17 June 2019

US Navy designs unmanned military warships. Could Romanian Naval Forces follow their example too?

Mircea Mocanu

The US Military Marine plans on getting ten unmanned surface warships, worth of $2, 7 billion, in the following 5 years. This is part of Pentagon’s plan on endowing its American Armed Forces with 232 unmanned surface, undersea and air military vehicles, also within the next five years.

Image source: Mediafax

Unmanned ships’ uncertainties and vulnerabilities

The problem with the unmanned naval systems is, from an operational perspective, their increasing vulnerability in the operational maritime space, due to their size-mobility rapport. Unlike the air fight methods, the surface naval systems have less freedom (only two degrees of freedom) and definitely less speed, hence, it cannot fight hostile air methods during a larger mission. Also, unlike the undersea unmanned systems, the surface ones have less flexibility as well. Moreover, it is easier to be tracked by sensors, hereof it can only be used by limited and specialized objective actions.

On the other hand, the resilience request asks for command and control device’s continuation in environments that involve the prohibition or the limitation of radio communication and navigation signals by hostile forces.
Resilience also requires the continuity of energy assurance, device's hermetization and the reversibility capability after overturning during the mission. This autonomy involves also Artificial Intelligence (AI) developments.

Unmanned systems’ vulnerabilities were confirmed after the Chinese army forces captured a glider, in December 2016, and after the Houthi forces caught an unmanned undersea vehicle in Yemen’s coast, in January 2018. It is obvious that they have to make sure the device is protected from being captured and its operational data and technological secrets are safe.

Opportunity and the operational tasks

Currently, during the technological development of unmanned surface vehicles, the US Military Marine has more questions than certainties. The deputy of the Chief of Naval Operations (deputy of the Chief of the General Staff of the Naval Forces) for fight systems (N9), vice-admiral Bill Merz, revealed that their efforts are hastened by the need to properly know everything regarding this field, materialized through experiments and concrete fight operationalization methods: “But we’re at the point where we really have to get them out there to start understanding how tough are these things, how robust, and how are they going to integrate with the fleet, what kind of policies are going to surround these systems when you start talking about potentially separating weapons from humans”.

On the other hand, launching this massive efforts sends a clear message to the American industry, on a perspective commitment, based on Pentagon’s administrative decision, not only on the studies the US Congress requires, on USV’s capabilities. Vice-admiral Bill Merz states that the developments in this field, for US’s Navy 355 ships fleet completion, must have focused on the distributed capabilities, following the System-Based Warfare, more lethal and effective from an economic perspective. On the other hand, a new impetus in this field can be done by changing Trump’s Administration financial perspective, by giving up the budgetary decreases policy (the well-known sequestration), promoted by Obama’s Administration.

Their operational goals are focusing on several fields: action against sea mines, ISR sensors (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) to avoid tracking, the use as lethal armament carriers’ vehicles, assistance for experienced operators, including for the special operation forces, oceanography, action on the littoral, supporting the submarines of the anti-submarine fight, echolocation placed so that it cannot reveal human force’s location.

Their ambition level does not include, for now, the inclusion of USV in naval forces’ fight warships, and they will not replace any fight military ship. American experts in the field are saying that this ambition level should be reviewed in 10 years. Until then, the USV will only be used as support vehicles in sea actions. Something that complicated the USV’s concept is the show of force task, which is strike ships’ navigation capacity in that specific maritime area. How effective can such presence be if it comes from unnamed vehicles? Can that be considered a “presence” or not? The problem depends on satellites’ situation, which acknowledges an unmanned “presence”, but the satellites do not carry any armament and the space is not, at least officially, an armed confrontation space. Most likely, a proper response could be to use militaries when executing a presence mission and use unmanned operations if that USV armament carrier is part of a fight mission. Indeed, it is only available for devices big enough to allow a human operator on board.

A different tasks for the unmanned undersea or surface devices is following the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea’s provisions, known also as COLREGS. The tasks is important not only because of international rights reasons, but also for practical ones, given the complex sea action against sea mines operational space.

Unmanned surface warships categories

Although the first criteria could be the operational destination, USV were firstly classified based on their size. Indeed, these devices’ size is highly connected to their operational destination, but the operational developments will bifurcate in the future, which can cause some confusion in terms of terminology. Consequently, here is an USV classification following their size:

- USV class I, Very Small USVs, up to 7 meters length and are, first of all, dedicated to ISR actions;

- USV class II, Small USVs, from 7 to 12 meters length. Their destination is action against mines;

- USV class III, MDUSV (Medium Displacement USVs) or MUSV (Medium USV), from 12 to 50 meters length, multiple destination: armed convoy and electronic warfare mission;

- USV class IV, Large USVs, up to 50 meters length. Their missions can be logistical or can carry useful charges in multifunctional platforms, associated to naval mission.

The history of the American unmanned vehicles program

From the very beginning, the US Military Marine’s efforts in developing unmanned vehicles followed two lines: undersea and surface vehicles to support warships.

The undersea warships supported the submarines for them to have distance effects, but a distance to ensure submarine’s security. Hereof, they have developed the Knifefish device, alike the Surface Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Undersea Vehicle. This project, was developed for the Virginia class submarines. Undersea vehicles’ portfolio has evolved also towards the LDUUV (Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle) and even to LXUUV (Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles). The Snakehead warship is an LDUUV, incorporated in the Virginia submarines class, and for the XL UUV there is the Orca XLUUV.

On the other hand, the unmanned surface vehicles were designed given the littoral actions associated to Littoral Combat Ship concept as “mother ship”, the first ship fully designed to operate with a large unmanned vehicles. Examples to that end are the actions against MiW (Mine Warfare) and the ASW (anti-submarine warfare) parts. As for the MiW, Textron experts have made the CUSV (common USV) prototype, an SUSV that would help developing different other vehicles. MDUSV Sea Hunter is also one of the medium size prototypes that can operate with LCS, created by DARPA agency, dedicated to a variety of fight missions and electronic surveillance. Among others, the Sea Hunter can detect high-clutter environments mines.

The second phase of the US Military Marine program started after the 13th of March 2018 Provision, which developed a Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants (formerly PEO LCS). With this program, they passed from the LCS concept to Future Surface Combatant concept, which clarifies the distinction between undersea equipment and the naval surface devices. Also, the second category has a large set of vehicles from the categories presented above, whether they are unmanned or operated by humans.

As for the USV, a large undersea surface vehicle, it about to be acquired in the 2020 fiscal year, following the project presented in March 2019. This warship belongs to the Ghost Fleet program, which foresees also the creation and experimentation of different useful task that will equip the LUSV warships, according to their operational tasks. Starting with 2021, they also want to start designing a Large Surface Combatant ship, following the mentioned FSC concept, most likely to have armament as well. For the large USV the unmanned or manned option is reasoned by the motives presented at the operational tasks section.

In fact, the idea of creating two types of warships, which is considering also the use of humans, was even more welcomed since the great results they got after the experiments. The well-liked idea was using a manned USV warship and an unmanned USV one, to support the manned one in the most dangerous fight mission actions. Commander Kyle Gantt, an USV systems research-development structures’ official, has stated that this operational possibility would increase any fleet’s force.

Overall conclusions and more

The advantages of using unmanned warships in fights are obvious: these equipment are increasing operation’s speed, in certain fields, which is above the classic warships’ limited degree and ensures safe conditions for the naval forces’ personnel. Once sailors’ risks are reduced, the unmanned warships are improving the naval operational space’s acknowledgement, are increasing ships’ groups’ survival capacity and their strike capacity lethality.  Also, these equipment are increasing the maneuver space in terms of naval methods and their effectiveness in fights, by “distributing” the responsibilities.

As for the circumstances wherein the US Military Marine is developing these equipment/fight methods, Romania could also consider the possibility of operating such USV or UUV, from land or even mixed, to make more effective littoral and the Exclusive Economic Zone’s defence.

On the other hand, the Black Sea’s critical situation offers also the possibility to test such naval equipment in real tense/crises conditions, close to NATO’s countries territory. However, the special research ships and aircrafts are already used to track interested actors’ actions in the Black Sea region, and the unmanned warships are not included in Montreux Convention’s provisions regarding Strait’s regime (military ships’ access in the Black Sea).

Translated by Andreea Soare