Adding Combat Capability to the Pacific Force: The Role of Integrated Autonomous Systems

By Robbin Laird

It is clear that autonomous systems can provide significant enhancements for current operating forces.

As Commodore Darron Kavanagh, Director General Warfare Innovation, Royal Australian Navy Headquarters, has noted: “we have shown through various autonomous warrior exercises, that we can already make important contributions to mission threads which combat commanders need to build out now and even more so going forward.”

Put another way, combatant commanders can conduct mission rehearsals with their forces and can identify gaps to be closed.

But the traditional acquisition approach is not optimized for closing such gaps at speed through the use of disruptive technologies. The deployment and development of autonomous systems are part of the response to the question of how gaps can be closed or narrowed rapidly and without expensive solution sets.

In an interview I did earlier this year with a senior Naval commander, he identified the “gaps” problem. “Rehearsal of operations sheds light on our gaps. if you are rehearsing, you are writing mission orders down to the trigger puller, and the trigger puller will get these orders and go, I don’t know what you want me to do. Where do you want me to be? Who am I supposed to check in with? What do you want me to kill when I get there? What are my left and right limits? Do I have target engagement authority?

“This then allows a better process of writing effective mission orders. so that we’re actually telling the joint force what we want them to do and who’s got the lead at a specific operational point. By such an approach, we are learning. We’re driving requirements from the people who are actually out there trying to execute the mission, as opposed to the war gamers who were sitting on the staff trying to figure out what the trigger pullers should do.”

But how to close the gaps?

One way to do so has been suggested by LtGen (retired) Rudder, the former MARFORPAC commander.

“Current Navy testing has demonstrated USV speed in excess of 100 knots. Also demonstrated is that they can be armed with combat proven loitering munitions.

“This lethal combination of speed and weapons portends the ability to out maneuver surface fleets and strike them at distance. What makes unmanned vessels and munitions lethal is that they can sustain speeds above 100 knots and deliver fires at distance. Like a fighter aircraft, speed is essential for survivability”

One pairing which has been tested and suggest a way ahead to “close a gap” for the operational forces was suggested by Rudder.

“As the Navy continues to experiment with USV technology, the teaming of the MARTAC T38 and the AeroVironment Switchblade series of loitering munitions is proving that speed and lethality for surface vessels cannot be stopped by even the most sophisticated fleet of combatants.

“We should not accept slow moving unmanned systems when technology exists to maneuver beyond the human capability.

“Imagine the ability for commanders to have a number of UAVs and USVs that can maneuver at speed and be integrated into the Carrier Strike Group or Surface Action Group scheme of maneuver. The concept of operations could entail 20-30 loyal wingman USVs sprinting ahead and to the flanks of the Carrier Battle Group.

“With a few simple AI algorithms, they could be directed towards enemy combatants 1000 miles away. Autonomously communicating with each other while closing from multiple directions at 100 knots, they could deliver the combat proven Switchblades and within minutes the swarm could impact key areas of the enemy combatants that includes radars, weapons stations, and the bridge area.

“The results as one would imagine is not the sinking of ship, but the immediate blinding of the fire control system of the ship such as air defense radars for HHQ-9 and launch systems for the YJ-18.

“If we apply the Switchblade capabilities to counter an amphibious landing scenario, small landing craft, air cushioned craft, and amphibious assault vehicles could be individually addressed with the low-cost switchblade at range.

“Think of the thwarted mechanized assault on Kyiv and its application to a slow vulnerable assault in the water. A land-based defense armed with Switchblade combined with armed USVs maneuvering from multiple directions would create a dilemma for landing force that is counting on fire strikes on fixed sites such airfields and ports.

“The land and maritime combination of distributed T38s armed with switchblades could launch from multiple hide sites and maneuver through escort ship defenses and deliver switchblades from front, rear, and the flanks. Assuming some of the landing force makes it ashore, land-based switchblade teams would create additional kill zones.”

These systems are expanding the thought process of future operations with designs that include the boats themselves as weapons armed with an explosive capabilities and further work for larger anti-ship and ASW weapons.

The Navy is at an inflection point with several gap closing technologies ready to be fielded. The unique design of MARTAC fast craft and the combat proven Switchblade are demonstrating that Naval warfare as we know it would change overnight.

“Closing the gaps” needs to become an acquisition capability, not a long-range goal. As Kavanagh underscored: “We need to deliver lethality at the speed of relevance. But if I go after the conventional solution, and I’m just replacing something, that’s actually not a good use of my very finite resources. We need to be answering the operational commanders request to fill a gap in capability, even if it is a 30% solution compared to no solution on offer from the traditional acquisition process.”

These are not technologies looked at in terms of a traditional acquisition process which requires them to go through a long period of development to form a platform which can procured with a long-life use expectancy.

CDRE Kavanagh simply pointed out that maritime autonomous systems are NOT technologies to be understood in this manner.

“We build our platforms in a classical waterfall approach where you design, develop and build a platform over twenty years to make them excellent. But their ability to adapt quickly is very limited. This is where software intensive systems such as maritime autonomous systems are a useful complement to the conventional platforms. Maritime autonomous systems are built around software first approaches and we are able to do rapid readjustments of the code in a combat situation.”

And the legacy acquisition approach is not well aligned with the evolution of warfare.

Not only is the focus changing to what distributed combat clusters can combine to do in terms of combat effects but the payload impacts at a point of relevance is also becoming of increased salience to warfighting approaches.

Featured Image: In this screen grab from video, munitions launched from a Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System destroys a training target in the Arabian Gulf during Exercise Digital Talon, Oct. 23. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command recently completed Exercise Digital Talon, demonstrating the ability of unmanned platforms to pair with traditionally crewed ships in “manned-unmanned teaming” to identify and target hostile forces at sea. Then, using munitions launched from another unmanned platform, engaged and destroyed those targets. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)