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01/12/18: Autonomous Unmanned Systems Give Amphibious Assault an Edge

By Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Scott C. Truver.

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One of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption by the U.S. military involves unmanned systems (UxS). The expanding use of military UxS is creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago. In the highest level U.S. policy and strategy documents, unmanned systems are featured as an important part of the way the joint force will fight in the future.

But because urgent operational needs in Iraq and Afghanistan demanded development of unmanned air and ground vehicles, they have accounted for the lion’s share of defense funding for unmanned systems, while funding for unmanned maritime systems (surface and subsurface) has lagged. This is especially true for the U.S. Navy, where platforms such as the MQ-25 Stingray, MQ-4C Triton, MQ-8B/C Fire Scout, and other, smaller, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the programs of record.

But Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary assault forces have needs that are not being met by this heavy investment in UAVs. During the past 15 years of war in South Asia and the Middle East, the Marine Corps has been used extensively as a land force, and largely was disembarked from Navy amphibious ships. With those conflicts winding down, however, the Corps is, in the words of a former Commandant, “Returning to its amphibious roots.” It may be time for the Department of the Navy to place more emphasis on unmanned maritime systems.

The Amphibious Assault Navy

Expeditionary strike groups are the nation’s sole forcible entry force. In conducting this mission, the ship-to-shore movement of the assault force remains the most hazardous phase of the operation. To reduce the risk to Marines assaulting the beach, expeditionary strike groups are dependent on real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and focused intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). These are critical missions that traditionally have been done by U.S. sailors, Marines, and special operators, but ones that put these warfighters at extreme risk.

To provide ISR and IPB for the amphibious assault mission, unmanned air vehicles are useful, but they are vulnerable to enemy air defenses. Unmanned undersea vehicles are useful as well, but the underwater medium makes control of these assets at distance problematic. Increasingly, the Navy-Marine Corps team is looking to unmanned surface vehicles to perform this mission.

Testing and Evaluating

The Navy-Marine Corps team has been conducting an array of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations focused on inserting new technologies into its amphibious assault forces. In less than 18 months, it has tested and evaluated unmanned maritime systems in the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (S2ME2 ANTX), the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment, the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral demonstration, Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, and Bold Alligator 2017, among others.

The S2ME2 ANTX and Bold Alligator 2017 events are prime examples of amphibious assault forces using new unmanned maritime technologies to provide ISR and IPB in creative ways.

During S2ME2 ANTX, demonstration organizers selected the catamaran style MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV) for the ISR and IPB role, primarily because of its stealth, speed, and sea-keeping characteristics. The amphibious assault force employed this USV to thwart enemy defenses. The USV swam into the “enemy” harbor (the Del Mar Boat Basin) and relayed information to the amphibious force command center via the TASKER C2 system. Subsequent to this ISR mission, the USV entered the surf zone to provide IPB on water conditions, beach gradient, obstacle location, and other critical information prior to a manned assault.

In many ways, S2ME2 ANTX was a lead-in to Bold Alligator 2017, the Navy-Marine Corps exercise designed to enhance interoperability in the littorals. Bold Alligator took the concepts explored during S2ME2 ANTX to the next level, employing two different size (6-foot and 12-foot) MANTAS USVs in the ISR and IPB roles to provide long-range littoral reconnaissance of “enemy” beaches and waterways.

The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade used the larger USV, equipped with a gyro-stabilized SeaFLIR 230 electro-optical and infrared camera and a BlueView M900 forward-looking imaging sonar, to provide ISR and IPB prior to the amphibious assault. The sonar provided bottom imaging and analysis within the surf zone of the amphibious landing area. This latter capability is crucial to ensure a landing craft can enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects.

During the long-range littoral reconnaissance phase of Bold Alligator, Navy and Marine Corps operators at Naval Station Norfolk were able to control both the 6- and 12-foot USVs and drive them in the intercoastal waterway as well as off North and South Onslow beaches. Once positioned, both USVs streamed live, high-resolution video and sonar images to the command center several hundred miles away. Having the ability to view these images in real time enables decision makers not on-scene to make time-critical go/no-go determinations.

Into the Future

The ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force remains the most hazardous mission for any navy. Real-time ISR and IPB will spell the difference between victory and defeat. For this reason, the types of unmanned systems the Department of the Navy should acquire are those that directly support the naval expeditionary forces that must conduct forcible entry operations: unmanned surface systems.


Captain Galdorisi is a career naval aviator who began his writing career in 1978 with an article in Proceedings. During his 30 years of active duty, he had three tours with the amphibious assault Navy.

Dr. Truver directs Gryphon’s national security program and is a senior advisor at the Center for Naval Analyses. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings and writes often on expeditionary warfare.

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