Maritime Autonomous Systems and Their Impact on Multi-Domain Opertions

By LtGen Steve Rudder (Retired)

The Ukraine employment of Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) in attacks on the Russian Black Sea Fleet represents a window into the lethality of swarming and autonomous unmanned surface vessels. Because of their small radar cross-section, high speed, and agile maneuverability, USVs are likely going to change the face of Naval Warfare.

Dr. Robbin Laird has been leading the reporting on Unmanned Systems and Kill Webs for many years and has been producing forward thinking pieces on the evolution of autonomy.

At each achievement, whether it be Ukraine, TF-59 in the Arabian Gulf, or the Australian Defense Force, his articles and books have provided a window into the future dominance of autonomous maritime systems and the journey into the Kill Web.

The combination of air and surface unmanned capabilities is ripe for the maritime environment where nations do not have large Navies or Air Forces to secure their heavily trafficked Economic Exclusion Zones.

For the United States there are similar requirements where wargaming between the PLA and U.S. Navy exemplifies attrition warfare at its best. Compounding the U.S. problem is that weapons and shipbuilding timelines are not keeping pace with the growth of the PLA Navy and their shore based anti-ship capabilities.

However, this competitive premise is only based on capitol ship production of surface combatants, aircraft carriers, and submarines. Robbin points out that the asymmetric advantage of swarming USVs and loitering munitions are becoming well documented in the Ukrainian conflict and could provide an asymmetric advantage for U.S. maritime forces.

Autonomous USVs offer a number of advantages over regular manned vessels which make them attractive to many countries that have been developing or experimenting with them in recent years.

In the Asia pacific, allies and partners are looking at USVs and UAVs to solve the maritime domain awareness gaps.

For Japan, the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel are positioned along what military strategists refer to as the “first island chain” stretching from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan to the Philippines.  The Senkaku Islands are a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan. From Gray zone activities, PLA Coast Guard, and PLA Navy incursions these areas present a significant concern to the Japanese.

This expanse of islands also represents just one of the many contested areas the U.S. Navy will have to fight its way into should conflict occur. Notably, the distance between Taiwan and Japan’s Yonaguni Island is only 70 miles. Unmanned craft operating in and around the Japanese island chain could be employed to provide early warning, local security, and contested logistics.

Robbin’s book lets us imagine what a “wolfpack” of autonomous USVs might look like in and around these maritime choke points.

To date, the U.S. has limited experience in this rapidly evolving area. The Navy has invested heavily with a strategic plan to acquire medium, large and extra-large “unmanned vehicles” to operate both on the surface and underwater, but relatively little effort on small and very small USVs.

The Navy and Marine Corps also face a major problem of coming to terms with how to use a kill web of USV and UAVs. As speed and response time provide the physical attributes of unmanned maneuver and fire, USV lethality options come in many different categories from providing targeting solutions for joint weapons to being a weapon itself as in Ukraine.

The book highlights the ability for unmanned craft to operate as a lethal system integrated with the fleets. USVs operating at speeds of 100 knots would have great affect with the Switchblade loitering munition, Naval Strike Missiles and/or torpedoes. Large numbers of networked maritime USVs would be very difficult to detect and equally as difficult to fire upon with today’s defense systems

Although the potential for lethal operations for USVs is impressive, it is also about the full spectrum of operations from ISR, Personnel Recovery, and Logistics. For each maritime problem around the world, there are simply not enough ships or aircraft for persistent domain awareness. We will not in the foreseeable future have the capacity to put capital assets continually forward to fill that gap. UAVs and USVs, notably working together, can fill such a gap cost effectively.

Another key attribute Robbin brings up is that USVs can operate from multiple port location ranging from large commercial ports to distributed remote shore locations.

He also introduces the reader to the “Mothership.” Rather than large capitol ships fighting each other, a mother ship could deploy multiple high speed unmanned craft able to swiftly attack large, slow, vulnerable surface ships. The obvious choice for the mothership concept would the LCS, ESB, or LPD. Already the launching platform for aviation and amphibious capabilities, Robbin’s research highlights these as untapped resources for the inclusion of large numbers of maritime USV and UAVs.

The evolution of UAVs and USVs operating within a mesh network would give naval forces new capabilities to execute their maritime mission. Solving the question of how to best use such capabilities should not hinder or delay necessary innovation and implementation.

As TF59 and Naval Unmanned Exercise Forces around the world demonstrate through experimentation, USV technology is available today. Capabilities already exist to build such a network which suggests the ability to rapidly field UAV-USV teams to the fleet.

The reader of Robbin’s book should walk away with a sense of how autonomous maritime systems are changing how we think about Naval Warfare.

LtGen Rudder (ret) serves as the President of Stick Rudder Enterprises specializing in aerospace and defense consulting for domestic and international markets.

He also serves as a Senior Defense Fellow for the Atlantic Council and supports the U.S. Taiwan Business Council with industry visits to Taiwan focused on defense partnerships.

He retired after 38 years as the Commanding General, Marine Forces Pacific. He Commanded 1st Marine Air Wing in Japan and was Director of Policy and Plans for INDOPACOM.

Before assuming command of Marine Forces Pacific, he served as the Deputy Commandant for Aviation where he managed all Marine Aviation aircraft procurement and sustainment programs.

With over 5000 hours in multiple aircraft and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross in combat, he uses his operational and program experience to serve U.S. Defense Companies and International Partners.

The featured photo is a Devil Ray MARTAC USV making a high-speed turn. Credit: MARTAC