Q. What is the status of unmanned technology for maritime systems?
Naval systems have evolved in similar ways to ground and aerial systems, starting with surveillance and reconnaissance missions and evolving to technologies that can detect mines and carry out strike missions. The technology is divided into unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and unmanned aerial vehicles that are integrated into aircraft carrier operations. This section examines these three categories of naval systems, focusing mostly on the use of UUVs and UAVs for maritime purposes since the development of USVs has been relatively slow by comparison. The number of air and sea vehicles is extensive and growing, so a comprehensive survey is not yet possible; this section therefore speaks to illustrative examples of how both are being developed.
Mines have long been the bane of navy ships; mines have damaged or sunk US Navy ships at four times the rate of any other form of attack. They have been a major threat in every major conflict since the Civil War. Mines tend to be a popular instrument of war since a $10,000 sea mine can sink a ship worth more than $1 billion, not to mention the human casualties that can result in the process.23 Against the backdrop of this asymmetric threat, the prospect of UUVs is an attractive way to defend against the potential for destructive mines.
Indeed, early versions of unmanned naval systems were platforms dedicated expressly for demining. As the Naval Special Clearance Team program office notes about unmanned undersea vehicles' utility in Operation Iraqi Freedom, these "gadgets were the main workhorses of the mine clearing effort ... if one got blown up in the process, the relatively cheap price meant it would be no big deal."24 Military analysts have observed that such technologies could also defang Iran's efforts to mine the Strait of Hormuz as a way to prevent oil tankers from transporting oil, thus driving up prices. Its undeclared mining of the strait in the 1980s would therefore have been less plausible in an era of UUVs. Indeed, in 2012 the United States sent several SeaFox vehicles to do just that: detect and destroy any mines that would help Iran close the Strait. Launched from helicopters or rubber boats, the SeaFox is "on what amounts to a suicide mission" when it destroys a mine, in that it too is destroyed. Of course, this also implies that it shreds the $100,000 investment in each vehicle as well.25
There are a number of UUVs under development, most of which are in the area of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. One line of development seeks to mimic the movements of sea creatures in ways that could be useful for stealthy surveillance. The US Navy has a line of underwater drones, the GhostSwimmer, which can mimic jellyfish, eels, and the dorsal fin of a shark. The program is part of a larger program called Silent Nemo that seeks to bring new technologies into military platforms.
In terms of unmanned surface vessels (USVs), developments have been slower.26 Current prototypes still require considerable manpower even for basic collision avoidance, which means having considerable bandwidth and either a manned platform or ground control station in the vicinity. The United States developed the Spartan Scout USV as a concept demonstration in 2002, and is a sensor and weapons system mounted onto an inflatable boat and used for demining or firing against small boats. Its main virtue is to provide a way of patrolling the seas without necessarily needing to put humans in harm's way, or to run into the limitations imposed by the need for rest. Though still a demonstration, its prototype was used in the Persian Gulf for harbor surveillance.27 Singapore's Navy, which played a role in the initial development of the Scout, launched their own fleet of the USVs in 2005, primarily as a way to battle maritime piracy.28 In 2010, Zyvex Marine completed development on a more advanced USV called the Piranha, made out of nanomaterials. The Piranha is made of nano- enhanced carbon fiber which is lighter than either fiberglass or aluminum, leading to fuel savings of 75% compared to traditional vessels, and is designed for harbor patrol and anti-piracy operations.29
The next frontier with these developments is in automation. In 2011, the Pentagon had made autonomy one of the military's major priorities, but has found itself further behind than it would like, with many objectives still aspirational. For example, a program officer in the Office of Naval Research suggested that in terms of autonomous decision-making on USVs, engineers still needed to develop better situational awareness, efficient algorithms for dealing with competing mission objectives, collective decision-making across unmanned platforms, network sensor fusion, detection of maritime hazards, and effective collision avoidance.30
Beyond these technical challenges lies the basic issue of trust in the system. Commanders must have confidence in the ability of the unmanned system to operate in predictable ways. In other words, the operator needs to have had enough interactions with the system to know that when he or she requests the system to do a task, it will do exactly what was requested, instead of having a mind of its own and acting in errant ways. For the time being, the Navy plans to employ a "human oversight mode" to guard against the unintended or unwanted outcomes of autonomous systems, such as collisions.
For one of the newest type of USVs, collision has been less important since the vehicle is a swarm boat whose purpose, in a sense, is to engage in just that: collision with a potentially hostile vessel such as the type that targeted the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 sailors. In one test of swarming technology, a simulated enemy boat approached a convoy, and the human controller ordered five of the USVs to swarm the enemy vessel, leaving the other eight to continue escorting the manned ship. After the order, the five USVs, using a combination of sensor data and planned routes, each plotted their own course to the enemy ship, sharing information with each other and coordinating along the way.31 Once the USVs had swarmed the "enemy" vessel, the simulation was stopped. The next step in development is to program the ships with rules of engagement, so that they autonomously target enemy combatants, ensuring that they avoid targeting allies or noncombatant ships. This is particularly important because in a war zone enemies often attempt to jam transmissions between the ships and their operators. A single operator would be in charge of orchestrating up to 30 USVs, unlike Predator pilots, who operate in a one-to-one ratio. The biggest obstacle may be the logistics of aiming and firing the weapons on each USV. A single operator could not possibly aim and fire machine guns from 30 different USVs, requiring the targeting and firing processes to be automated. One possibility is that humans will designate the target but the USVs will aim and fire autonomously. This kind of automation could eventually make these weapons safer than what the Navy currently uses. Whereas human operators are affected by the stress of battle or can become battle-weary, increasing the propensity for operator error, an automated weapon would be less prone to such impediments.
In terms of unmanned naval aviation, development dates back at least to the Pioneer. Launched by rocket-assisted takeoff or pneumatic rails, the Pioneer was later recovered at sea or in a landing field. The Navy, the Marines, and the Army have flown Pioneers in every military intervention since 1986, including more than 300 combat reconnaissance missions in the 1991 Gulf War, in which some Iraqis allegedly surrendered on the basis of the buzzing "vultures" overhead.32
More advanced carrier-based aerial systems are still in development. In July 2013, the United States Navy made history by landing a drone on the deck of a carrier, the USS George HW Bush, off Virginia. The aircraft was the X-47B, the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), which is an experimental vehicle that has a range of 2,000 nautical miles and can fly at 40,000 ft.33 It was the first pilotless aircraft to land on a carrier. About a year later, in August 2014, the UCAS landed within 90 seconds of the F/A-18E Super Hornet. The two aircraft achieved the Navy's goal of taking off and landing in close succession.
The UCAS is intended to be the prototype for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program intended to be used for reconnaissance and precision strikes. The UCLASS program has had four different competing designs from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics. The program has sparked some controversy over how it will be overseen. In late 2013, the Government Accountability Office issued a report calling for greater oversight of the program, arguing that the Navy was moving forward with the program in a way that made it difficult for Congress to hold them accountable for adhering to their planned schedule, costs, and capabilities.
While the US Navy is in the early stages of determining the requirements for the future UCLASS, internal divisions have delayed the request for proposal. Some constituencies believe that the platform should be ambitious and provide long-range surveillance and strike capabilities, along with some stealth. Another camp has a more modest vision, producing a system more quickly, even if it is less capable. In the meantime, the divide has led to the UCLASS at least temporarily losing funding out of concern that the vehicle would not be sufficiently stealthy, survivable, or potent in terms of payload. Yet the Navy still reports that it will field the UCLASS by 2020.34
Overall, the Navy sees unmanned systems as the way of the future, not only because of the upside in terms of capability and risk avoidance, but also because they could be cost-effective in tight fiscal environments. The size of vessels being considered for unmanned functions tends to be fairly small compared to manned vessels, even though they tend to have larger payload capacities and longer ranges in part because they free up space and weight by not having humans on board. Taken together, the prospect for cost savings may be considerable, and the Navy is pushing for more unmanned systems for the future. For example, the Navy has more recently modified the Israeli-made Protector platform, a USV intended to be used for antipiracy missions or surveillance. In 2012, it conducted live- fire tests of the Protector, the first time it had fired missiles from the unmanned vehicle, with hopes of more tests before deciding to go ahead and add to its flotilla of unmanned assets.