Reagan National Defense Forum 2023 Highlights

01/04/2024
By George Galdorisi

The Reagan National Defense Forum, held every year on a Saturday in early December at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, is one of the most important national security dialogues of the year.

“Everyone Who is Anyone” in the national security space is either an invited speaker or an in-person attendee.

This includes the Secretary of Defense, secretaries of the military services, uniformed chiefs of the military services, key innovation and acquisition leaders such as the DIU Director, senators and congressmen from key defense committees and others.

As the informed readership of Defense.info and Second Line of Defense know, unmanned surface vehicles represent one of the most cutting-edge and innovative technologies in today’s defense space.

Given the scope of this event, not every speaker’s remarks were directly focused on unmanned surface vehicles.

That said, what was discussed regarding national security, gaps that the U.S. military needs to fill, technology, innovation and other issues had a strong emphasis on autonomous systems like USVs in reshaping U.S. defense capability.

During his remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, the Director, Defense Innovation Unit, Mr. Doug Beck, described three lessons about the use of disruptive technologies in the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine:

  1. The relevance of new technologies on the battlefield, especially unmanned systems.
  2. The power that alliances and partnerships can bring to the table.
  3. The power of talent, meaning the need for smart operators to fully exploit emerging technologies.

Mr. Beck noted that these are three lessons that the United States is leveraging as it looks to help the United States prepare for conflict anywhere in the world, but especially in the Indo-Pacific region.

As the PACOM Commander, Admiral John Aquilino, pointed out during the Reagan National Defense Forum, the United States needs to understand that our primary peer adversary, China, is also watching these conflicts carefully to develop the force structure, doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures to prevail against the United States.

Admiral Aquilino highlighted the fact that both conflicts (and Ukraine in particular) entailed massive and unprecedented use of munitions. Therefore, in preparing for any war in the Indo-Pacific, the United States must have substantially deeper magazines of a wide-variety of weapons. While not a disruptive technology per se, Admiral Aquilino pointed out that weapons scarcity has disrupted offenses in both conflicts.

Referring to the ways that Ukraine was able to synchronize the effects of legacy and new platforms, systems, sensors and weapons, Admiral Aquilino noted that one lesson for the United States is that the ability to synchronize the efforts of joint and coalition forces in all domains would be the only way for the United States to defeat a numerically superior and geographically advantaged China.

In his remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Secretary of the Air Force, Mr. Frank Kendall, noted that one of the important lessons we have learned from the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine is the growing need for more autonomy in unmanned systems in all domains.

He called out Israel’s Harpy system (an unmanned, loitering, weaponized autonomous UAS) as one example of the kind of weapon that will be important in any conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.

During his remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Mr. Brian Schimpf, Co-Founder and CEO, Anduril Industries, noted that if we learned any lessons from the war in Gaza, it is the need for more precision in weapons.

During his remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Mr. Frank Kendall noted that a key technology vital for future conflicts, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, is the ability to implement manned-unmanned teaming to fully exploit the best attributes of both the human and the machine.

As an example, he used the Air Force Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program (a manned aircraft such as the Joint Strike Fighter operating with two or more (up to five) “loyal wingmen” unmanned aircraft).

Mr. Kendall went further to state that the need for more autonomy is so acute in a potential conflict with China that if U.S. platforms, systems, sensors and weapons are not autonomous and there is a human in the loop, we will lose a conflict with China which is rapidly developing fully autonomous weapons systems (as is Russia).

During her remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, called out unmanned surface systems, which were used with deadly effect in the war in Ukraine, as key assets in any conflict with a peer competitor.

She cited the work of the Navy’s Unmanned Task Force as well numerous exercises, experiments and demonstrations to not only build technology, but to put it in the hands of Sailors and Marines to determine its usefulness, especially in a high-end fight.

As U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Allvin, pointed out during the Reagan National Defense Forum, one of the most important emerging technologies that will give the United States an edge in all future conflicts, especially in the Indo-Pacific, are those technologies that give the United States an advantage in speed of decision. Other speakers talked about the importance of speed of decision as well.

As Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, remarked at the Reagan National Defense Forum, the United States must “sharpen its edge” in emerging technologies such as autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to prevent China from destroying the “Rules Based International Order” that the United States has championed for the past three-quarters of a century.

During his remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Christopher Maloney, noted three specific technological needs for the Marine Corps in the high-end fight in the Indo-Pacific:

  • Reconnaissance
  • Counter-Reconnaissance
  • Lethality

During his remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Representative Mike Gallagher, Chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, noted that other speakers had talked about the DoD’s “Replicator” program (a favorite program of DEPSECDEF Hicks).

While noting that it was a good program in concept, he was concerned that the United States does not yet have the technology to control a thousand or more drones simultaneously. He emphasized that this number of drones could not operate as remotely piloted aircraft, but would have to be autonomous and controlled by AI.

Representative Gallagher also noted that complex programs like Replicator would need to be spread among so many program offices throughout all the Services that he was concerned that institutional barriers would impede progress.

Several speakers noted that in the U.S. military’s quest for more autonomy, more cyber-security needed to be baked into platforms, systems, sensors and weapons in order to prevent hacking that could result in mission kills, or even having the weapon turned against U.S. forces.

Representative Gallagher noted that a key U.S. vulnerability vis-à-vis new technologies is the U.S. hesitance to pick technology “winners and losers” (especially with AI) the same way that the CCP does. He suggested that this is slowing down the effective insertion of AI into U.S. military platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons. By inviting MARTAC to every Integrated Battle Problem, Pacific Fleet is, in effect, picking winners and losers for surface USVs.

During her remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Heidi Shyu, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, reminded attendees that in seeking to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning for military uses, it is important to remember that without well-curated data to mine, AI and ML are all but useless.

As weapons systems become more complex, they will, of necessity, need to bring in the talents of multiple acquisition commands across the services and synchronize these efforts as never before. Replicator is a prime example requiring this level of cooperation, and Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) is another.

Given the number of program offices in the U.S. Navy, let alone all the Services, sorting out who leads and who follows (in much the same way as, in wartime, one COCOM is likely to be the supported COCOM while others are the supporting COCOMs) will need to be decided at the Service and DoD level if the acquisition process has a chance of operating effectively and efficiently.

Admiral Franchetti spoke explicitly about the work of Commander Task Force 59 in the Arabian Gulf as well as the Integrated Battle Problem series of exercises.

As an example of the new systems which the speakers were calling for are the MANTAS and Devil Ray USVs. Their boats have been invited to Pacific Fleet Integrated Battle Problem events over the past several years (and into 2024) due to their usefulness in the high-end fight in the Pacific theater. Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC) has scaled up its ability to have MANTAS and Devil Ray boats work autonomously. MANTAS and Devil Ray boats (in various sizes) are ideal platforms to be operated in surface swarms.

And during numerous Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations, MANTAS and Devil Ray boats have operated with increasing levels of autonomy. Their systems are suggestive of the “future is now” approach being suggested by DoD initiatives like the Replicator project.

Featured Image: SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (Dec. 2, 2023) – Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti answers a question during a panel discussion at the Reagan National Defense Forum (RNDF), in Simi Valley, Calif., Dec. 2. Franchetti’s panel, “Laboratories of Learning” focused on innovation and technological breakthroughs in the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Michael B. Zingaro.