JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR HICKAM, Hawaii — For clues about how a U.S. Navy of the future may look, consider the 2022 Rim of the Pacific exercise.
Yes, there was a traditional flotilla of 38 ships and 170 aircraft operating around the Hawaiian Islands. But among the massive collection of equipment were MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs streaming live video and data feeds back to command centers ashore.
Smaller UAVs also flew, like the V-Bat drone off the back of the U.S. Navy destroyer Michael Monsoor, acting as a remote sensor for the ship.
Nearby, a pair of large unmanned ships — named Nomad and Ranger — patrolled the waters while under the control of staff at the so-called unmanned operations center back in California.
And, in perhaps the most highly anticipated experiment of the exercise, the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk medium unmanned surface vessels each teamed up with a destroyer to show off the power of manned-unmanned teaming at sea.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday later told reporters that 30 unmanned platforms operated during RIMPAC 2022, which began June 29.
All this highlights the name-your-buzzword direction the U.S. Navy is headed: distributed maritime operations; joint all-domain operations; any sensor, any shooter; manned-unmanned teaming.
The service has invested billions of dollars in unmanned development and prototyping, with three more USV prototypes under construction and a dozen large UAVs pending in the fiscal 2023 spending plan. Gilday recently updated his “Navigation Plan” strategic vision with an outline of a future fleet of about 373 manned ships and 150 unmanned vessels, along with unmanned aircraft to contribute to maritime domain awareness, submarine-hunting missions, surface strike and more.
But the collection of unmanned systems at RIMPAC was also meant to show that allies and partners with significantly less money, much smaller fleets, and growing fears of bullying or invasion could move in this direction.
This international approach “reduces the concern that the U.S. Navy and close allies like Australia and Japan may be leaving less-advanced partners behind,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank. “The opposite is actually true. Unmanned systems provide a way for less-advanced militaries to remain more interoperable with U.S. forces because the unmanned systems can incorporate new technologies more quickly than manned platforms and be common between partners.”
Many smaller navies already have the same smaller aerial drones as the U.S. Navy, such as the RQ-21 Blackjack or the Scan Eagle.
Though the U.S. was the only nation operating vehicles as large as the 132-foot Sea Hunter USV, it was far from the only nation getting firsthand experience at the exercise.
As if to cement the intention, consider this chain of command:
The medium USV Sea Hawk was attached to the destroyer Fitzgerald for the exercise. Fitzgerald reported to Republic of Singapore Navy Col. Kwan Hon Chuong as the sea combat commander within the exercise’s expeditionary strike group, which was led by South Korean Rear Adm. Sangmin An. That rear admiral then reported to the maritime component commander of the entire exercise, Royal Australian Navy Commodore Paul O’Grady.
U.S. 3rd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Michael Boyle told Defense News that O’Grady would be among the first in the world to lead a hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned assets, something even the U.S. Navy itself isn’t sure how to do.
At RIMPAC, this group had to figure it out during the exercise itself. And according to the head of the new Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One, it went quite well.
Tactics of the trade
Among the challenges the U.S. Navy has faced with manned-unmanned teaming is that sailors often don’t have the time to work on such tactics.
Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, who has led USV Division One since its May launch, said an exercise like RIMPAC can further test safety and navigation capabilities of a USV, assess the strain on mechanical and electrical systems during combat-relevant operations, and identify the right payloads — including an electronic warfare suite and a towed sonar array, in this case. This all helps the service figure out how USVs “can contribute to the fight,” Daley said.
The USVs can zig-zag through local California waters to get more hours at sea, but Daley said the destroyers are usually busy with their own training and deployments, making it hard to find a ship able to devote days, much less weeks, to manned-unmanned teaming work.
What the service learned at RIMPAC, he explained, is how to achieve “sustainability at sea”— which doesn’t only mean whether the engine ran successfully without breaking down, but also whether the whole package of the USV, its payload, and the teams at sea and ashore were effective.
During the first 11 days at sea, Daley said, they were more effective than planned. For the Fitzgerald and Sea Hawk, which hauled a towed array sonar for anti-submarine warfare missions, “our sensor suite onboard was able to contribute directly to the sea combat commander.”
Daley noted that he worked directly with Chuong, the Singaporean colonel, and his staff during the planning phase and at sea to ensure the sea combat commander was ready to operate the USV during scripted events and free-play scenarios.
Daley said he had a team at the unmanned operations center in San Diego, California, as well as a team on the Fitzgerald. He added that the at-sea phase seemed to go as planned for everyone involved.
For Sea Hunter, operating an electronic warfare suite in collaboration with the destroyer William P. Lawrence, the exercise went better than planned.
“We participated in all the events that we scheduled … and then Sea Hunter had some additional participation in other events that we were not originally” planned to do, Daley said, noting the chain of command found additional applications for the USV and its payload.
“We continued to participate in a meaningful way during those events,” he said.
For RIMPAC, Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk each had multiple support teams, including one located on the destroyer to operate the USV and its payload, and a separate team off the ship to receive the data from the payload and communicate the data back to the shipboard team.
The payloads are still in the development phase and not yet fully integrated into sensitive networks.
Eventually, he said, a ship-based detachment could launch an unmanned surface vessel and use real-time data to make decisions about the rest of the ship and the USV’s mission. This pairing would look more like the MQ-8 Fire Scout UAV detachments on littoral combat ships.
The two medium USVs ran fully unmanned, except while coming in and out of port, though each vessel was accompanied by a chase boat with a master and a chief engineer that could board the USV and take control in case of an emergency.
“At a certain point, we will cross that threshold — we will be unmanned and unescorted and over the horizon” without requiring a chase boat, Daley said.
In the meantime, his team at USV Division One — plus collaborators at Naval Sea Systems Command’s engineering directorate, the Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division and others — have a long list of questions: What routine maintenance work will be done by sailors versus contractors? How tight does the integration need to be between the USV, its payload and embarked detachments on nearby ships? How could command and control of the USVs be passed between multiple ships and ashore command centers to maximize the usefulness of the USV during long deployments?
Daley told Defense News he will continue to collect feedback from sailors on the two destroyers as well as from his staff that operated in detachments at sea and ashore.
But, after the 11-day at-sea training phase of the exercise, “we have demonstrated good use cases for a medium-sized or smaller USV, along with a larger platform as well,” he said, referring to the large Overlord-type USVs dubbed Ranger and Nomad.
“The reason why we brought both of them here was to not just internally test, but to demonstrate how far we’ve moved the ball on capabilities and integration points with the fleet,” he said, noting the USVs would also participate in two additional four-day at-sea pieces of the exercise that were less scripted and could yield interesting insights on the usefulness of USVs during conflict.
“We are still working through those tactics, techniques and procedures,” he added. “The more input we can get from afloat units, not just sailors attached to my staff,” the better the outcome will be.
Clark, the Hudson fellow, told Defense News this one-to-one pairing of a medium USV and a destroyer is not the best use of that unmanned type in the long term, but it does make for a good stepping stone during experimentation.
“Although unmanned systems can extend the reach of sensors or countermeasures” — essentially how they’re used in RIMPAC as a way to lengthen the reach of a destroyer — “the main advantages of larger unmanned vehicles like MUSV or LUSV [medium or large USVs] is their ability to allow operations to scale with the threat and provide commanders with more options for how to organize and operate their forces,” he said.
“If MUSVs are acting as ‘loyal wingmen’ for [destroyers], the variety of force packages and tactics available to commanders is less than if the MUSVs were allowed to operate independently based on direction from the theater or local commander.”
Clark added that he’d like to see the unmanned ships operate more independently in the future. But for RIMPAC 2022, he said, “using them as extensions of manned ships’ sensors and countermeasures is a good way [to] initially assess how autonomous the MUSVs can be, and help crews build [concepts of operations] that use the MUSV.”
Clark said the ability of these USVs to independently operate from the manned ships would be especially useful in something like the gray zone operations that dominate the South China Sea, where there’s not all-out combat but rather tense interactions and close scrutiny of activities.
“Unmanned systems enable coalition forces to maintain persistence and reach, so it is important to be able to use them in gray zone situations as well as in combat,” he said. “At the low end, they can be more affordable solutions to surveil and use electronic warfare against opponents. At the high end, unmanned systems can provide long range or more expendable ways of delivering attacks.”
Clark noted the data these USVs provide could go to a headquarters’ maritime operations center and inform the whole fleet’s decision-making, rather than be tied to a sole ship, as rehearsed at RIMPAC.
Daley declined to discuss potential future uses of USVs, but did say part of their value at RIMPAC is demonstrating “the ability to control [the USVs] from more than one platform, from multiple platforms, in a dynamic way.”
“We are walking through afloat and ashore control for these vessels, and the transition between those two types of control is one of the objectives for our command’s trials and testing here at RIMPAC: to continue to experiment and do trials on how those [tactics, techniques and procedures] will need to be developed for that program of record, [and] to inform the technical community of any additional requirements that we may need to execute tactically.”
In an Aug. 1 media roundtable, several USV program officials said when one of the two destroyers had to drop out of the exercise, its accompanying USV was able to shift seamlessly from being commanded from the destroyer to being commanded from the unmanned operations center ashore in San Diego. Brian Fitzpatrick, the principal assistant program manager for USVs, said the Navy uses the Common Control System to operate its drones.
“It’s a few flips on a screen, and then you have control over” the USV from a new console, Fitzpatrick explained.
The Navy had practiced shifting control of USVs in previous test events, so the program office and USV Division One knew it was technically possible. However, Fitzpatrick said, “it was good that we could show we could do it to the fleet,” even if that wasn’t a scripted part of RIMPAC.
Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, said during the roundtable that he suspects the change in plans was “just one more thing to help build trust with the fleet. If there’s an off-nominal condition and we show the ability to take control — to remove control off that vessel, to have the [unmanned operations center] perform its role — then that just gives the fleet more confidence in how the platform’s going to react, how the USV [division] is going to react.”
Daley said RIMPAC was the first exercise where all four of his USVs were available to participate, but it won’t be the last. The Navy has three more USVs in construction, and the soon-to-be fleet of seven will be looking for opportunities to get to sea as well as test new payloads and command-and-control configurations, while the service searches for the right tactics and payloads to maximize what USVs can deliver.
Experimenting with the SeaGuardian
Throughout RIMPAC, the U.S. Navy and its partners ran about 40 different experiments, mostly focused on incorporating unmanned systems and improving command and control within kill chains.
Capt. Dan Brown, the head of experimentation at 3rd Fleet, told Defense News at the exercise that a demonstration of the MQ-9B SeaGuardian — a maritime variant of the MQ-9A Reaper that operated in deserts across the Middle East in recent years — would be another highlight of the exercise.
The original MQ-9A Reaper was also tested in the maritime environment during another of the event’s experiments.
Brown said the SeaGuardian will support the Navy and Marine Corps through multi-intelligence payloads for maritime domain awareness and for anti-submarine warfare operations. Its payload includes a synthetic-aperture radar/inverse synthetic-aperture radar, electro-optical/infrared sensors, communications intelligence and electronic intelligence tools, and sensors to look for submarines and then share that information via a Link 16 connection to the rest of the fleet.
Brown said RIMPAC 2022 was the first time the SeaGuardian would work with multiple task groups on multiple missions, and it’s the first time any drone has conducted anti-submarine warfare work with a Link 16 connection. He added that the sense-and-avoid as well as the detect-and-avoid systems on the drone are the most sophisticated that have ever flown on a Group 5 unmanned aerial system — the category representing the largest of those aircraft.
“RIMPAC is nice because there [are] so many assets out here at one time. We can take almost a whole year’s worth of experimenting and do it in a shorter amount of time,” he said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.