path’
This approach offers the economic benefits of riding the bow wave of promising technologies and also gaining an upper hand by using platforms that lower the risk to the human—use machine instead of man in risky operations. However, as the appetite for these capabilities increases and the traditional warfighting communities roll out new systems, they are not aligning effectively to maximize for a combined effect. One critical item lacking is an integrated battlespace framework that links these new platforms with legacy platforms within the Navy and the larger joint/interagency community. By employing these new assets along traditional warfighting lines in an uncoordinated manner, or simply using them as a replacement for missions performed by existing manned vehicles, the Navy is “paving the cow path” and risks losing important operational gains.
There are parallels in this push to employ maritime UxS to the early days of naval aviation. Then, the traditional concepts of naval warfare were challenged to integrate the new implications of manned flight from the sea. Today, the Navy must learn how to align these new unmanned and autonomous systems, not just within the Navy using Navy assets, but inclusive of national, joint, coalition, and interagency UxS platforms as well.
The Navy’s future success with UxS depends on its ability to identify effective concepts, integrate operational use, and build the cadre of experts needed to design, acquire, deploy, and operate them within the maritime domain. These are the same challenges faced by naval aviation pioneers like Glenn Curtiss, Theodore Ellyson, Eugene Ely, and Samuel Langley when they trailblazed new military concepts a century ago.
There is a significant “cyber” aspect embedded in successfully delivering UxS capabilities. From an ISR perspective, these robotic systems bring a wealth of resources to the fore but also rely heavily on the operational platform that is the Navy network in order to function and add value. To meet the maritime mission, the robotic systems and the network are symbiotic. Alignment of UxS with network capacity, including space-based assets, is imperative and currently not being done in a holistic manner. This results in faulty assumptions of interoperability and communications capacity that will degrade the total force operational effectiveness and the efficacy of UV platforms. Indeed, these are truly pioneering days from the cyber- and autonomous-technology standpoints.
The Naval Laws of Robotics
In the classic 1950 novel I, Robot, Isaac Asimov laid out the Three Laws of Robotics and wove a storyline that addressed the implications of artificial beings in a human world. Just as this tale considered those implications, we are now at the precipice where the Navy must also consider the consequences of current and emerging unmanned and autonomous systems to both Fleet operations and the traditional concepts of maritime operations.
These ramifications run across many dimensions within the context of naval warfare. Among these are the UxS’ impact on sensing and battlespace awareness, participation in maritime kinetic strike, the ability to facilitate the command-and-control (C2) network and the tactical information cloud in action as a cooperative citizen within the Maritime Systems of Systems architecture, and the ability of these robotics systems to fully integrate with manned naval platforms.
Setting the Course
Similar to Captain Washington Irving Chambers’ vision in the pioneering days of naval aviation, when he helped align organizations and efforts toward the common purpose of bringing aviation capability to sea, there needs to be alignment across the Navy’s UxS efforts, accountability by designating a warfighting community to lead the combined UxS efforts, and an improved synergy with leading national robotics institutions, research laboratories, and the growing autonomous-systems-engineering industry.
To meet these challenges and to ensure the Fleet is positioned to seamlessly employ these new platforms, several factors must be addressed, primarily the following:
• Unified and indigenous expertise in the technology disciplines that underpin unmanned and autonomous systems is needed. This includes a requirement for advanced/graduate-level education focused on teaching officers fundamentals on design and employment of UxS for military operations;
• A holistic understanding of systems relationships, operational risk, and technical impacts, including spectrum management, of UxS use within the maritime environment;
• Ensuring a naval force postured to benefit from the research and development communities and commercial expertise in unmanned and autonomous systems;
• A Navy organizationally aligned to explore and quickly act on common issues of UxS across the air, sea, land, and cyber domains.
In assessing all of these factors, it is clear that, as with the advent of carrier-based aviation, a comprehensive strategy coupled with organizational realignments is necessary. The following four emphasis areas are key to getting the Navy on the right vector to better maximize the UxS capabilities and avoid the pitfalls of uncoordinated implementation of complex systems.
Establish an unmanned and autonomous systems cadre. The “drivers” of UV platforms should be those officers and enlisted already trained as experts for operating manned platforms in the physical domains; aviators for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); submariners for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs); surface warriors for surface-based UV platforms; and Marines, SEALs, explosive-ordnance-disposal experts, and Seabees for land-based UV platforms. But who are the current Navy’s Curtiss, Ellyson, Ely, and Langley of the unmanned and autonomous systems revolution, and who is synchronizing these capabilities across the operational domains?
Today, the Navy is embarking on several UxS programs such as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS), Fire Scout, Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), Scan Eagle, and several UUV programs. While resource sponsorship is brought together under the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (OPNAV N2/N6), the program missions and how they coalesce into the Navy’s network and infrastructure are being driven by separate communities and done in an uncoordinated manner along traditional warfighting lines.
This results in duplication of procurement from an acquisition standpoint, operational inefficiencies, and potential unintended interference when deployed. The information-warfare commander at the tactical and operational level of war, working in concert with the other warfare commanders, should serve as the supported commander and take the lead in tactical orchestration of UxS employment. In addition, experts in uniform are needed to look after everything from infrastructure to communications, exploitation to systems interoperability considerations. Without an operationally savvy military cadre focused on these specific UxS implications and skilled in the technical disciplines of computer science, electrical engineering, and systems engineering, it is likely these systems will introduce unintended or disruptive operational consequences.
At a minimum, their potential benefits will be unintentionally marginalized. While there are certainly tactical employment considerations, such as where to employ deconfliction of water space management of UUVs from other vessels or things like altitude deconfliction for UAVs, there are also significant issues in the area of systems interoperability, the ability to transport and exploit ISR or signals-intelligence data, and the need to have assured C2 of these unmanned and autonomous systems. If the Navy fails to bring this expertise together by investing in the appropriate personnel knowledge and skills, it is likely the Laws of Naval Robotics will be violated, resulting in the inability to fully exploit these unmanned and autonomous systems.
Develop a wholeness perspective on the employment of unmanned and autonomous systems within the naval-warfare construct. Platforms should be built and used in accordance with an overarching strategy for multi-use—rapidly reconfigurable multimission models for efficiency. For example, a squadron of UAVs on an aircraft carrier should have interchangeable modules that the strike-group commander could rapidly employ depending on the mission. A package could go on the common airframe to perform an ISR mission, a different package to do kinetic or non-kinetic strike, or a communications relay package to extend high-data-rate communications hundreds of miles. This commonality would also be a benefit to minimizing maintenance and training issues.
Early UxS capabilities within the Navy such as the RQ-2A Pioneer or the Tomahawk cruise missile were introduced largely within the confines of a platform-centric viewpoint, focused on relatively narrow surface- or strike-warfare mission scenarios. Each brought with it a support infrastructure and tactics, but the interdependencies on other DOD and Navy systems was not as significant as it is for today’s UxS. Largely because of the increasing number of UxS platforms and their reliance on network and communications systems for control, mission guidance, and relay of sensing or other data, there is a significant dependency on the capabilities DOD and the Navy deliver within their global information grid.
This deconfliction and integration cannot be handled with a singular program or platform-centric focus. And UxS development and use must consider ship design, maintenance functions, systems interoperability, spectrum allocation, electromagnetic-interference prevention, manpower and personnel skills, and procedures for safe operation in close proximity to manned platforms (e.g., integration of UAVs within a carrier air wing and water space management of UUVs alongside existing subsurface platforms).
Form an Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Research and Development (R&D) Consortium. To date, most UxS systems are being developed and delivered by independent programs and vendors under oversight of individual program offices. While these capabilities are advancing the military capability, the Navy can do more to fully take advantage of the advances in unmanned and autonomous systems that have emerged within the R&D community, and to design architectures that define the interdependencies these systems have within the maritime System of Systems context.
The Navy must ensure it isn’t locked into proprietary UxS systems with unforeseen consequences to its technology ecosystem. By establishing an R&D consortium with leading research institutions and industry partners and pushing for multi-use, open-standards-compliant solutions, Navy leadership would have a greatly enhanced perspective on the art of the possible in autonomous-system learning and control, computer vision, more efficient robotics design, better ways to handle the information deluge of sensor data, and advancement in sensor networks.
Such a collaborative endeavor would improve the operational design, architecture, and systems interoperability within the warfighting environment. The Naval Postgraduate School and Naval War College should be key partners in this consortium as well, expanding their relevance by demonstrating their commitment to providing curricula and supporting research in UxS to meet Navy-specific educational requirements.
Align Man, Train, and Equip Issues. To better serve Fleet readiness of UxS, the “man, train, and equip” functions should be aligned under a single type commander. This would allow for harmonized advocacy for unmanned and autonomous systems within the Fleet and improved oversight over readiness and interoperability issues. It would also foster unified direction and development of the cadre of UV subject-matter experts who would shepherd these capabilities from concept, to design and delivery, and, finally, to Fleet employment. Such an alignment will allow more efficient use of the Navy’s limited UxS expertise and provide a single focal point for UxS Fleet requirements.
The responsible type commander, in coordination with the Naval Warfare Development Command, would coordinate tactics, techniques, and procedures, concepts, and training requirements with the Navy’s training, doctrine, and warfare-development community. Traditional schools in each warfighting domain should also revamp their curricula to address the nuances of operating unmanned platforms and their different rules of engagement.
What Does Compute . . .
While the real assets within the Navy are the talents and initiative of its people, technology does play a significant role. Just as technologies like the catapult, nuclear power, jet propulsion, ballistics computing, satellite communications, networks, and precise navigation and timing have changed naval warfare in the past, the maturing of unmanned and autonomous systems will have disruptive yet powerfully positive influences on future naval warfighting. We must be ready and organize now to capitalize on the operational and fiscal rewards attainable using UV and autonomous-system technology—from sensing to C2 to kinetic operations.
Perhaps it is time to shape the Information Dominance Corps, with its keen understanding of the information domain and foundation in traditional warfighting communities, such that it becomes the lead unrestricted-line community to deliver and amplify the warfighting utility of our emerging unmanned and autonomous systems. As a community that already integrates its core competencies across all warfare areas, becoming the integrators of UV capabilities is a logical progression. It also makes sense to extend the role of the Navy’s Cyber Type Commander, Navy Cyber Forces, to have a larger and unifying role in the area of manning, training, and equipping unmanned and autonomous systems.
Those who seek to compete with our national interests and challenge freedom of maneuver on the seas will not hesitate to exploit similar cutting-edge capabilities. The price of unmanned vehicles and autonomous systems is right, the availability plentiful, and their effectiveness proven. The waves of pervasive autonomous-systems technologies in our lives and the deluge of information from persistent environmental awareness are just the beginning. Examples such as robotic vacuums that use antisubmarine-warfare search patterns to navigate our homes or machine learning systems that easily defeat our best TV game-show champions are now taken for granted. We are exposed to more information in a day than our ancestors were in a lifetime. To exploit these trends and achieve a transformational leap in operational superiority, we must unite the Navy’s UxS and autonomous-system efforts toward a common strategy, purpose, and vision, and as Asimov noted, make best use of artificial beings in a human world.
Potential Naval Laws of Robotics:
First Law: A naval robot must contribute to and integrate with the naval mission and must do no harm to friendly or neutral forces;
Second Law: It must obey its warfare commander and share its sensing information only with those entities its warfare commander designates, except where such orders conflict with the first law;
Third Law: It must protect its own existence as long as this protection does not conflict with the first or second laws or compromise the mission.
Captain Mills is an Information Dominance Corps officer with 22 years’ experience in carrier strike group, joint, major staff, and other Fleet assignments founded on the warfighting disciplines of combat systems, cyber, C4I, and information dominance.