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Navy outlines a path forward on unmanned systems

October 26, 2016 (Photo Credit: John Williams/Navy)
The Navy's deputy assistant secretary for unmanned systems has outlined the service's eight goals for the technology on the first day of the Unmanned Systems Defense conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Frank Kelley spoke at the forum Tuesday, where he emphasized that the Navy is not interested in unmanned systems for unmanned systems sake, but is seeking technology that can smoothly integrate with other programs and platforms.

The service has signaled that it is all in when it comes to unmanned systems. Last year, the Navy announced Kelley's position to help guide the force toward realizing a future full of robots. The Navy has been at pains to stress it is looking to take a domain-agnostic approach to these systems.

Kelley's goals, supplemented by other speakers at the event:

Achieve air dominance:

Kelley said this will initially be done with manned platforms. They Navy has also announced its carrier-based, long-range unmanned platform — the MQ-25A Stingray — which will serve as a stealthy aerial refueler allowing penetrating manned platforms such as the F/A-18 to travel greater distances, as anti-access/area denial regions (despite the chief of naval operations issuing an outright ban on this term) will push carriers farther away from certain areas, forcing a need to extend range of aerial platforms.

Achieve undersea superiority :

Rear Adm. Bill Merz, director of the Navy's Undersea Warfare Division, said at the conference that unmanned systems will help fill in gaps of other undersurface platforms. “We don’t need the Starship Enterprise, I have that, it’s called the Virginia-class submarine,” he said. “But what I do have is a big capacity problem, I have a spectrum of missions that I don’t need the Starship Enterprise, and I will inject these unmanned vehicles where ever they will fit in to help the overall chore of managing this undersea environment.”

More generally, in a slide during his presentation, he outlined the core undersea-mission areas categorizing them from safer operations or sensing missions to more dangerous undertakings such as disrupt and destroy ops. Sensing missions could include intelligence preparation of the environment, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, and deception. Disruption missions could include offensive mining, electromagnetic maneuver warfare, subsea and seabed warfare, and special operations forces operations. Destroy operations could include anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, strike warfare and nuclear deterrence. Merz’s chart indicated there could be overlap between all these areas.

He also provided a chart indicating the unmanned systems trade-offs. It focused on autonomy versus distance, environment, command, control and communications; speed and endurance versus distance, mission and payload/sensor capacity; stealth versus command, control and communication, mission, and host employment options; and payload capacity versus mission and endurance.

Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Mathias Winter during his presentation referenced the Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV), which provides increased endurance, range, payload capacity, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, acoustic surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, mine counter-measures, and offensive operations below the ocean’s surface. 

“How can we realistically deploy these vehicles for decades? Not just days, weeks and months, but decades,” Winter asked rhetorically noting that they’ve demonstrated 60-day deployments of these systems, a noted improvement from the two to three day deployments of these systems.

Winter has also described in the past a notion of an undersea  Eisenhower interstate system of thousands of miles of logistical networks to allow large-scale deployment of UUVs to communicate, engage and resupply.

Achieve surface dominance :

Kelley said this is an area where the Navy is beginning to see a lot more creative thinking and a lot more progress, citing the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR). It was recently christened this year as the first autonomous, unmanned surface vessel.

Winter said this vehicle, now called Sea Hunter, will be transitioned to the Navy later this year or early next year, which is what typically happens with all DARPA projects.

Assimilate our future ground-fighting force :

Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, described during the conference how unmanned technology will change the way the force maneuvers. Unmanned technologies will also allow the Marines to put more mass on the battlefield, he said, adding that unmanned systems could allow forces to disperse more, enabling unmanned ground systems or aerial systems to engage enemies or relay information, which would add greater maneuverability and increase the level of deception against adversarial forces.

Field multi-domain unmanned systems :

Kelley candidly admitted this would be challenging. Think of something that could be launched from undersea and fly, he said, or something that could march along the sea bed then onto land.

The Navy has begun to focus on this technology area — its annual technology exercise put on by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island prioritized cross domain command and control.

Achieve unmanned mass and surprise :

Kelley explained this area is where swarming comes into play.

Winter said that ONR’s focus in this area has been on algorithmic phenomenology, the software control systems that allows for any type of system, regardless of the domain, to mass an attack — it could be air, surface, underwater — it could actually be packets of information, they don’t have to be hardware, he said.

“When we talk about moving things in a coordinated fashion that can sense their own environment, that can make [a] decision on that environment and maneuver so they can accomplish whatever preprogram or dynamic programmed objective,” he said.

Winter described experiments in surface boat swarms and noted how the Navy wants to take this algorithm technology to test it with LDUUV, surface boats and the Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) to demonstrate the agnostic aspect of it.

Winter, on the progress of the LOCUST tests, which seek to launch swarming UAVs to autonomously overwhelm an adversary with small, tube-launched UAVs, said researches launched 33 UAVs in succession with devices breaking formation, engaging targets and landing on shore to demonstrate recoverability.

He added that the Navy is funding this fiscal year a follow-on to LOCUST that focuses on payloads for swarming environments to get some of the mass Walsh discussed and what others in leadership are seeking.

Achieve persistent supply, support and sustainment :

Kelley noted that this is an area he’s really excited about. He mentioned, without providing many details, that there are some really provocative ideas coming out of the Navy.

Achieve full unmanned operational capability with advanced autonomy and machine learning :

Kelley said this is something the Navy, and of course the Defense Department writ large, constantly has on its radar. “How much intelligence and control are we willing to give these systems?”

Of course, the "man-machine" team is what is at the heart of Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work’s so-called third offset strategy.

“The domain we’ve got identified, the platforms we have identified in terms of how they operate in those domains,” Kelley said Tuesday. “The next big thing for us that we all need to be thinking about is this man-machine teaming and artificial intelligence machine learning. What is the right mix of that? How do you go back and forth between fully autonomous systems and systems that are remote controlled?”
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