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23/02/22: Integrating Unmanned Maritime Capabilities to Tackle Hybrid Threats

Western and regional navies operating around the Persian Gulf have for some time faced the challenge of hybrid threats, including from unmanned systems. Now these navies are combining to deliver a more integrated approach to dealing with this threat.

On 29 July 2021, the impact that unmanned system technologies can have on real-world security in critical strategic regions like the Gulf was demonstrated once again when an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) was used in an attack on the Liberia-flagged tanker MV Mercer Street. Two of the ship’s crew were killed when the UAV struck the vessel as it transited waters off the coast of the Sultanate of Oman.

The Mercer Street attack underlined the continuing risk that rogue actors pose to the security of strategically important sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that dissect regions such as the Gulf and the Northern Indian Ocean. The attack was also one of a growing number of events that have highlighted the use of unmanned capabilities by rogue actors conducting ‘grey zone’, hybrid activities that are threatening maritime security broadly across the Northern Indian Ocean region. For example, the civil war ashore in Yemen has spilled over into the maritime domain, with unmanned, remote-controlled rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) carrying explosives – what are termed water-borne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs) – being used to target commercial ships transiting the Gulf of Aden and the southern Red Sea.

In ‘grey zone’ activities, the use of unmanned capabilities offers rogue actors one key benefit – deniability. Conducting random attacks using stand-off, remotely operated or autonomous systems enables the actor concerned to create a ‘stand-off’ distance geopolitically between the source and effect of the attack.

In a theatre like the Gulf region, the challenge that the unattributable use of unmanned capabilities creates for Western navies, their parent countries, and their regional partners is a strategic one to address, but is also in some senses a straightforward one. Perhaps the most important and immediate response is to build co-ordinated and integrated surveillance presence. For these navies and countries, responding to such risks with the use of unmanned capabilities – in the air, on the surface, and below the surface – can provide a critical tool for monitoring the sea to provide maritime domain awareness (MDA) and, thus, to increase both deterrence of and defence against such risks.

Risk and response

In a region like the Gulf, the risk-and-response relationship in how unmanned capabilities might provide both a threat and a counter are multi-layered. While UAVs could be used by rogue actors to target commercial shipping transiting the key global strategic choke point of the Straits of Hormuz or to attack resource platforms at sea or resource facilities ashore, in return greater collective UAV capability could provide broader air surveillance across the region. Rogue actors could use unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) to deploy mines or WBIEDS across the Straits of Hormuz or outside key ports; in response, naval ships or USVs could be used to deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to provide unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) capability to deter or defeat this threat. ROVs and AUVs could also be deployed to address any threat to underwater cables and pipelines – what Western naval officials increasingly refer to as strategic lines of communication (a recent evolution of the original definition for the ‘SLOC’ acronym). The oft-demonstrated rogue actor tactic of swarm operations uses a force of small craft, one that is now multiplied by the presence of USVs: in return, though, UAVs, USVs, and UUVs can provide layers of sensor and effector barriers to this threat.

Given the challenges facing navies in the Gulf region, unmanned capabilities offer some key advantages in deterring hybrid and other threats, Dr Sidharth Kaushal, sea power research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank in London, told AMR. “They can deliver persistent overwatch from the air and at sea, which can contribute to situational awareness regarding threats like … small boats.” Critically, Dr Kaushal explained, small boats “tend to elude traditional MDA efforts”.

Moreover, Dr Kaushal highlighted one benefit that combining new unmanned system capability with the established crewed platform presence may offer Western navies and their regional partners when dealing with hybrid threats – numbers. “Unmanned assets can contribute to missions like mine clearing on a scale that might be needed in the Gulf,” said Dr Kaushal. “These missions can be performed by manned platforms, but manned/unmanned teaming could add efficiencies of scale.”

Dr Kaushal also noted that major Western navies such as the US Navy (USN) and UK Royal Navy (RN), which co-operate closely in any region they operate in together, could develop unmanned capabilities and concepts of operations (CONOPS) in a region like the Gulf in preparation for employing them in other more high-profile regions – for example, addressing Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats in the Euro-Atlantic theatre. In the Euro-Atlantic context, integrated UUV operations for example could have impact in countering Russian submarine and mine warfare activities, both of which would be central in Russian A2/AD strategies.

Western navies are already introducing combined unmanned capabilities to deal with some of the threats that may have a hybrid element to them. In the Gulf, the USN and RN are working increasingly closely together on using ROVs and AUVs in mine counter-measures operations, to keep platforms and personnel out of harm’s way. Across a broader range of operational circumstances in theatres around the world, Western navies are also developing unmanned capabilities to deliver integrated surveillance and communications.

Thus, unmanned capabilities are already in use to counter the asymmetric application of unmanned systems by rogue actors. From the USN’s perspective, as regards what unmanned systems bring to operations in the Gulf region, “There is great interest in using unmanned systems to enhance MDA and deterrence,” Commander Tim Hawkins, a USN officer and US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) spokesperson, told AMR.

In the Gulf, three significant developments have occurred in recent months that underline the increased focus of Western navies and regional powers on constructing a combined operational response to the rogue unmanned capability threat.

Combined capability

On 9 September 2021, NAVCENT took a prominent step towards building an organised, collective structure for applying unmanned capabilities to address this threat. It formally stood up Task Force (TF) 59, a new construct designed to rapidly integrate unmanned capabilities and artificial intelligence (AI) with maritime operations in US Fifth Fleet’s area of responsibility (AOR). This AOR encompasses the Gulf, Gulf of Oman, parts of the Northern Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. This maritime region also includes three globally vital SLOCs: the Straits of Hormuz; the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits, connecting the Gulf of Aden to the southern Red Sea; and the Suez Canal.

Unmanned systems have been operated in the Gulf region for many years – especially UAV and UUV capabilities, said Cdr Hawkins. “What’s recent is the establishment of a dedicated task force for leading US Fifth Fleet’s integration of unmanned systems and AI into fleet operations.”

“The bottom line on why we’re doing this is so that we can develop and integrate unmanned systems and AI as a means to do two things: one, enhance our MDA; and two, increase deterrence,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper – the USN’s NAVCENT, US Fifth Fleet, and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) Commander – said in a statement, released as TF 59 was stood up. VAdm Cooper added that TF 59 would draw strongly on regional and coalition partnerships, within broader moves to enhance and expand the common operating picture (COP).

It is worth noting that the combination of increasing levels of rogue actor ‘grey zone’ activity and returning great power competition at sea is creating a range of threats across the full spectrum of operations for Western navies and their partners, to the extent that there is now much greater emphasis on creating integrated task forces – both ashore for capability development, and at sea for operations – and on creating a collective approach to maritime security. Establishing TF 59 seems to reflect these two requirements.

TF 59 is commanded by the USN’s Captain Michael Brasseur who is an established expert in developing and integrating unmanned capabilities. Amongst several relevant previous appointments, Capt Brasseur co-founded and directed NATO’s Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation and Co-ordination Cell (MUSIC) organisation that focuses on accelerating alliance crewed/unmanned teaming CONOPS. He also commanded two USN Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs): the LCS CONOPS includes significant integrated use of unmanned capabilities. TF 59’s staff includes experts on unmanned systems, unmanned exercises, task force integration, new technologies (including AI, cyber, and space), and partnering. Overall, its primary operational purpose, said Cdr Hawkins, is “[to] help us accelerate the discovery, development, and integration of new unmanned systems and keep pace with advancing technology and tactics”.

The emerging collective approach was reinforced, in the second key development, in September 2021 when the United States and Bahrain agreed to accelerate bi-lateral co-operation in bringing unmanned capabilities into regional maritime operations. “This initiative enables us to expand MDA awareness on, above, and below the water, and enhance regional deterrence,” VAdm Cooper said, in a US Central Command (CENTCOM) statement.

Exercising combined capability

In the statement issued when TF 59 was stood up, NAVCENT noted that the task force would aim in its early weeks to start building trust in human-machine teaming through conducting operations at sea. Certainly, the rapid addition of operational output for TF 59 would underline USN commitment to building the deterrent credibility of the capability the task force aims to deliver.

Reflecting this desire to build momentum, the third key development took place in October 2021, when TF 59 led NAVCENT’s New Horizon exercise, a two-day activity in which TF 59 integrated and evaluated the MANTAS T-12 USV in operations alongside USN patrol craft and Bahrain Defence Force maritime assets.

In the exercise’s first phase, USVs conducted high-speed manoeuvres in formation while controlled from the USN’s Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Firebolt. In the second phase, a larger collection of US and Bahraini crewed and unmanned platforms, supported by aerial assets, conducted integrated operations. The unmanned system presence included a V-BAT UAV.

The presence of Bahraini forces underlined the importance of collective approaches to delivering maritime security. “Working with our regional partners on unmanned systems integration is crucial to enhancing collective MDA,” said VAdm Cooper, in a NAVCENT statement.

The exercise also demonstrated two firsts, Cdr Hawkins told AMR. “It marked the first time NAVCENT integrated USVs with manned assets at sea in the US Fifth Fleet AOR. New Horizon was also the first time for NAVCENT’s integration of USVs with manned assets at sea alongside partner forces.”

As regards lessons learned about the unmanned capabilities demonstrated in the exercise and the wider importance of integrating with partners, Cdr Hawkins added “Exercises like New Horizon enable us to begin building trust and confidence in the human/machine team prior to deploying the new assets on ‘real-world’ missions. Working with our regional partners on unmanned systems integration is crucial to enhancing collective MDA.”

In a USN social media post on 10 November that provided further details on ‘New Horizon’, USN Commander Thomas McAndrew said “We envisage a combination of manned and unmanned systems that gives a much broader view of MDA from seabed to space, giving us a much better picture of what’s happening.”

On the horizon

Beyond New Horizon, the next major exercise on the planning ‘plot’ for US Fifth Fleet to continue integrating TF 59 into regional operations will be the International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX22), which is scheduled to take place over two weeks starting in late January 2022, with more than 60 countries and international organisations involved. The first planning conference for the exercise took place back in August 2021, in Manama, Bahrain: such conferences are designed to identify requirements and develop training scenarios.

For IMX22, said Cdr Hawkins, “We will integrate manned and unmanned systems during operations at sea …. We will use more unmanned systems than ever before, in scenarios designed to put this technology to the test.” “We fully expect IMX22 to be the largest unmanned exercise in the world,” Cdr Hawkins added.

The growing global emphasis on the importance of exercising unmanned capabilities is underlined by the fact that NATO’s Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) is conducting its inaugural Dynamic Messenger exercise – its first alliance-wide exercise activity dedicated to the collective development of unmanned capabilities – in 2022.

For IMX22, TF 59 will play a leading role in developing the exercise’s operational outputs. “TF 59 is spearheading US Fifth Fleet’s effort to partner with a number of countries expected to bring their unmanned systems to the exercise,” said Cdr Hawkins. In the exercise itself, “An IMX22 task force called Task Force X will be stood up to integrate and demonstrate the value of unmanned technology in operations alongside crewed ships,” Cdr Hawkins added.

Underlining the impact that unmanned capabilities employed by rogue actors can have on the interests of regional and extra-regional countries in a strategic region like the Gulf, IMX22 “is designed to demonstrate global resolve to maintain freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce throughout the region’s diverse maritime environment, and to build interoperability between partner nations and international organisations,” NAVCENT said, in a statement released at the planning conference.

“Modernising our fleets to harness these technologies will help us maintain our advantage at sea and secure regional trade routes,” Cdr Hawkins told AMR.

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