The next war at sea could be fought at the speed of electronic thought, with autonomous vessels obliterating each other, along with conventional crewed vessels in frantic battles decided by which side has superior artificial intelligence (AI) and reaction times.
“This is going to be how we do business,” the RAN’s Lead for Autonomous Warfare Systems, CMDR Paul Hornsby told ADBR. “It allows us to have more constant presences in all domains – air, surface, sub-surface and cyber – where we could never afford it before. We are very serious about developing this capability and very serious about getting the message out that Australia is a leader in this field.
“There is great opportunity for Australian industry and academic research centres to develop niche capabilities and payloads in partnership with mature platforms.”
It is also the way the US Navy plans to do business in a world where potential adversaries – China and Russia – are fielding supersonic, hypersonic, and ballistic anti-ship missiles, and where survivability of traditional carrier task groups is increasingly less than assured.
The USN fields a diverse range of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned undersea (or underwater) vessels (UUVs), from small to extra-large. Under its proposed new fleet architecture, there will be proportionately more USVs and it’s seeking to acquire two large USVs (LUSVs) per year in FY2020 to FY2024, with the first delivered around 2023.
The USN dubs these USVs the ‘Ghost Fleet’, and wants its LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable vessels carrying modular payloads, particularly anti-ship and land attack weapons. Such vessels would be up to corvette size, around 2,000 tonnes, based on current designs and, initially, optionally manned. The USN has used images of resource industry offshore support vessels to illustrate what it has in mind.
The USN also wants lots more UUVs – a total of 191 by the mid-2020s. Most will be small and medium-sized vehicles of types already in service for surveying and mine-hunting. But significantly, there’s a requirement for nine extra-large UUVs (XLUUVs). Earlier this year, Boeing’s Orca design was chosen over Lockheed Martin’s Autonomous Underwater Vehicle system for the first five.
Orca is a development of Boeing’s Echo Voyager concept, a fully autonomous 15.5 metre 45 tonne UUV, able to dive to depths of nearly 10,000 feet and cover 6,500 nautical miles on a single fuel module. It is planned that Orca will be able to perform multiple missions including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and attacks on submarines, surface vessels and land targets.
The USN is keen to get its unmanned vessels at sea as soon as possible, and is seeking to employ accelerated acquisition strategies, procuring LUSVs and XLUUVs at the same time as it’s developing enabling technologies.
Not to be left out, the US Marine Corps is experimenting with its own concept called Sea Mob which uses USVs to support or even conduct amphibious assaults.
Unlike the sleek grey warships we’re used to, Australia’s unmanned and autonomous surface and underwater systems aren’t especially visible, but they are around and have been for a long time. And soon there will be a lot more of them through a variety of new acquisition projects.
The Navy is hardly unique. The Army is trialling robotic supply vehicles – eg the Australian-made Praesidium Mule – and has long operated various unmanned (uninhabited) aerial systems (UAS). And now BAE Systems is developing optionally manned versions of the old M113AS4 APC using locally-developed technology for an Army-sponsored trial.
Similarly, the RAAF is in the process of acquiring the Northrop Grumman Triton long-endurance UAS for maritime surveillance and the armed General Atomics Reaper/Sky Guardian RPV, and has invested in the Boeing ATS Loyal Wingman development for possible employment from the mid-2020s.
In the air, the RAN has conducted extensive trials with embarked and land-based UAS including the Insitu ScanEagle and Schiebel S-100 Camcopter to inform it for its Project SEA 129 Phase 5 Maritime Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems requirement.
Both of these UAS have advantages and disadvantages. The fixed-wing ScanEagle has long endurance and versatile sensors, but requires substantial onboard infrastructure, including a catapult for launch and pole for recovery. Other than a clear section of deck, the helicopter-like Schiebel requires no onboard infrastructure for launch and recovery. But it is a more complex system, with less endurance but greater payload capacity, meaning larger and more powerful sensors.
For better or worse, robotics are going to be a major part of our future across most sectors of society. Last year, the government released the Robotics Roadmap for Australia which was prepared by the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision.
That report says robotics in Australia will maintain our living standards, help protect the environment, provide services to remote communities, reduce healthcare costs, provide safer, more fulfilling jobs, prepare the next generation for the future, encourage investment, and return jobs to Australia.
The roadmap includes a section on Defence robotics, declaring Australian defence needs can’t be satisfied by existing technologies alone, and that robotics can be the force multiplier needed to augment Australia’s highly valued human workforce and to enable persistent, wide-area operations in air, land, sea, sub-surface, space and cyber domains.
It says the future of Defence robotic capabilities is inextricably linked to the development of AI and machine learning – the ability to assess vast quantities of data, make reasoned decisions and learn from that experience. That applies just as much to everyone else developing autonomous systems, whether they be weapons or self-driving cars.
This is right at the very cutting edge of technology and, unsurprisingly, is central to a global tech race, with the potential to confer vast strategic advantage on whoever does it best and first.
The RAN has developed its own strategy for robotic and autonomous systems which is close to release. That’s driven by a number of principles. “It is important that we take the public with us on this journey because there can be misconceptions about robotic and autonomous systems,” CMDR Hornsby said.
So no killer robots? “I hear that all the time,” he remarked. “What we do know and indeed, I have proposed it in a draft measure to the UN convention, is that you will always need – to a greater or lesser extent – some level of human intervention.
“You can win fights with autonomous systems, but you won’t win wars,” he added. “At the end of the day, you have to have the trust of those people affected. No robot is going to comfort a child or family affected by war or a natural disaster. They can do an awful lot, but you are always going to have to have some meaningful human presence.”
There are some guiding principles. Australia is a big island with a small population, so we more than most will need all the help we can get from robotic systems. This applies as much to agriculture, environmental protection, transport, health, farming and mining, as it does to Defence.
So the goal is to enhance not replace capabilities, and this is particularly important for Navy platforms. “A ship will last you 40 years, but to stay ahead of the game in the robotic and autonomous space you need to be changing every two years,” CMDR Hornsby said.
So, robotic systems will be about keeping Australian servicemen and women safe by doing the ‘dangerous, dull and dirty’ jobs. Where once expensive crewed mine hunters ventured into mined areas, now they stand off and let the robots do the clearance.
And finally, there’s sovereign capability. Australia possesses very significant capabilities, and Australian sea and weather conditions are especially arduous and a stern test of autonomous systems.
“We have learned over the last 30 years that doing mine hunting or surveying in strong currents, you need some grunt under the hood,” CMDR Hornsby explained. “So in the world of robotic and autonomous systems, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
There are a very large number of maritime uninhabited and autonomous systems either available or under development around the world, covering a diverse range of capabilities.
But the nomenclature and designation systems are confusing. CMDR Hornsby said the Americans generally call everything unmanned while the British call everything autonomous. Aviators call their systems uninhabited, unmanned, or remotely piloted.
Unmanned or uninhabited naval vessels are generally under positive operator control by a datalink or cable, whereas autonomous generally refers to vehicles that conduct pre-programmed tasks and are not in continuous communication with a controller.
Autonomous implies a platform operating independently of the outside world, but UUVs tethered to a surface vessel to draw power or to provide sensor feeds may still operate autonomously, conducting pre-programmed search patterns, while providing real-time data to onboard operators.
Most underwater systems rely on battery power, giving them a finite endurance. USV propulsion can be the same as any other vessel.
There are some interesting hybrid capabilities, such as the Northrop Grumman AQS-24B mine-hunting system in which the UUV is towed behind a remote-controlled Mine Hunting Unmanned (MHU) surface vessel that resembles a RHIB.
However, until someone comes up with a way to reliably transmit data through water, true un-tethered autonomous underwater systems can’t pass on the full extent of what they’ve discovered until they return to the surface.
For a mine-hunting system that’s found something suspicious, that could be in the form of a ping to a circling drone, USV, a wave glider, or a mother vessel.
The RAN adopted its first USV 30 years ago, a development of a basic craft designed for towing gunnery targets. For this, two Bay class inshore minehunters were equipped with French PAP 104 Mk 3 remotely operated vehicles (ROV).
With limits in their operating envelope, the Bays weren’t a great success. The RAN subsequently acquired six Huon-class minehunters, each equipped with two more sophisticated Saab Double Eagle mine disposal vehicles, equipped with a searchlight, closed-circuit low light television camera and an on-board close-range identification sonar.
“There is much we have learned from various ROV systems,” CMDR Hornsby said.
Sea mines might appear a remote threat, but retaining a mine countermeasures capability is necessary insurance for a maritime nation, utterly reliant on export of resources for national wealth. The Huon replacement has now been brought forward from the mid-2030s to mid-2020s, with Prime Minister Morrison announcing during the election campaign that two new mine-warfare vessels would be constructed in WA though Project SEA 1905.
“Over $1 billion has been allocated for the Defence Integrated Investment Program (IIP) to deliver the full scope of SEA 1905, including the building of the two mine-warfare support vessels and investment in new mine countermeasure systems,” the PM said.
As well, a new hydrographic vessel would be constructed through Project SEA 2400. First pass approval is expected in fourth quarter 2019 with construction starting in the early 2020s. CMDR Hornsby said there were a variety of interesting technologies now available, including ships, payloads and USVs which allowed stand-off mine-hunting.
Under Project SEA 1778 Phase 1, the RAN is also moving to refresh its deployable mine countermeasures capability, with advanced surface and underwater technology. To this end, Australian firm Steber International will supply five 12-metre boats, three configured as mine countermeasures support vessels, and two configured as USVs.
For the actual mine-hunting missions, General Dynamics Maritime Systems will supply four of its small 70-kilogram Bluefin 9 and three large 213-kilogram Bluefin 12 autonomous UUVs. Both are torpedo-like craft equipped with cameras and sonar. Bluefin 9 is deployable by two people from a small boat or pier, with endurance of up to eight hours at three knots. The larger Bluefin 12 can carry multiple payloads, with an endurance of more than 24 hours.
No longer will the RAN dispatch a diver to place charges to dispose of mines unless absolutely necessary. That will be the job of the Sonartech Atlas Seafox Expendable Mine Neutralisation System.
Seafox is a 40kg remote controlled by way of fibre optic cable, mini-torpedo equipped with a camera and steered to the mine by an on-ship operator. Once close, the operator detonates a shaped charge which destroys the target mine and also Seafox. This is effective against bottom, tethered and floating mines, as well as historic mines of which many are still out there from wars past.
As well the RAN is acquiring a pair of 37-kilogram REMUS 100 UUVs through Project SEA 1770 Phase 1 for the task of rapid environmental assessment. That gives a deployed force the capability to conduct a speedy hydrographic survey of an unfamiliar port or proposed beach landing site, checking for obstacles or obstructions.
In such a rapidly-developing domain, there’s plenty more of interest to the RAN.
With vast areas of ocean to watch, a persistent long-endurance USV would be most useful for a whole range of tasks including observing for refugee boat arrivals and illegal fishers, reporting on weather and ocean conditions, and even serving as a mobile sensor for anti-submarine operations.
Such a vessel could be the Australian-made Ocius Bluebottle, or the Boeing Liquid Robotics Wave Glider. The Bluebottle is a six-metre vessel which uses a rigid adjustable sail to assist with propulsion, along with a flipper system which harvests wave energy. The sail carries photo-voltaic cells which provide power to batteries for its mission systems.
This all gives Bluebottle near indefinite endurance, limited only by the build-up of marine life. “Bluebottles have more power, payload and performance in the one USV than any known persistent USV,” a company statement reads.
The Wave Glider is a three-metre surfboard-like surface vessel attached to a 2.2 metre submerged glider by an eight-metre rigid tether. Movement of the glider up and down according to ocean swells provides forward propulsion. In 2013, Liquid Robotics won the Guinness World Record for the longest journey by an autonomous unmanned surface vessel with a 14,703 kilometre voyage from San Francisco to Bundaberg in just over a year.
While the RAN currently has no stated requirement for an armed USV, it is keeping watch on emerging capabilities. One is the Israeli Elbit Seagull, a 12-metre vessel with ability to operate for up to four days, in a variety of mission configurations, including harbour security, electronic warfare, mine detection and disposal, and anti-submarine warfare for which it can be equipped with a pair of torpedoes.
The applications for USV extend to Australian land forces. In 2017 the Army ordered three Teledyne OceanScience Z-Boats to support riverine operations, including by Special Forces. These small remotely-operated USVs provide rapid survey of waterways.
And while Australia is upgrading its Collins class submarines and planning is well underway for the follow-on Attack class, one capability under consideration is a submarine-launched AUV. The operational concept would appear to be akin the RAAF’s Loyal Wingman, with the AUV patrolling ahead of or to the flank of the sub.
There are a number of contenders, among them the in-service Bluefin 12 and its larger Bluefin 21 sibling. The Bluefin 21 is a large 750kg AUV capable of staying submerged for more than a day and reaching depths of more than 12,000 feet. It can be equipped with different sensors including a camera, sonar and ocean bottom profiler, and navigates by an onboard inertial navigation system.
A Bluefin 21 operated by civilian marine services company Phoenix International participated in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, accumulating 370 hours search time and, on one mission reaching a depth of almost 14,000 feet.
There are other large AUVs with different missions. Saab’s AUV-62 can be configured for realistic ASW training, mimicking a real submarine for training of ASW operators at substantially less cost than using a real submarine.
The US Navy, Royal Navy, Royal Canadian and Royal Netherlands Navies all operate REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring Units) AUVs, which have seen considerable operational service, particularly in mine hunting configuration. The largest is REMUS 6000 which can reach a depth of nearly 20,000 feet.
A REMUS 6000 AUV operated from the research vessel RV Petrel discovered the wrecks of USS Lexington and USS Indianapolis, both sunk during WW2. In US Navy service, the mid-sized REMUS 600 is designated as the Mark 18 Mod 2 Kingfish, and has been used for mine-hunting in the Persian Gulf.
Kingfish is a versatile AUV capability which can be deployed from small boats, the USN’s Littoral Combat Ship and even helicopters. REMUS AUVs were developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute with later models manufactured by a subsidiary of Norway’s KONGSBERG.
Australia has a very good understanding of this type of technology through a couple of important activities – the Unmanned Warrior exercise in Scotland in 2016 (UW16), and Autonomous Warrior (AW18) run by the RAN in Jervis Bay last year.
CMDR Hornsby led the Australian team to Scotland and then directed AW18, a Five Eyes and multinational activity which also involved Australian and overseas companies and institutions. That effort directly involved more than 600 people each day from 26 different organisations and 47 companies, with 77 platforms and systems.
Also involved were the Defence and Civil Aviation Safety Authorities (CASA) and Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), all with a strong interest in the growing operation of unmanned systems in their domains.
The Jervis Bay Marine Park Authority took an interest and was apparently delighted that all those USV and UUVs successfully operating around the bay with minimal environmental footprints, and produced a vast amount of real-time data about the bay environment.
“It was the first truly joint autonomous exercise conducted by western allies that involved all domains – air, surface, sub-surface, ground and cyber,” CMDR Hornsby said. “Autonomous Warrior was a unique allied activity that combined leading-edge trials, industry demonstration and exercising in-service robotic and autonomous systems.
“In Scotland we were demonstrating the utility of systems, and in AW18 we were demonstrating how they combine together,” he added. “We ran connected scenarios for the first time, and we tested in tougher Australian conditions in a diminished communications environment. AW18 was seen as the climax of six years of international trials and research. We met all our military, scientific and industry and strategic objectives, in many cases exceeding them.”
AW18 featured a variety of scenarios including counter piracy, counter smuggling, base defence, base attack, critical infrastructure defence, and mine clearance. CMDR Hornsby said at the core was the application of near real-time development of command and control and AI systems.
“One of the things we were most pleased about was the ability to integrate quickly,” he said. “Another success was the collaboration it developed between Australian SMEs and large international primes. This has been a true benefit.”
In closing, CMDR Hornsby said the trial wasn’t just about the capability of particular systems. “It’s about how you use them and how they perform,” he said. “We are genuinely the leader in many niche areas of robotic and autonomous systems and AI.
“That was one of the things we learned from AW18. Australia’s industry and academic capabilities are further ahead than we thought they were.”
This article featured in the Sep-Oct 19′ issue of ADBR