Unmanned Marine Systems Take Center Stage in Key Demonstration Exercises in 2022
During the first two decades of the 21st century, due to the exigencies of land wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, there was a rapid acceleration in the development and deployment of unmanned aerial systems and unmanned ground systems.
Today, in an era of heighted power competition, unmanned maritime systems have begun to take center stage, and are now clearly on a development path to full integration. Like their air and ground counterparts, these unmanned maritime systems are highly valued because of their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies.
PUBLIC POLICY PLEDGES
The U.S. Navy has been investing in unmanned maritime systems for many years and recently, in official documents, Congressional testimony, and speeches, Navy officials have signaled a desire to hasten this development. In March 2021, the Navy released its UNMANNED Campaign Framework to set out how it intended to use unmanned systems—of all denominations—in the conflicts of tomorrow.
Still, all of this was without a great deal of specificity and showed little more than an intention to harness this new technology. That changed dramatically in July of this year when the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, released his Navigation Plan 2022. By publishing this document, he put a stake in the ground in announcing that the Navy of the future would be a “hybrid fleet” comprised of 500 vessels, including 350 crewed ships and 150 unmanned maritime vessels.
This is a sea change in Navy force structure plans that is without precedent in recent history and promises to have profound implications for the U.S. Navy over the coming decades. While not broadcast as explicitly as the U.S Navy CNO‘s Navigation Plan 2022, other nations have been leaning heavily into increasing the number of unmanned maritime systems in their fleets.
U.S. TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATIONS
What has given impetus to these plans in many navies has been an ongoing series of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations in which unmanned maritime systems have successfully performed an increasingly ambitious and complex series of missions, leading to greater confidence among parties that deem them instrumental to future at-sea missions.
Column space does not allow for a full cataloging of all these events over the past several years. That said, two that stand out as exemplars for international cooperation in the development of unmanned maritime systems are International Maritime Exercise 2022 and Autonomous Warrior 2022. Both exercises advanced the science and the art of speeding efforts to make these emerging technologies part of the operational “kit” of several navies.
International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 22), held under the auspices of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Commander Task Force 59 in the Arabian Gulf, focused on the integration of manned and unmanned vessels and included operations with a number of regional partners. Navies and Coast Guards of these nations worked to fully explore the capabilities of unmanned systems such as the Saildrone, the MARTAC MANTAS and Devil Ray, and many other USVs from participating nations.
This is how the Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander U.S. Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, described the exercise: “Sixty nations are participating. Ten of those nations are bringing unmanned platforms. It is the largest unmanned exercise in the world…We’re taking off-the-shelf emerging technology in unmanned, coupling with artificial intelligence and machine learning, in really moving at pace to bring new capabilities to the region.”
What is noteworthy about CTF-59 operations in the Arabian Gulf is the fact that IMX22 was not a “one-off.” Rather, manned-unmanned integration operations in the Arabian Gulf continue, with plans for IMX23 and beyond.
Soon after IMX22, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) began Exercise Autonomous Warrior 2022 (AW22). This Royal Australian Navy-led, two-week exercise was built around a simulated, next generation naval battlespace. Its purpose was to test and evaluate uncrewed, robotic, and autonomous systems in Jervis Bay, in the nearby East Australian Exercise Area, and the skies above.
Part of the impetus for AW22 was the Australian government’s Robotics Roadmap which called for the ADF to cross-leverage robotic systems and AI. The report noted: “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, subsurface, space and cyber domains.”
AW22 participants included Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and featured a total of thirty autonomous systems. The unmanned surface vehicles that were part of this two-week exercise included the Saildrone, MANTAS, and Devil Ray featured in IMX 22, the Atlas Elektronik ARCIMS, the Elbit Systems Australia SEAGULL, and the Ocius Bluebottle.
AW22 showed the value of common hull, mechanical and electrical systems (HME) that the U.S. Congress is keen to ensure that the U.S. Navy takes into account when it designs and procures unmanned maritime systems. One demonstration features the 12-foot MANTAS being carried by the 38-foot Devil Ray, something made possible due to their common HME systems.
Looking ahead to 2023, world navies are keen to bring both commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned maritime systems, as well as other USVs in various stages of development, not only to demonstrate their own capabilities, but to also learn best practices by observing the operations of unmanned maritime systems of other nations. These efforts are virtually certain to accelerate the development of these USVs, and for the U.S. Navy, advance their goal of a 500-ship Navy.
To read the full article, which was featured in ON&T October 2022, click here.