(Washington, D.C.) “Persistent Surveillance” is a term used in a recently published U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard military strategy document exploring new dimensions of maritime warfare intended to inform thinking about future conflict on the seas.
Perhaps today more than ever, given the advent of more multi-domain tactics, new platforms, longer-range, high-fidelity sensors and precision-strike weapons enabled by modern Command and Control technologies, there is what’s described as an “insatiable” appetite for ISR on the part of Navy and Corps Commanders.
An “Insatiable” Appetite for ISR: Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance Platforms
The new strategy text, called “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” discusses possibilities for armed drones, undersea sensing and attack and overhead surveillance from both fixed-wing platforms as well as unmanned systems.
What might this mean?
A number of things most likely, such as massive amounts of new undersea, surface and air drones, surveillance planes and newer tactical approaches intended to bring the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy to life.
There are a variety of platforms well suited to help rapidly evolve this concept of operations, some of them specifically cited in the strategy paper such as the U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon sub-hunting surveillance plane.
The document explains that surveillance technologies will “help us collect, analyze, and produce timely intelligence. Our networks, battle management aids, and data infrastructure will connect with other joint networks. Combining many informational inputs into a common, actionable operational picture will enable our forces to act more quickly and effectively than our competitors.”
This strategy relies upon advanced command and control, dispersed yet networked forces, AI-enabled data analysis technologies and virtually every kind of unmanned systems.
The U.S. Navy Triton, for example, is engineered with specifically configured maritime sensors to provide a persistent “operational eye” on ocean activities from higher-safer altitudes with much-extended mission endurance and dwell time.
Given the Triton’s performance, particularly in geographically expansive maritime regions such as the Pacific, it does seem surprising that the 2022 budget request does not include funding for the Triton Program.
Newer kinds of data analysis and transmission, enabled by advanced command and control and advanced AI-empowered algorithms, might make platforms like the Triton as capable in some respects as the much larger, less stealthy and more vulnerable manned P-8 Poseidon.
There are certain to be ways the Navy is thinking about these questions with a mind to maritime surveillance.
Integrated Undersea Surveillance System
The surveillance priority outlined in the strategy also called for improved “Integrated Undersea Surveillance System infrastructure and mine warfare capabilities,” an intent which includes efforts to “build unmanned underwater vehicles for surveillance and strike,” the strategy writes.
This emphasis is well supported by a number of rapidly evolving undersea drone programs now progressing into new stages of development and more closely approaching operational service.
This includes a wide sphere of systems to include mine hunting and attacking drones such as Raytheon’s Barracuda engineered to not only detect mines but also detonate explosives to destroy them.
There are also large undersea drones such as the Navy’s prototype 80-foot long, mini-submarine-like ORCA drones, which Sea Power Magazine reports will likely lay mines. A possibility not mentioned in the Sea Power report is that it would not be surprising if Navy innovators explored the possibility of arming the ORCA with Torpedoes, of course fired only under human direction.
Big U.S. Navy Platforms Here to Stay
With all the discussion and rapid development about emerging surface, undersea and aerial drone technologies and unmanned platforms informing much of the U.S. Navy thinking about future warfare, one lesser known reality is that large manned platforms are not only indispensable for future maritime operations but also, quite simply, not going anywhere.
The U.S. Navy’s Medium and Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle programs are progressing quickly, a phenomenon which of course introduces newer kinds of lower-risk submarine hunting, command and control, surface surveillance and even possible forward attack.
The Navy’s Ghost Fleet or Operation Overlord program, now underway for many years, is increasingly enabling autonomous and semi-autonomous integrated “fleets” of unmanned ships to not only operate individually but in a collective fashion wherein intelligence data is shared, integrated and coordinated in real-time with other unmanned systems.
This enables new kinds of command and control and operational tactics wherein swarms of drones could surveil and enemy perimeter, identify less defended coastal areas for amphibious attack, hunt mines and submarines and even fire weapons when directed by humans.
This may raise the question as to whether all of this means larger manned platforms will decrease in numbers and tactical warfighting importance?
No. It actually means the opposite, as larger manned platforms will operate with new abilities to function as “motherships” coordinating and overseeing large numbers of unmanned systems.
The answer, now heavily emphasized by the Navy, is manned-unmanned teaming, simply put.
This is why the service has been consistently calling for a larger U.S. Navy fleet, armed with a yet-to-be determined “mix” of manned and unmanned systems. Given the expanded tactical spheres in which they will operate, large-deck amphibs, carriers and other manned surface ships will actually expand their mission envelope, operating in tandem with unmanned systems.
The Navy’s new “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” tri-service maritime warfare strategy heavily emphasizes drones and unmanned systems, yet with a decided and heavy emphasis upon the irreplaceable operational roles performed by larger “power-projection” platforms.
“Carrier and Expeditionary Strike Groups will continue to enable the Naval Service to operate and maneuver in the maritime domain with flexibility and lethality. Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers will replace the retiring Nimitz-class. America-class amphibious assault ships will add unpredictability, while Joint Strike Fighters—with improvements in stealth, range, and ISR—will further complicate our adversaries’ decision-making cycle,” the strategy writes.
One such example of this kind of crucial manned-unmanned teaming mentioned in the strategy is the extent to which carrier-launched stealth fighters such as the F-35 will have much longer strike ranges due to the first-of-its kind carrier-launched refueler drone -- the MQ-25 Stingray.
Also, with less fixed-infrastructure or actual territory from which to operate military platforms in places such as the Pacific, manned big-deck ships are expected to take on even larger roles. They operate in a “sea basing” capacity able to launch amphibious attacks, air strikes over land and other kinds of coordinated multi-domain missions.
They could offer one of the few, if not most optimal, opportunities to attack land areas such as coastal defenses or even inland targets, as they travel with Marine Expeditionary Units including thousands of Marines, amphibious combat vehicles and air assets such as Osprey able to transport forces, weapons and equipment behind enemy lines if needed.
In effect, the best options for attacking enemy land in the Pacific may indeed need to come from the sea.
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.