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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Performing high-risk surveillance operations under hostile fire, finding weak points for attack along an enemy coastline, descending into undersea ocean depths to attack enemy mines and submarines and even performing forward positioned ballistic missile defense missions are just a few of the many missions the Navy intends for its growing fleet of unmanned systems.

The Navy’s future fleet plans envision a force with hundreds of drone boats on the surface and undersea to support manned vessels across the full range of mission possibilities, a reason why the service is well underway in various stages of testing and development. Plans include small, medium and large undersea and surface drones to in large measure support fleets of manned vessels performing command and control.

Likely to be enabled by AI, emerging Navy unmanned systems will operate with various levels of autonomy to include real-time information sharing, cross domain targeting, submarine hunting and mine neutralization. With the advent of large numbers of these drones, the Navy is working vigorously to adapt its tactics and concepts of operations to optimize their value in maritime warfare.

“If you're going to integrate an unmanned platform with a Carrier Strike Group, you're going to integrate it very differently than you do with with a Destroyer Squadron, or with a Virginia class submarine or with a Columbia class or Ohio class, or whatever the case may be,” Rep. Rob Whitman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told The National Interest in an interview.

Extending this reasoning, a big-deck amphib might for instance function as a mother ship performing command and control operations for a large fleet of drones to advance amphibious attack, deliver supplies and weapons or even directly attack an enemy. A Navy Littoral Combat Ship already dispatches air, surface and undersea drones for undersea mine and submarine hunting operations, so adding more might simply function as a mission multiplier. Navy Carriers are also in the process of expanding drone operations and have even embarked upon a specific mission to engineer an unmanned systems command and control headquarters on carriers in anticipation of needing to operate growing numbers of drones.

These kinds of functions certainly appear to fortify the Navy’s movement to implement its Distributed Maritime Operations strategy which seeks to extend the sphere of maritime warfare through longer-range and multi-domain enabled surveillance and attack. More disaggregated naturally equates to a force less condensed and therefore less vulnerable to incoming enemy fire. It also increases redundancy of operations to ensure operational functionality in the event that platforms or elements of the force are attacked.

“Before you get into serial production of massive numbers of large unmanned surface vessels, or large, undersea unmanned vessels, you want to figure out how you integrate them into the fleet. So put them out there and say, Okay, we're going to, we're going to take a couple of large unmanned surface vessels, and we're going to deploy them with a c, see what they do on a high end exercise. Are there requirements in there for them to be self-sustaining for 30 days? Are those realistic?” Wittman said.

More AI & Autonomy

There is so much enthusiasm and promise related to the lightning fast pace with which AI-enabled and autonomous drone technology that senior technology developers, futurists, weapons planners and modernization leaders are spending huge amounts of time analyzing how best to optimize the operational value these things add.

Drone fleets, robotic vehicles and multi-domain manned-unmanned connectivity are changing maneuver formations, concepts of operations and war plans at such a pace that some are struggling to keep up, and make sure technological advance does not outpace any comparable human capacity to keep up.

On land, many see a fast-emerging modern Combined Arms Maneuver concept based upon greater networking, drone operations and autonomous systems such as tanks and helicopters. In the air, the concept of “loyal wingman” wherein a manned fighter controls small groups of drones from a cockpit to minimize latency and maximize operational reach, is basically here. At sea, the Navy’s Operational Overlord, or Ghost Fleet, continues to break new ground with advanced algorithms enabling groups of surface, air and undersea drones to coordinate missions, share information and conduct operations with one another autonomously while supervised by humans operating in a command and control capacity.

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The advent of new forms of autonomy and large numbers of increasingly capable unmanned systems, and of course the growing extent to which they can integrate with human decision-makers in war are playing a large role in the services’ respective modernization strategies. The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy, for instance, envions a more dispersed yet greatly networked fleet of manned and unmanned air-sea-surface platforms operating in a coordinated fashion. A similar concept is being applied by future Army and Air Force warplanners now contributing to the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program to advance multi-domain networking concepts.

Much of the conceptual work centers upon the limits of autonomy and the unique merits of human cognition, and how to extract and combine the benefits of each into a single operational context. Aren’t there some limits to autonomy in the sense that, quite naturally, there are aspects of the human brain which, at least right now, do not seem to be able to be replicated by machines or mathematically derived algorithmic formulas. At the same time, AI-enabled computing can naturally perform many kinds of analysis and procedural functions far better than humans, yet there are several much more subjective phenomena specific to human thinking which are quite distinct. It is for this reason that most futurists envision a future warfare environment characterized by massive amounts of both drones and human decision makers to combine the best processing speed and data analysis with those attributes and functions unique to humans.

Test the Drones - Refine Concepts

Large amounts of new drones are being added to the fleet so quickly that some members of Congress are asking the services to expand the duration and scope of testing and combat preparation for many new platforms.

“So the question is, you know, what's the concept of operations and is it realistic to expect these levels of completely autonomous operation? Or would it be better for them to start off as lightly manned vessels? Figure out what they do well, or what they don't do, what are the shortcomings, and then go through the operational concepts with the fleet, with the combatant commanders and figure out, how do they work? Rep. Rob Whitman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told The National Interest in an interview.

For example, the Navy is making rapid progress with a range of unmanned maritime warfare systems to include the now well underway Medium and Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles, large drone ships expected to conduct command and control of large groups of smaller drones, hunt submarines, conduct ballistic missile defense missions and even fire weapons when directed by a human.

“What's, what's our operational plan? Are we going to use warships as unmanned vessels?” Wittman asked.

Wittman discussed drone development and autonomy in the context of suggesting that the Navy return to the concept of engineering a carrier-launched strike drone, such as the previously cancelled Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone. In order to favor the chances for innovations such as this, which are truly ground-breaking, Wittman and other members of Congress are calling for extensive training and assessment procedures for emerging systems, to ensure they are aligned with the right operational concepts and in position to add tremendous value to the force.

“But what we want to avoid is what we went through with some other platforms where we rushed out and said …’okay, this is everything’ and then find out what No, no, that doesn't quite get it. So I think I think service branches are starting to see that, and are starting to go down a different path and how they develop, test and deploy these platforms,” Wittman said.

In order to reduce the likelihood that drone programs may fail, Wittman and Navy leaders routinely suggest that emerging platforms need to be put to the test with operational forces.

“We have lots of great concepts about unmanned platforms, but we really haven't put them to the true test. You want to take real platforms, and put them in the hands of our sailors and Marines. They will know what works, probably better than the folks up the chain at the Pentagon,” Wittman said.

For example, it is perhaps only through extensive testing and operational analysis that developers might discover some of the significant limitations of any given system, Wittman said.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Northrop Grumman