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The U.S. Navy’s Plan for a Lethal New Drone Fleet

Groups of underwater drones will soon simultaneously use sonar and different sensors to identify and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships, search for mines, collect oceanographic data and conduct reconnaissance missions – all while a single human performs command and control functions aboard a Navy ship or submarine, senior service officials explained.

Perhaps several submarine-launched underwater robots or Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicles could identify a threatening enemy submarine or surface vessel at distances far beyond the normal detection range.

Groups of integrated drones would then instantly relay pertinent data to underwater or ship-board computing systems and sensors. As a result, humans in a command and control function to access relevant information faster and more efficiently, providing commanders with a larger window with which to make critical decisions, Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, Director, Unmanned Warfare Systems, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

Using satellite integrated telemetry, some underwater drones can transmit information back to boats in near real time; this provides a substantial tactical advantage because smaller drones are less detectable to enemy sonar and therefore able to access areas that are more difficult for larger submarines to penetrate. Such a technology allows for closer-in reconnaissance missions when it comes to operating in enemy territory, close to the shoreline, or overcoming the anti-access/area-denial challenges posed by potential adversaries.

Correspondingly, a group of ship-launched aerial platforms such as Puma unmanned systems accompanied by swarms of mini-drones are might be able to beam back real-time video feeds of threats beyond-the-horizon, finding and possibly attacking otherwise out-of-range enemy targets such as fast-approaching small boats, ships or incoming anti-ship cruise missiles.

(This piece first appeared in Scout Warrior here.) 

It is not inconceivable more timely identification of approaching threats and attacks at farther distances could mean the difference between life or death for crew members on board a ship or submarine.

Such scenarios, envisioned for the not-too-distant future, provide the conceptual foundation of the Navy’s emerging drone strategy. The idea is to capitalize upon the fast increasing speed of computer processing and rapid improvements in the development of autonomy-increasing algorithms; this will allow unmanned systems to quickly operate with an improved level of autonomy, function together as part of an integrated network, and more quickly perform a wider range of functions without needing every individual task controlled by humans.

“We aim to harness these technologies. In the next five years or so we are going to try to move from human operated systems to human assisted systems that are less dependent on people. Technology is going to enable increased autonomy," Girrier told Scout Warrior. 

The strategy is aimed at enabling submarines, surface ships and some land-based operations to take advantage of fast-emerging computer technologies. While not likely to be realized in immediate or near-term future, this trajectory will ultimately likely lead to the use of what’s called “artificial intelligence.” This involves the use of more independent, computer-driven unmanned systems to gather, organize and integrate a vast array of different information and sensor data – before providing it to human commanders.

Girrier explained that the emerging strategy is by no means intended to replace humans but rather leverage human perception and cognitive ability to operate multiple drones while functioning in a command and control capacity.

Perhaps multiple small drones could send out an acoustic ping and then analyze the return signal to pinpoint the location of a threatening enemy target – providing a submarine with the necessary data to launch a precision-guided heavyweight torpedo to destroy the threat from a safer distance. 

“This is not talking about removing the human in the loop but optimizing humans and machines working together. Think about combining the creativity and agility of the human mind with a computer that does things faster - that is pretty powerful. That is at the center of our unmanned strategy,” Girrier added.

The approach is designed as a mission multiplier to increase efficiency and perform a wider range of functions much more quickly. Armed with a small fleet of underwater drones, a submarine or destroyer will be able to perform higher-priority missions while allowing unmanned systems to quickly gather and transmit combat-relevant tactical and strategic information.

Unmanned systems will also increasingly be involved in strike missions to identify and attack enemy targets from the air, land or undersea domain, Girrier added. However, in a manner consistent with the development of other unmanned systems, decisions about the use of lethal force with drones will, according to Pentagon doctrine, be made by human beings in a command and control capacity.

Current Progress

The Navy’s Unmanned Systems Directorate, or N99, was formally stood up this past September with the focused mission of quickly accessing emerging technologies and applying them to unmanned platforms.

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