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The US Navy is massively accelerating what could easily be called a drone explosion by developing, testing and integrating a growing range of surface and undersea unmanned systems designed to increasingly network with one another and operate at various levels of autonomy.
Surface and Undersea Unmanned Systems
Some systems have already been delivered to the Navy, and others are rapidly evolving prototypes now undergoing refinement, testing and rapid integration across the fleet.
“We want to start getting some of these things in production, right? We want to start transitioning prototypes into programs of record,” Capt. Scot Searles, Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Manager, told an audience at the 2022 Sea Air Space Symposium.
The rapid integration of new unmanned platforms being developed by Searles and his team are designed to closely and fully align with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy.
The DMO, in development for several years now, is intended to help the future force excel in a changing threat environment by being more dispersed, better networked and capable of long-range surveillance and attack. Searles explained that virtually every Navy strategy document articulates the crucial need for manned unmanned teaming development.
“Every single one of those documents in some way shape or form talks about manned unmanned teaming and the need to develop our technology and deploy these unmanned capabilities. So we start talking about unmanned, unmanned platforms and the world we're going to play in the future fleet every single one of our top level Navy strategy documents all speak to the architecture that unmanned will bring as an enabler for affordability capacity force distribution,” Searle said.
Some of the key programs are well evolved, to include the Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel and Barracuda mine-hunting and destroying undersea drone, others are earlier in the process.
The Navy is also making great progress with its Orca Extra Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle, a submarine-like undersea systems intended to detect enemy movements, surveil high-risk areas of the undersea domain and potentially even carry weapons with humans in the loop of course to decide about the use of lethal force.
Other well evolved systems include the Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea vehicle called the Snakehead and the smaller Razorback surveillance and mine-hunting drone. Other systems are earlier on but being accelerated through a carefully modified and improved acquisition process.
“We're not just prototyping unmanned and autonomous systems. We're not just developing unmanned maritime systems architecture, we're also prototyping how we are going to acquire these things,” Searle said.
Rapid Autonomy Integration Lab
AI-enabled autonomous Navy drones are already functional, many are quickly evolving in the prototype stage and promising new systems are advancing through the conceptual phase. The Navy intent is for them to not only network to one another but function with fast-increasing levels of autonomy. To expedite this process, the Navy is standing up and improving its Rapid Autonomy Integration Lab.
Algorithms enabling greater levels of autonomy are progressing quickly, and the Navy has been leverage them to support its Operation Overlord, or Ghost Fleet, program which has been progressing with rapid efforts to engineer and test a fleet of coordinated, integrated autonomous unmanned systems able to network with one another to synchronize and execute time-sensitive missions without needing human involvement.
With Ghost Fleet, drones can increasingly operate directly in relation to one another, coordinate mission specifics and perform certain operations of great significance across the force. The idea is to not only leverage autonomous capability with an individual platform but engineer a “collective” kind of intertwined autonomy enabled by common software interfaces and AI-enabled data processing. Navy weapons developers increasingly plan to improve levels of autonomy as technology progresses.
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“For subsurface platforms, we have small, medium and large. We currently have four prototypes today. They're demonstrating increasing autonomous capabilities and discovering new opportunities, new exercises,” Capt. Scot Searles, Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Manager, told an audience recently at the 2022 Sea Air Space Symposium.
The first two are the Ghost Fleet opening program vessels, Ranger and Nomad, were initially executed by the Strategic Capabilities Office, a specialized Pentagon unit designed to find, develop and integrate new innovations for operational use in the force. Due to the successful and rapid development, these two autonomous surface vessels have been transitioned to the Navy as part of its formal Operation Overlord program.
Alongside these, more prototypes are in development and on the way, Searles explained.
“Now we're in the second phase of prototyping. We have two more vessels that are Navy funded this time under construction, the first of which is delivered. That is GFE (Government Furnished Equipment) is being installed right now, and the other one is under construction. We also have two smaller type prototype vessels as well.
Autonomous unmanned systems are already reshaping Navy Concepts of Operation and are expected to do so at an increasingly faster pace. Of course Pentagon doctrine ensures that no lethal force is authorized without a “human-in-the-loop,” yes unmanned systems continue to perform a much wider range of operations than has previously been possible.
For instance, a Ghost Fleet or group of integrated unmanned systems could survey an enemy coastline and test enemy defenses, assess a threat environment and exchange relevant data regarding an optimal point of attack. Targeting specifics could be shared across a group of unmanned systems in real time with the hope of quickly pairing new targeting information with shooters of modes of attack to eliminate enemies quickly.
Yet another key advantage with this is that unmanned systems improve survivability, as they can allow manned ships and sailors to operate at safer stand-off distances. In the future, for example, Sea Basing is expected to take on a larger role and big-deck amphibious assault ships may increasingly function as “mother ships” performing command and control and operating an entire small fleet of drones at one time.
The Navy is working on specific technologies intended to optimize operational functionality of its fast-growing fleet of unmanned systems through an effort to engineer a common set of technical standards, software, interfaces and IP protocols.
The intent with this effort is to not only ensure that the emerging platforms can be modernized with software upgrades and integration of other emerging new technologies without having to re-architect a system, but also to enable manned-unmanned and unmanned-unmanned teaming networking.
Current Navy work on a growing range of drone prototypes seeks to leverage an “open architecture” approach designed to allow rapid integration of new algorithms, sensors, technologies and even weapons as they emerge.
Technology is progressing so quickly, the Navy seeks to ensure that the latest innovations are quickly added to existing drones, for the purpose of advancing AI-enabled operations and algorithms improving autonomy. Navy weapons developers explain that all of this research is now being done with prototypes to improve prospects for now-in-development future systems.
“All of these prototypes are key for testing out gathering data and supporting our future and systems. A critical part of those futures systems though, is going to be their ability to operate autonomously. In collaboration with industry, the Navy is developing autonomy standards for software development, it's called the Unmanned Maritime Architecture,” Capt. Scot Searles, Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Manager, told an audience recently at the 2022 Sea Air Space Symposium.
Searles’ thinking is aligned with the Navy’s broader effort with what it calls Project Overmatch, a fast-progressing initiative intended to enable multi-domain, high-speed data transmission, organization and analysis across the force in real time. This uses breakthrough processing speeds, AI-enabled systems capable of organizing, distilling and identifying time-sensitive key information and communications interfaces to massively reduce “sensor-to-shooter” time and stay in front of an enemy’s decision cycle.
“We're working with NAVAIR in Project overmatch and on a command control system, and we're doing all that to leverage the common infrastructure processes and help develop the unique control software,” Searle said. .
The operational vision with both drone prototyping and its connection to Project Overmatch is to, for example, engineer a force-wide multi-domain ability to connect surface warships with aerial drones, surface unmanned systems and even undersea platforms with increasing speed, security and data analysis. Should a platform receive navigational and targeting information faster than an enemy, the Navy would be in position to gain a measurable tactical advantage in maritime warfare.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.