Video Above: Navy Connects Air, Surface, Underseas Drones
The Navy’s drone explosion is gathering momentum and making progress at a staggering rate as the service tests, refines, builds and fast tracks undersea minehunting drones, large, medium and small Unmanned Surface Vehicles and several classes of underwater, mini-submarine like drones.
Manned unmanned teaming, something greatly emphasized by all the military services, also extends to the air for the Navy as its seeks to forge a cross-domain joint warfare synergy. This means Large and Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles like the ORCA will be networked to the now fast-progressing Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle, Fire Scout aerial drone and mine-hunting Small Unmanned Surface Vehicles in support of manned ships performing command and control operations with decision making authority.
This concept, linking sensors to shooters in real time, represents the conceptual thrust of the Navy’s current strategic thinking. Work in this area, particularly involving the Office of Naval Research, has been going on for many years with ever-increasing levels of autonomy and AI-enabled operations.
Now, the service is fast tracking a series of networking technologies, protocols, interfaces and datalinks to enable real-time, multi-domain connectivity to stay inside of or ahead of an enemies’ decision cycle. This is both extremely promising and challenging for Navy drones as they confront the challenge of overcoming difficulties with undersea-to-surface networking. However, massive amounts of progress is being made with systems such as the Barracuda undersea drone which can wirelessly and semi-autonomously find and destroy mines.
Navy's Project Overmatch
The Navy calls this Project Overmatch, a conceptual and doctrinal effort directed by the Chief of Naval Operations to ensure superiority in the realm of maritime warfare.
Capt. Pete Small, the Program Manager for Unmanned Combat Systems responsible for the development and acquisition of the Navy’s growing fleet of drones, regularly talks about the strategic imperatives Navy developers now embrace along these lines.
“Project overmatch is to develop conductivity, right, any sensor, any shooter, we've got to exchange data, we've got to have data, we've got to have secure networks. And then we need the force and a distributed force to go share that information and prosecute it. And that's the novel force memo,” Small said speaking to an audience at the 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium.
In recent years, Small has shepherded through the development and testing of a wide sphere of unmanned systems with a consistent emphasis upon networking and engineering a common set of interfaces to enable the kind of warfare connectivity sought after by the CNO and the Navy.
The Navy’s surge into future maritime warfare with a fast-growing fleet of increasingly capable, autonomous and networked air, sea and undersea drones is intended to support the services’ Distributed Maritime Operations strategy and pursue technological superiority over potential adversaries.
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However, make no mistake, there will not be attacking ocean robots anytime soon when it comes to the application of lethal force. The Navy is pursuing what it calls a “hybrid” fleet.
Yes .. mines can increasingly find and destroy targets autonomously, surveillance and targeting can increasingly be done without human intervention, yet the Navy is steadfast in its commitment to the concept of manned-unmanned teaming wherein humans are in charge of lethal decision making. The technology exists such that Small Unmanned Surface Vessels can be armed for attack and operate in coordination with a fleet of drone boats conducting surveillance, identifying targets and transmitting time-sensitive data to air and undersea domains.
However, in a manner consistent with Pentagon and Navy doctrine, there will be no killer ocean robots. In fact, the most recent thinking suggests that, even if that were possible, it would simply not be the best tactical approach, given the indispensable faculties associated with human perception.
While there may be a place for autonomous programming for purely defensive weapons used in a non-lethal way to intercept approaching missiles for example. The sheer speed of the extent to which AI-enabled sensors can gather, organize, analyze, determine threat specifics and cue a responsive countermeasure, interceptor or weapon may make it advantageous to allow measures of autonomy. Radar might intercept and approaching anti-ship missile, offering details for AI-enabled computer processing to make an immediate determination as to the exact nature of an approaching threat, determine the optimal interceptor or countermeasure and cue ship-board fire control systems.
All of this could happy potentially, in milliseconds, much faster than a human could perceive and decide upon. However, it seems clear that any kind of system such as this would be purely restricted to the use of non-lethal force in circumstances where the threat is exactly identified with certainty.
However, even in these non-lethal possibilities for autonomy, human decision-making authority overseeing operations in a command and control role is still the key priority. This makes great sense, given the amazing and somewhat ineffable abilities of the human brain. The combination of those attributes unique to human cognition, supported by high-speed AI-enabled data processing and networking technologies, presents what Navy strategists regard as the optimal blend to prepare for future war.
“The unmanned platforms are not to replace the manned platforms. The manned unmanned platforms are to augment the manned platforms and grow this hybrid force to increase the capacity of the fleet again, important words, increase the capacity of the fleet, and expand our ability to distribute our forces,” Capt. Pete Small, Program Manager, Unmanned Combat Systems, Naval Sea Systems Command.
Drone expansion greatly supports the Navy’s Project Overmatch concept which seeks to align sensors-to-shooter at high speeds across domains in war, and it also supports the service’s need to be expansive, dispersed and distributed.
All of these tactical advantages offer best value added when managed by humans in an ultimate decision-making role using decision-making faculties computer cannot replicate.
There are many variables, often subjective in nature, related to intuitive faculties, intentions and an ability to perceive and analyze a host of variables in relation to one another, which mathematically oriented computer programs simply cannot replicate.
Small cited the Chief of Naval Operations strategic thinking, explaining the value of unmanned systems in the context of a “hybrid” fleet which integrates the best attributes of each to favor “overmatch” in maritime warfare. Small said the CNO created an unmanned task force at the Pentagon and published a document called the unmanned campaign framework.
“That (unmanned campaign framework) was a good overview of all of the unmanned system development efforts across the Navy and across all domains, but it also highlighted the need to develop holistic unmanned capabilities. It's not just about the platforms themselves, but it's about the ability of the platforms to share data and employ effects to real military capabilities,” Small said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.