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23/09/21: A New Generation of Military Unmanned Vehicles

At the highest levels of U.S. intelligence and military policy documents, there is universal agreement that the United States remains at war, even as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan conclude. As the cost of capital platforms—especially ships and aircraft—continues to rise, the Department of Defense is increasingly looking to procure comparatively inexpensive unmanned systems as important assets to supplement the Joint Force.

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As the United States builds a force structure to contend with high-end threats, it has introduced a “Third Offset Strategy” to find ways to gain an asymmetric advantage over potential adversaries. One of the key technologies embraced by this strategy is that of unmanned systems. Both the DoD and the DoN envision a future force with large numbers of unmanned systems complementing manned platforms.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the development of unmanned air vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles to meet urgent operational needs. As a result, the lion’s share of previous years DoD funding for unmanned systems has gone to air and ground systems, while funding for unmanned maritime systems (unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles) has lagged.

However, this balance is shifting, as increasingly, warfighters recognize the need for unmanned maritime systems in the fight against high-end adversaries, as well as against nations or groups to whom these adversaries export their weapons systems. Like their air and ground counterparts, these unmanned maritime systems are valued because of their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies.

A Department of the Navy Perspective

Operating as it does in five domains (air, surface, subsurface, ground and cyber) the Navy and Marine Corps recognize the potential and the promise of unmanned systems to deliver asymmetric advantages to U.S. forces, especially in areas where adversaries have extensive anti-access and area denial capabilities.

In January 2021, the Chief of Naval Operations issued CNO NAVPLAN (Navigation Plan) designed to chart the course for how the Navy will execute the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy Advantage at Sea. Not surprisingly, this short (18-page) document identifies unmanned systems as an important part of the Navy’s future plans, noting, in part:

“Advances in autonomous systems have shown promise for an effective and affordable way for the Navy to fight and win in contested spaces. We will modernize the fleet to harness these technologies and maintain our advantage at sea…Objective analysis confirms that America needs a larger, more lethal fleet. The Navy requires greater numbers of submarines, smaller and more numerous surface combatants, more lethal offensive capabilities, a host of integrated unmanned platforms—under, on, and above the sea.

“Unmanned platforms play a vital role in our future fleet. Successfully integrating unmanned platforms gives our commanders better options to fight and win in contested spaces. They will expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage, add depth to our missile magazines, and provide additional means to keep our distributed force provisioned…By the end of this decade, our Sailors must have a high degree of confidence and skill operating alongside proven unmanned platforms at sea.”

The Chief of Naval Operations announced the issuance of the CNO NAVPLAN at the January 2021 Surface Navy Association Virtual Symposium. In his remarks, he highlighted the importance of unmanned systems, and announced the impending release of a new Navy campaign plan focused on developing unmanned systems, noting, in part:

“Unmanned vessels also provide the service with affordable solutions as it works to grow its fleet…We need a hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned systems capable of projecting larger volumes of kinetic and non-kinetic effects across all domains…Additionally, the service will need its Sailors to be adequately trained to operate confidently alongside unmanned sea platforms.”

There is little doubt that the U.S. Navy is committed to making unmanned systems of various types and capabilities an important part of the Navy Fleet in the near-, mid- and especially long-term. As one indication of this commitment, industry is ramping up to deliver these capabilities, witness America’s largest shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, purchase of Spatial Integrated Systems Inc., a leader in autonomous technology, in December 2020.

In March 2021, the Department of the Navy published its long-awaited UNMANNED Campaign Framework. Designed to coordinate unmanned systems efforts across the Department, the document lists ambitious goals designed to help make unmanned systems an increasingly important part of the Navy’s platform inventory. The framework has five goals:

  • Advance manned-unmanned teaming effects within the full range of naval and joint operations.

  • Build a digital infrastructure that integrates and adopts unmanned capabilities at speed and scale.

  • Incentivize rapid incremental development and testing cycles for unmanned systems.

  • Disaggregate common problems, solve once, and scale solutions across platforms and domains.

  • Create a capability-centric approach for unmanned contributions (platforms, systems, subsystems) to the force.

The UNMANNED Campaign Framework met with some Congressional criticism for being short on details and measurable goals. That said, the 38-page report does provide an organizing impulse and guide for how the Department of the Navy intends to shepherd unmanned systems into the Fleet and Fleet Maine Forces.

Running into Barriers

The DoD, and especially the DoN, have lofty goals for the extensive use of unmanned systems to support the Joint Force. However, these goals are constrained by the sheer physics of the ways in which current unmanned systems are designed. For the most part, developers of today’s systems began with the objective to “take the operator out of the machine.” This means that they started with a current aircraft of ship hull, and then attempted to operate it either remotely or autonomously.

This approach as many merits, especially in cutting costs by using existing platforms that have undergone years—or even decades—of research, development, fielding and operating. And these platforms have the additional benefit of being familiar to those working in the S&T, R&D and acquisition communities, and, of course, being immediately available to developers. This has enabled a great deal of progress—up to a point.

This way of doing business represents a somewhat limited and less-than-innovative approach, but it has delivered a robust first generation of unmanned systems to warfighters. This has, in turn, resulted in valuable operator feedback as to what capabilities are desired in the next generation of unmanned systems. In many cases operators have asked for UxS that can operate beyond human capability.

A New Paradigm for Unmanned Systems Development

While the current methodology of developing unmanned systems has some merits, it does have one major flaw. Those creating these UxS are constrained by the physics of those platforms they are modifying in that all of these aircraft or ships once had a crew onboard, and therefore could only be operated to the limits of human capability of the pilot in the cockpit or the mariner on the bridge.

As one small example of the limits of human capability, both versions of the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) can travel in excess of forty knots. In a Navy that has centuries of a tradition of bridge watchstanders actually standing for the entirety of their watch rotation, due to the high speed and the way it pounds the seas, watchstanders on the LCS must be buckled into their chairs to survive their watches.

The U.S. Navy is beginning to see the benefits of designing and fielding unmanned systems that can operate “beyond human capability.” This paradigm shift is important for a number of reasons. In the surface domain, it enables the use of unmanned maritime systems that can travel at a higher speed than humans can long endure, operate in higher sea states than conventional vessels, and make turns with G-forces that would not be tolerable by humans.

The benefits of such systems are clear. They can travel at high speeds to an operating area to complete a mission in far less time, outrun any manned surface vessels seeking to attack them, and in any conflict, outmaneuver adversary platforms through high G-turns. These attributes open up concepts-of-operations that give commanders options that they never had—or might not have even thought of—before.

As one example of how industry is now developing and fielding unmanned systems that operate beyond human capability, one Florida-based corporation, Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC), demonstrated such a system in an international high-speed run. By way of background, MARTAC’s family of unmanned maritime vehicles evolved from a long line of catamaran-hulled racing boats that had achieved speeds of over 250 miles per hour and operated at high-Gs. Stepping down the size of these racing boats was an evolutionary—and revolutionary—process that has garnered the intense interest of U.S. Navy officials.

As one demonstration of this capability, this summer, MARTAC launched its Devil Ray T38 USV from Palm Beach, Florida Inlet with the goal of performing a fully autonomous run across the Florida Straits to West Bank, Bahamas in less than one hour, and then returning in the same time window.

During this demonstration, the Devil Ray T38 acquired its first alignment waypoint outside of the Palm Beach Inlet, Florida and began its high-speed run across the straits. The Devil Ray arrived at the Bahamas waypoint for a total run time of 57 minutes. During the transit, the Devil Ray achieved a top speed of 82 miles per hour, which included a four-minute stop to avoid shipping traffic in the straits.

The return trip from West End, Bahamas to Palm Beach Inlet, Florida followed a similar track with a total transit time of 59 minutes including a six-minute stop to avoid fishing boat traffic. During each round trip run, the Devil Ray maintained an average cruise speed of 70 miles per hour.

Importantly, in an environment where Congress is questioning the Navy’s ability to field unmanned systems that not only have strong operational capabilities, but also reliable basic mechanical and navigational systems, during these tracks the Devil Ray achieved an average tracking accuracy of +/- 1.3 degrees and a steady state cross track error of +/-3 m.

Here is how Bruce Hanson, MARTAC’s CEO, described this high-speed run:

“We are excited that our Expeditionary Class Devil Ray T38 is the first USV to fully autonomously perform a high-speed international run. This is a culmination of ten years of product development and thousands of hours testing and running our patented MANTAS-X Class and Expeditionary Devil Ray Class USV systems for reliability and accuracy. This is the first run in a series that will continue to vet and refine our technology to address the needs of our military, scientific and commercial customers’ missions and applications. MARTAC’s USV classes simply operate beyond human capability.”

Here is a short video showing the track to and from Palm Beach Inlet to West Bank, Bahamas as well as the way that the Devil Ray pounded its way through the waves. Two observers were strapped into the Devil Ray to operate as onboard safety observers and to ensure that all COLREGS requirements were being met in its fully autonomous run.

A Way Ahead for Unmanned Systems Development

There is a popular quote making the rounds, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.” While this Bahamas run is just one example of what the next generation of unmanned systems can deliver, the Navy has been forward-leaning in inserting such systems in a series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations as a way to “imagine” how such platforms will support tomorrow’s Navy.

For example, the Devil Ray was featured during the summer of 2020 during the U.S. Navy’s Trident Warrior exercise in San Diego, as well as in the subsequent Inaugural Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 to showcase these innovative unmanned capabilities. Additionally, Devil Ray’s capabilities were demonstrated at this summer’s Navy League SeaAirSpace Symposium.

This approach bodes well for the Navy’s efforts to have unmanned systems make up a substantial portion of the Fleet. And it brings to mind the motto of Admiral Wayne Meyer, the “Father of Aegis:” “Build a Little, Test a Little and Learn a Lot.” The future may well be a U.S. Navy with large numbers of UxS that can truly operate beyond human capability. The result will provide an asymmetric advantage for U.S. warfighters.

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