When plotting the path of drone development, problems arise in the bias of referring to systems as “unmanned.” It is assumed that drones and the missions they conduct are by default manned, and that their struggle is to fit into those existing manned roles.
Attempts to expand the drone family tree have seen new increasingly manned-like platforms. The X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (known commonly as UCAV), with two weapon bays and carrier-launch capability, is for all intents and purposes a toddler unmanned conventional fighter aircraft. The MQ-8 helicopter drone series seems to inexorably march toward being an unmanned cousin to the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior Army scout helicopter. In a denied environment, humans still have the edge on these aspirant systems. Autonomous drones in particular can and will eventually break into manned roles, but not by competing for those roles directly.
Short-term drone development should concentrate on areas where autonomy is easiest and expendable platforms are most useful, giving drones a space for more successful and immediate growth. Drones as countermeasures would have the potential to tip naval warfare back toward the defense advantage. To defeat that advantage, drones will take on the autonomous offensive capabilities of manned platforms.
The Offense Advantage
Offensive systems have come to dominate the theoretical modern naval conflict. Since the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II, the developments in platforms and doctrine have pushed the offensive equation in range, scale, rate, and speed. Resolution was not found in the attrition of armored naval boxers, but in reconnaissance and engagement by swarms of aircraft at a distance. Today, the fears are turned toward missiles: the Russo-Indian BrahMos antiship cruise missiles, Chinese Houbei missile boats, and reams of articles on the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile.1 Our fears and attentions lie with the offense, not new composite armor or countermeasure systems.
In response, the ships themselves have become more fragile; the defensive Aegis combat system represents those sacrifices. By necessity, defense is no longer conducted by a cadre of redundant square-jawed gunners blasting flak out of deck guns while the world burns around them. We are defended by a sensitive network of computers and weapons with critical coordinating nodes. President George W. Bush’s statement that “We have to be right 100 percent of the time. And the enemy only has to be right once to hurt us” is not only applicable to terrorism, but to this offensive environment where comparatively capable-but-fragile systems stand between us and oblivion.
Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), ground strike, and air defense are now the mainstay of combat naval aviation in the offensive equation. Remotely controlled drones have excelled at ISR. So too have they shown great success with ground-strike missions in irregular conflict. But it is generally recognized that against a peer competitor providing a denied environment, current platforms and remote systems would become seriously vulnerable. As for air defense, the only mutual air-to-air engagement by a drone was in 1999 when an Iraqi MiG-25 successfully shot down an MQ-1 Predator, whose returning fire fell short (though that ability to designate the MiG and return fire should be emphasized, even if the missile did fall short).2
Confusion, Distraction, Seduction
With the armor now a minor part of the at-sea combat equation, targeting systems and missiles must be defeated in depth. There is no way to effectively shoot down the swarms of variable-speed, sea-skimming, and evasive missiles. In the modern offense environment, your best friend is the soft kill: neutralizing your opponent’s offensive capability through deception.3
Military deception is not new. The Mongols would entrap armies with false retreats, and the Allies used the inflatable U.S. First Army Group to hold German forces in reserve, away from the Normandy landings. Flash and smoke grenades are more of the same on a tactical level. In an offense-advantage environment, the tactical hard-kill options of the close-in weapon system and the Standard Missile series are joined by a whole suite of countermeasures—from jammers to chaff—to stave off targeting and missile systems.
In the last modern integrated conventional naval conflict, the Falklands War, tactical and technical failures necessitated Prince Andrew and other Sea King pilots to innovate; they used their helicopters as distractive and seductive countermeasures against Argentinian Exocet missiles.4 While effective and necessary in the Falklands, the regular conduct of missile-attracting suicide missions by pilots is not a sustainable tactical doctrine for defeating enemy strikes or winning a war. Thankfully, drones have a rich heritage of suicidal tendencies, coming from a long line of missiles and practice targets.
Aegis in the Sky: Return of the Defense Advantage
Except for mine-countermeasures ships, the Cyclone-class patrol craft (best warships ever), and the USS Constitution, every U.S. warship has chaff launchers. Some also have the Australian Nulka rocket-propelled seduction countermeasures. However, these are all temporal munitions that are expended and disappear. Drones are steady-state options that can conduct multiple defensive sorties until finally caught by the weapons they are taunting or returning to base. Bolstering Aegis, drones could extend this computerized protection for an obfuscating defense-in-depth—confusing enemy targeting systems and distracting or seducing incoming enemy ordnance.
Drones should progress with countermeasure packages and missions in mind, instead of rushing to unmanned conventional aircraft. Some drones could be full-body decoys—structures specifically designed for large radar returns. Others could be payload-based. One could imagine a drone containing droppable chaff pods conducting automated patrols between a naval vessel and a threat area. One could also imagine Nulka seductive repeaters on drones, which could activate their payload, fly away from the ship, then drop the signal after a certain distance. This leaves a missile alone and confused before splashing down harmlessly. Problems of power-drain from the drone into higher-end countermeasure packages could be solved by installing a series of Nulka-like self-contained payloads that would be replaced/recharged when drones return to the ship.
For ships both with and without the benefit of a large flight deck, rotary countermeasure drones are an option as well. The recent launch of an aerial drone from a submerged submarine suggests a possible “ready-launch” drone system, too; countermeasure drones could be “shot” off a ship and fly until the threat is concluded, to be caught in a net and “repackaged.”
In a slight aside to the aerial systems, surface or sub-surface decoys designed to pump out a large magnetic signature and acoustics matching a ship or submarine could also be used to defend against torpedoes or actively confuse enemy subs and surface ships alike.
Critical to a successful system of countermeasure drones would be full autonomy or light management by highly encrypted line-of-sight datalinks to a mothership(s). A rudimentary secondary system could be modified for an airborne warning and control system aircraft in case a ship or ships lose their ability to nudge their drone defenders as necessary. In his Air and Space Power Journal piece, “The Swarm, the Cloud, and the Importance of Getting There First,” Air Force Major David Blair imagines the possibility of airborne drone controllers, but in the context of a fully autonomous offensive drone force. However, one would seek to make them as autonomous as possible to prevent space/personnel drain from operating stations, enemy interference, inadvertent “beacons” for enemy missiles, or disruption by shipboard battle damage.
Carriers and Amphibs
These smaller countermeasure drones could also increase the effectiveness of carriers and amphibious ships in their relation to the rest of the force. The surface assets of a strike group exist, in part, to protect the high-value asset. However, countermeasure drones make it possible for the high-value flat-top to become a more critical piece, rather than critical client, of a strike group’s defensive net. With smaller drones able to deploy off smaller flightdecks, amphibs especially gain greater conventional flexibility and increased positive importance in the defensive equation of a naval force. As the decades of offense advantage have pushed ISR and missile systems in range and capability, this new class of countermeasure drones would finally push back in a big way.
While the image of hordes of drones buzzing about in a cloud may be slightly hyperbolic, the cloud of confusion a drone force could create is very real. Two or three drones could theoretically accomplish the work of a depleted topside chaff locker and still continue operations. Unlike their manned brothers, drones may remain airborne until out of fuel if absolutely necessary; they have neither pilots nor need for search-and-rescue assets.
A combination of different drones and shipboard systems builds a complementary combined-arms system, i.e., radar-reflecting countermeasure drones drawing missiles away from ships and seduction countermeasure drones keeping missiles from destroying the reflectors. Such a system is best described as combining “different effects or characteristics, so that together they pose a more complicated threat, a dilemma for the enemy . . . integrat[ing] the different weapons to provide a much greater effect than any one by itself could achieve.”5 Even if a simple solution similar to home-on-jam were to be developed, countermeasure swarms could vary tactics in ways expendable systems cannot. With this deep deceptive system, the potential for a new defense advantage is born.
Drones to the Offense
Necessity is the mother of invention. Missiles led to Aegis. The speed of Aegis led to faster and smarter missiles. Those missiles, potentially, lead to swarms of countermeasure drones. That swarm would necessitate a response: something even smarter. Sending only human pilots into the engagement zone of a fleet or facility advanced enough to have a drone swarm is probably suicide. Did someone say suicide? Sounds like another job for a drone. By creating for shooters the problem of a defense advantage, drones have opened their own door to autonomous lethality at sea.
The drones designed to penetrate these swarms and deploy antiship or antiair weaponry would need to be autonomous. Most likely, they would operate far over the horizon and within easy reach of the electronic-warfare suites of enemy units attempting to hijack or cut them off from a remote system. Making a remote system or a system requiring too many inputs would create excessive openings to see a drone be captured, destroyed, or return its payload directly into the side of an originating ship.
There are successful efforts to build the kind of processing systems necessary for autonomous drones capable of penetrating defensive zones and deconflicting the drone countermeasures. This author’s July 2012 Proceedings article, “Cloud Combat: Thinking Machines in Future Wars,” discusses in detail the myriad developments in software, hardware, and biotic squishy-ware that could yield a drone intuitive enough to fly combat missions through the kind of defensive net drone countermeasures could create. Examples include the combination of rat neurons with a functioning robot at Reading University, circuit miniaturization from Australia, and software capable of interpreting human thoughts designed at the University of California Berkeley.
However, in the past year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has moved toward an interesting middle-ground: SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics). The project seeks the middle ground between biological neurological processes and computers through biomimicry: creating a neuromorphic device—the functioning structure of a mammalian brain—out of artificial materials.
Processing is no good without recognition. Google software engineer Quoc V. Le announced to the San Francisco Machine Learning Conference that Google’s Deep Learning clusters had learned to recognize the basic aspects of certain objects. “He realized the deep learning clusters had made a breakthrough when they were able to recognize discrete workplace objects. . . . Le didn’t train the machines this way—the software had figured that out on its own.”6 Though Google’s deep-learning processes areorders of magnitude larger than what is available to a drone, those “lessons” (on, say, the shape of friendly/enemy warships and aircraft) might be imparted to a cadre of drones designed to penetrate a countermeasure swarm.
Brigham Young University has also developed a genetic “smart object recognition algorithm” able to recognize images from photos and video without human calibration. With the computer choosing the important aspects of selected identifying images, BYU engineer Dah-Jye Lee and his students found 100 percent accurate recognition in four of CalTech datasets used (motorbikes, faces, airplanes, and automobiles). The other published well-performing object recognition systems scored in the 95–98 percent range.7
Unmanned and manned offensive platforms can likely both work together, furthering the complementary combination of arms. Autonomous strike drones could specialize in easier-to-recognize and harder-to-reach conventional targets at sea while serving as escorts for manned strike missions inland or more complicated conflict operations.
So, too, countermeasure drones need not stay behind the front lines. Both manned and unmanned strikers could be accompanied by countermeasure drones defending them from enemy aircraft, ships, or a ground-based integrated air-defense system. While the countermeasure drones aid the offense, the offense drones could aid in defense. Once drones are smart enough to penetrate air defenses and countermeasures, they should also be able to integrate into the countermeasure swarm as hard-kill defenders. They could also deploy not merely to penetrate a countermeasure swarm, but to destroy that swarm in order to allow less advanced antiship cruise missiles through. The combinations may be many, but the utility clear.
One might ask why the assumption is made for lethal drones instead of smarter missiles or some asymmetric means of attack. First, why build a superintelligent weapon capable of inhuman high-G maneuver just to have it destroyed if you can use it to deploy a payload and return? The danger is—in the face of cheap and expendable countermeasure drones—allowing the cost-benefit to lie with the defender, as increasingly advanced and costly systems are expended and magazines emptied. Second, with sufficiently secure and minimal datalink usage mixed with autonomy, asymmetric network attacks are unlikely to meet with desired response. The same goes for electromagnetic-pulse weapons, which could see their effectiveness diminished by biotic systems, hardening, and redundancy. One might also want to avoid accidentally downing one’s own systems with an electronic attack.
Some might suggest a truly effective countermeasure system would herald a return to naval gunnery. However, if one were to have defeated enemy ISR and missiles to the point where one was in range, the very advantages cultivated are put at risk: range of ISR, offense at range, and defense in depth. Modern warships have neither the armor nor the armament to make close-in engagements sensible, even if having to contend with countermeasure swarms. Currently, even a simple practice missile can cripple such capital ships as the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62).8 Compact, long-range, high-power laser systems might be the technology to change the playing field in favor of naval gunnery, but that is another topic.
Cultural and Physical Barriers
While necessity may be the mother of invention, institutional inertia can be its executioner and the laws of physics its undertaker. For any of these schemes to become reality, certain cultural and engineering hurdles need to be overcome.
In discussing this article, Air Force Major Jeremy Renken derailed my grand train of futurism with the gritty realities of engineering. Payloads affect weight and power requirements, which affect fuel requirements and size, interfering with speed and range. The robots of science fiction may run forever without refueling, but today’s robots have nonfictional fuel needs. However, advancements in battery technology and hydrogen fuel cells might reduce weight and size while decreasing range and time on station. Some countermeasure drones can be made of less survivable materials, further decreasing weight. Many of them, however, may not require such advanced power. A radar-reflecting dirigible or a simple chaff-dropping drone do not need the high-power draws of an autonomous fighter. Those autonomous fighters, without humans or their life-support systems, may have similar if not longer-range or increased payloads in comparison to their manned brethren.
Cultural barriers also exist. In the air services of all branches, pilots will naturally resist autonomous aerial systems, especially ones designed to conduct independent attack missions. However, demographic shifts may result in more acceptance. In November 2013, acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said that because of decreasing flight hours, Air Force pilots were electing to leave the service for civilian jobs.9 While a growing detachment from a service’s institutional art is always something to mourn, pilots are accepted as those most wary of their potential replacements/partners. An Air Force less dominated by those who see the art of manned flight as the core purpose of their service may be better at moving drones in from the periphery. If not the Navy, perhaps the Air Force might be the first to adopt countermeasure drones in defense of increasingly expensive hardware.
However, rather than rely on sad shifts in demographics, those who believe drones will make legitimate systems-of-the-line should make a strong effort to convince pilots that drones are not replacements, but complements. It is always better to win a debate by conversion rather than attrition.
Live by the Sword, Die by the Gun
Those who believe drones have a significant future in the conventional battlefield will not prevail by pushing them head-on into traditional roles. Drones are best played to their advantage at current levels of technology, which would be a novel system of countermeasures that enhance the defense-in-depth so important to our potent but often vulnerable platform capabilities.
Successful deployment of such a countermeasure system would likely require drones to take on the very missions that seem so challenging today. The solutions they create become problems to destroy. Drones will solve a problem by building a defensive net, but in so doing they will make the best argument for their advancement to an autonomous offensive footing.
1. CDR Salamander & Eagle One, Blog Talk Radio. “Episode 206: Small Ships, Flotillas & the Requirements of Naval Supremacy.” Midrats, 15 December 2013. CAPT Robert Rubel, USN (Ret.), also suggests that that missiles have replaced aircraft as the major at-sea offensive weapon.
2. “The Predator.” 60 Minutes II, aired on CBS 9 January 2003.
3. LT Matthew Hipple, USN, CIMSEC. “Episode 18: Daddy’s New Corvette,” Sea Control, 20 January 2013. Chuck Hill discusses how soft-kill measures are the most effective defense against modern missile attacks.
4. Sebastian Bruns, “Enduring Lessons from the Falklands War for the U.S. Navy,” working title: The Falklands War, 30 Years on (London: Ashgate, to be published in 2014).
5. Jonathan M. House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. Research Survey, Combat Studies Institute; no. 2. (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984).
6. David Lumb, “How Google’s ‘Deep Learning’ Is Outsmarting Its Human Employees.” Co. Labs. Fast Company, 26 November 2013.
7. Brigham Young University, “BYU’s Smart Object Recognition Algorithm Doesn’t Need Humans,” press release, 15 January 2014.
8. Sam Fellman, “Drone That Hit Chancellorsville Ruined Computer Center,” Navy Times, 30 December 2013.
9. Richard Sisk, “AF Pilots Rejecting Bonuses to Leave Service,” Military.com, 14 November 2013.