The stealthiest, quietest and most impossible to detect enemy submarines still emit some kind of acoustic signature, present potentially discernible configurations and emit electromagnetic “pings” upon surfacing from undersea depths … yet they often remain elusive and somewhat “beneath the radar” in both the literal and figurative sense.
These interwoven variables continue to present challenges for anti-submarine warfare commanders operating systems engineered to find enemy undersea boats in position to present a threat of attack. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), when executed successfully, seeks to leverage surface scanning optical cameras, RF-signal or “ping” analyzing radar, towed sonar arrays lowered beneath surface ships and even air-dropped sonobuoys networked to send back acoustic return “pings.” However, each of these detection modes of course operate differently and not always in relation to one another, making it potentially difficult to synergize otherwise disconnected signs, signals, cues or indicators.
Addressing this operational quandary informs the principle strategic and tactical basis for submarine hunting, something often performed by large, torpedo-armed fixed-wing aircraft, surface-scanning drones, submarines equipped with advanced sonar arrays, helicopters lowering sonobuoys, underwater sub-hunting drones and surface-ships equipped with sonar and surface radar.
What about transforming an upgraded, multi-int surveillance drone with an integrated sphere of maritime-specific sub-hunting sensor systems into a remotely operated, yet autonomous platform equipped with a new generation of data-processing technology sufficient to collect, merge, analyze and synergize otherwise disconnected pools of threat data obtained by sensors?
This is the thinking behind the Navy’s recently conducted Integrated Battle Problem experiment in the Pacific theater, as it sought to bring manned-unmanned teaming with drones, ship-based radar and manned fixed-wing platforms to find..and ultimately destroy .. enemy submarine targets at previously undetectable ranges beyond the horizon. The tactical thinking is based almost entirely upon networking and the utilization of aerial nodes such as sub-hunting drones specifically engineered for maritime operations. While the exercise, which succeeded in taking out a long-range enemy target, relied upon long-range anti-submarine drone sensing.
“The U.S. Navy launched a missile at a long-range target successfully as a part of Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 off the coast of San Diego, April 25,” a Navy report stated. “Integrated manned and unmanned systems established a track for the launch.”
For example, one asset among several involved in the exercise was General Atomics emerging SeaGuardian sub-hunting drone, the latest innovation of the combat-tested MQ-9 Reaper. The MQ-9B SeaGuardian is the latest Reaper variant extending lethality, mission scope and operational flexibility for the combat tested drone which continues to pivot successfully from a primary role as an armed, terrorist-targeting surveillance asset operating in uncontested airspace, to a platform capable of performing high-risk missions against technologically sophisticated great-power adversaries.
Operating in tandem with a Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane, MH-60R helicopter and advanced command and control networking, the SeaGuardian was able to connect with a surface destroyer to transmit threat data of a long range target from “beyond the horizon.”
The SeaGuardian is designed to supplement existing ASW technologies or simply give sub-hunting commanders additional tactical options by introducing a specially engineered sub-hunting drone modified for maritime operations with all-weather, Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) detecting “motion” of enemy targets, standard EO/IR surveillance cameras and anomaly detecting computer algorithms.
“SeaGuardian brings an ability to add Ad Hoc capability to the Navy’s existing ASW,” Bob Schoeffling, Vice President of International Strategic Development, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, told Warrior in an interview.
SeaGuardian’s sensor suite, further enabled by advanced integrated computer processing technology, is intended to enable remote commanders to monitor and control numerous sub-hunting operational variables simultaneously. such as surface-scanning EO/IR cameras, all weather Radar return signatures and even submarine-hunting sonobuoys lowered beneath the surface of the ocean with acoustic sensors.
For example, what if an ISAR radar detected small protruding shapes resembling a submarine antenna emerging from beneath the surface of the ocean, while RF sensors detected electromagnetic emissions coming from the boat and air-dropped sonobuoys sent return pings revealing images of an enemy submarine? Wouldn’t it be useful if advanced computer processing enabled command and control systems to analyze each of these nuances simultaneously to see how they complement and reinforce one another? This would certainly give a human decision-maker a much different and more complete picture of any given threat scenario. While each of these kinds of information systems are available now, the innovations woven into SeaGuardian are about integrating these data streams together into a single, organized picture for commanders at exponentially faster speeds than what is currently possible.
General Atomics demonstrated an ability to view sonobuoy acoustic rendering return images from far away ground command and control stations as far back as 2017, new innovations with SeaGuardian include breakthrough levels of command and control processing technology, anomaly-detection algorithms and a paradigm-changing sonobuoy dispensing system enabling new levels of operational control for human decision makers.
“We command them and can change routes depending upon the detection of pings. We process data as well as remotely monitor and control sonobuoys,” Schoeffling said.
An essential part of this is what GA calls a Sonobuoy Management & Control System able to carry and deploy 10 U.S. Navy compliant ‘A’ size or 20 ‘G’ size sonobuoys per pod, a company statement said. The SeaGuardian flies with four wing stations able to carry up to four sonobuoy pods, enabling it to carry and dispense up to 40 ‘A’ size or 80 ‘G’ size sonobuoys.
Part of the technical innovation woven into SeaGuardian includes new applications of data processing technology, happening in some instances at the point of origin to a degree, which can help sift-through vast volumes of information otherwise nearly impossible to organize. SeaGuardian-integrated command and control technology, enabled by advanced computer algorithms, can identify key points of relevance amid streams of incoming undersea sensor data.
Perhaps a sonobuoy generates one hundred return renderings of various shapes beneath the surface of the ocean, yet only one or two of them might resemble an enemy submarine of great interest to commanders. In this case, the possibilities for AI-enabled computer algorithms to compare image renderings against a massive database to perform analytics, draw comparisons and offer optimized, streamlined data to human decision makers is substantial. Incoming data, which could generate complex and difficult “data overload” challenges, can be organized and communicated with unprecedented efficiency. This concept is, according to developers, a large part of the developmental trajectory for SeaGuardian and its expanding mission set.
“We have integrated the ability to process data from sonobuoys,” Schoeffling said.
Integrated processing power can organize otherwise disparate pools of incoming sensor data, to enable a kind of interpretive synergy drawing upon acoustic returns from sonobuoys, electromagnetic returns from radar and optical returns from EO/IR cameras. How do datastreams from each of these modes inform or integrate with one another? AI-enabled analytics can discern key nuances and make determinations in near real time. Ultimately, a key focus of the technology, when it comes to operational application, is simply to reduce sensor-to-shooter times by massively expediting the surveillance and targeting process.
Both operational and cost efficiency concepts continue to inform much of the developmental thinking with SeaGuardian, as GA intends to offer what Schoeffling referred to as an “ad hoc” ASW capability not otherwise available to commanders. The thinking is the SeaGuardian might offer some unique value added as a supplement to larger fixed-wing sub-hunting planes like the Poseidon P-8 or simply provide additional options for commanders.
“SeaGuardian is a low cost platform, it burns 200 pounds of fuel per hour. Compare that against the larger man controlled aircraft that burn 5,000 pounds of fuel an hour. It also takes less manpower to run it. So you can perform the mission with fewer people, far less expensively, and have a much more flexible platform because we can fly, depending on how it's configured, for 25 hours, 30 hours, or 40 hours,” Schoeffling added.
Interestingly, SeaGuardian could well be described as the latest and most cutting edge iteration in the Reaper’s multiyear developmental trajectory during which the Hellfire armed counterterrorism surveillance drone continues to transition into a great power warfare environment and prepare for massive warfare in a high-threat, highly contested environment against a well-armed, technologically sophisticated adversary. In recent years, for example, the Reaper has been upgraded with added fuel tanks to extend range and dwell time above target and also engineered with a universal weapons interface to massively expand its weapons arsenal. The Reaper now fires the AIM-9X in addition to the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs.
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.