Small Wars Journal

Time for a Strategic Shift in U.S. Military Unmanned Systems

Share this Post

Time for a Strategic Shift in U.S. Military Unmanned Systems

George Galdorisi

“I think I might agree with that, David. I mean, if what we something that’s going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything.”

                                                         -- William Roper

Director, Strategic Capabilities Office

Office of the Secretary of Defense

CBS 60 Minutes “The Coming Swarm”

January 8, 2017

In response to a question from David Martin:

“I’ve heard people say that autonomy is the biggest thing in military technology since nuclear weapons.”


A Strategic Perspective

The 21st Century has ushered in dramatic changes in world order, geopolitics and the way warfare is conducted. As the National Intelligence Council’s capstone publication, Global Trends: Paradox of Progress puts it:

The progress of the past decades is historic—connecting people, empowering individuals, groups, and states, and lifting a billion people out of poverty in the process. But this same progress also spawned shocks like the Arab Spring, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and the global rise of populist, anti-establishment politics. These shocks reveal how fragile the achievements have been, underscoring deep shifts in the global landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future.[i]

Global Trends: Paradox of Progress goes on to note that the next five years will see rising tensions within and between countries. Global growth will slow, just as increasingly complex global challenges impend. An ever-widening range of states, organizations, and empowered individuals will shape geopolitics. For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War. It will be much harder to cooperate internationally and govern in ways publics expect. Veto players will threaten to block collaboration at every turn. As a result, the chances of conflict will be higher in the years ahead than at any time in recent memory.

It is because of this turbulent environment that even as the wars in the Mideast and South Asia wind down, the United States remains engaged globally. One need only look at the recently issued National Security Strategy to see the wide-range of threats to the security and prosperity of United States.[ii] These threats range from high-end peer competitors such as China and Russia, to rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, to the ongoing threat of terrorism represented by such groups as ISIL. In a preview of the National Security Strategy at the Reagan National Defense Forum, National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, highlighted these threats and reconfirmed the previous administrations “4+1” strategy, naming the four nations (four contingencies) and ISIL (one condition) as urgent threats that the United States must deal with today.[iii]

The developments highlighted in Global Trends: Paradox of Progress as well as the National Security Strategy are echoed in the U.S. military’s future-looking publication, Joint Operating Environment 2035 otherwise known as the JOE.[iv] The subtitle of the JOE, which looks twenty years out to examine how the future will impact warfighting and the Joint Force is, “The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World.”  The JOE emphasizes that, even as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the U.S. military will be increasingly stressed through the remainder of this decade and beyond.

Unlike other strategic-level publications, the Joint Operating Environment 2035 has a section dedicated to technology. The report’s writers explained the importance of addressing technology this way:

The Joint Force will face a future technological landscape largely defined by accelerating technological change. The U.S. approach to high-technology warfare over the past two decades has encouraged the development of asymmetric, unconventional, irregular, and hybrid approaches by adversaries. Adversaries will continue to innovate by applying varying mixes of high and low technologies to frustrate U.S. interests and military forces.

By 2035, the United States will confront a range of competitors seeking to achieve technological parity in a number of key areas. The cumulative result will be a situation in which, in the words of former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, “Our forces face the very real possibility of arriving in a future combat theater and finding themselves facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that could turn our previous technological advantage on its head—where our armed forces no longer have uncontested theater access or unfettered operational freedom of maneuver.”[v]

It is clear that the U.S. intelligence community, the Executive Branch, as well as the U.S. military, recognize that the pace of change in world order is mirrored by the rapid changes in the technology ecosystem. Further, at the highest levels of the of the U.S. government, there is an acknowledgement that the technological advantage that the United States once enjoyed has eroded, and that the U.S. military can no longer dominate its adversaries with sheer technological superiority. Indeed, this recognition has been foreshadowed by several experts who write about the military and technology.

Technology as an Enabler

In his best-selling book, War Made New, military historian Max Boot notes, “My view is that technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution.”[vi] He supports his thesis with historical examples to show how technological-driven “Revolutions in Military Affairs” have transformed warfare and altered the course of history. Importantly, Boot points out the importance of technology in giving the nation that innovates and fields new military technology quickly a war-winning advantage.

The U.S. military has embraced a wave of technological change that has constituted a true revolution in the way that war is waged. As the pace of global technological change has accelerated, the United States has been especially adept at inserting new technology to pace the threat. As Bruce Berkowitz points out in The New Face of War:

Wartime experience suggests that the right technology, used intelligently, makes sheer numbers irrelevant.  The tipping point was the Gulf War in 1991.  When the war was over, the United States and its coalition partners had lost just 240 people.  Iraq suffered about 10,000 battle deaths, although no one will ever really be sure.  The difference was that the Americans could see at night, drive through the featureless desert without getting lost, and put a single smart bomb on target with a 90 percent probability.[vii]

While both books cited are over a decade old, what they say about technology remains on point regarding the ways that the U.S. military has embraced new tools. But as pointed out in the Joint Operating Environment 2035, as well as other high-level United States government, intelligence community and military publications, while the U.S. military has been adept at adopting new technologies for military use, this process has been under stress. There are a number of factors that have impeded the insertion of new technologies into the U.S. military, including the high operating tempo these forces have faced during the past fifteen years, budget pressures and the specter of sequestration, and the often-clunky military acquisition system. In spite of these pressures, the military services have found ways to embrace new technologies that promise to tilt the balance back toward United States advantage.

Today, one of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption by the U.S. military involves unmanned systems. In the past several decades, the U.S. military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has increased from only a handful to more than 10,000, while the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) has exploded from zero to more than 12,000. The use of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) is also growing, as USVs and UUVs are proving to be increasingly useful for a wide array of military applications. The expanding use of military unmanned systems (UxS) is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago.

The growing use of armed, unmanned systems is not only changing the face of modern warfare, but is also altering the process of decision-making in combat operations.  Indeed, it has been argued that the rise in drone warfare is changing the way we conceive of and define “warfare" itself. These systems have been used extensively in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to be equally relevant—if not more so—as the United States’ strategic focus shifts toward the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and the high-end warfare this strategy requires.[viii]

The Plan for Military Autonomous Systems

At the highest levels of U.S. policy and strategy documents, unmanned systems are featured as an important part of the way the Joint Force will fight in the future. The most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) notes, “Continuing a trend that began in the late 1990s, U.S. forces will increase the use and integration of unmanned systems.” Elsewhere in the QDR, unmanned systems are identified as: “Maintaining our ability to project power.” Importantly, the QDR highlights unmanned systems as a key part of the DoD’s commitment to innovation and adaptation.[ix]

The U.S. Department of Defense’s vision for unmanned systems is to integrate these systems into the Joint Force for a number of reasons, but especially 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—especially their ability to operate autonomously.

Because unmanned systems are used by all the military services, the Department of Defense publishes a roadmap to provide an overarching vision for the military’s use of unmanned systems. The most recent roadmap, the FY 2013-2038 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, singled out the need for enhanced UxS autonomy, noting, “DoD envisions unmanned systems seamlessly operating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision making required for the unmanned portion of the force structure.”[x]

As the QDR and Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap both note, unmanned systems are especially important assets in those areas where the U.S. military faces a peer competitor with robust defenses. The Joint Operational Access Concept identifies, “Unmanned systems, which could loiter to provide intelligence collection or fires in the objective area,” as a key capability that is especially valuable in areas where an adversary has substantial defenses that can limit access of U.S. and coalition forces.[xi] And unmanned systems are a key component in executing the United States AirSea Battle Concept (now re-branded as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, or JAM-GC) in high threat areas such as the Western Pacific, where adversary defensive systems pose an unacceptably high risk to manned aircraft and surface platforms.

Mirroring the DoD’s emphasis on unmanned systems, in 2015 the U.S. Navy established a Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems (DASN UxS) to provide stewardship for this important technology that cuts across all of the Navy’s varied communities. Under the leadership of retired Marine Corps General Frank Kelley, the DASN UxS office is evolving a Department of the Navy Strategic Roadmap for Unmanned Systems to provide overarching policy guidance for the Navy and Marine Corps unmanned systems enterprise.

The Department of the Navy Commitment to Unmanned Systems

The U.S. Navy has a rich history of UxS development. During the early years of the last century, the Navy and the Army worked together to attempt to develop unmanned aerial torpedoes. But this was a bridge-too-far given the state of technology during those years, and the project was ultimately abandoned. Other attempts to introduce unmanned systems into the Navy and Marine Corps occurred in fits and starts throughout the first half of the last century, but these met with limited success.

As the United States became involved in the Vietnam War during the early 1960s, the Navy renewed its efforts to find a way to field unmanned systems to meet urgent operational needs. At that time, all sea-based aviation was concentrated on the decks of Navy aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious assault ships. Surface combatants—cruisers, destroyers and frigates—had no air assets at their disposal.

The solution was to adapt a technology that had been in development since the late 1950s to field the QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter).  In April 1958 the Navy awarded Gyrodyne Company a contract to modify its RON-1 Rotorcycle, a small two coaxial rotors helicopter, to explore its use as a remote-controlled drone capable of operating from the decks of small ships.  The Navy initially bought nine QH-50A and three QH-50B drone helicopters.  By 1963 the Navy approved large-scale production of the QH-60C, with the ultimate goal of putting these DASH units on all its 240 FRAM-I and FRAM-II destroyers. 

In January 1965 the Navy began to use the QH-50D as a reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle in Vietnam.  Equipped with a real-time TV camera, a film camera, a transponder for better radar tracking, and a telemetry feedback link to inform the remote control operator of drone responses to his commands, the QH-50D began to fly “SNOOPY” missions from destroyers off the Vietnamese coast.  These missions had the purpose of providing over-the-horizon target data to the destroyer’s five-inch batteries.  Additionally, DASH was outfitted with ASW torpedoes to deal with the rapidly growing Soviet submarine menace, the idea being that DASH would attack the submarine with Mk-44 homing torpedoes or Mk-57 nuclear depth charges at a distance that exceeded the range of submarine’s torpedoes.

But by 1970, DASH operations ceased fleet-wide.  Although DASH was a sound concept, the Achilles heel of the system was the electronic remote control system.  The lack of feedback loop from the drone to the controller, as well as its low radar signature, accounted for 80% of all drone losses.  While apocryphal to the point to being a bit of an urban legend, it was often said the most common call on the Navy Fleet’s 1MC general announcing systems during the DASH-era was, “DASH Officer, Bridge,” when the unfortunate officer controlling the DASH was called to account for why “his” system had failed to return to the ship and crashed into the water.

Compared to today’s technologies used to control unmanned systems, the technology of the 50s, 60s and even the 70s was primitive at best.  In many cases, what was being attempted with drones was, literally, a bridge too far. After the Vietnam War, the Navy continued to experiment with unmanned systems. In the 1980s, I was involved with testing Pioneer unmanned aircraft launched and recovered from USS New Orleans (LPH-11). Sadly, the technology was still primitive, and we lost two of the three Pioneer unmanned aircraft we took to sea during a one-week test event.

By the turn of the century, the technology to control unmanned systems had finally matured to the point that the U.S. Navy believed it could successfully field unmanned systems in all domains—air, surface, and subsurface—to meet a wide variety of operational needs. As with many disruptive and innovative ideas, the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group (CNO SSG) was tasked to attempt to determine the feasibility of introducing unmanned systems into the Navy inventory.

The 28th CNO SSG spent one year examining this issue, and its report spurred increased interest in—and emphasis on—unmanned systems Navy-wide.  Leveraging the SSG’s work, recent Navy focus has emphasized the need to enhance UxS command and control (C2) capabilities to allow one sailor to control multiple systems in an attempt to lower Total Ownership Costs of unmanned systems. This link between increased autonomy and decreased TOC has become an important theme in Navy UxS development.

Clearly, the Navy’s leadership is committed to unmanned systems. The former-Chief of Naval Operations Sailing Directions noted, “Over the next 10 to 15 years…unmanned systems in the air and water will employ greater autonomy and be fully integrated with their manned counterparts.”[xii]  The bright future for unmanned systems in the U.S. Navy was highlighted in an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings where Admiral Jonathan Greenert noted that payloads, including unmanned systems, will increasingly become more important than platforms themselves.[xiii]

More recently, the importance of unmanned systems to the U.S. Navy’s future has been emphasized in a series of documents, ranging from the revised A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, to A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, to the May 2017 Chief of Naval Operations The Future Navy white paper. The latter document presents a compelling case for the rapid integration of unmanned systems into the Navy Fleet, noting, in part:

There is no question that unmanned systems must also be an integral part of the future fleet. The advantages such systems offer are even greater when they incorporate autonomy and machine learning…Shifting more heavily to unmanned surface, undersea, and aircraft will help us to further drive down unit costs.[xiv]

The U.S. Navy’s commitment to—and dependence on—unmanned systems is also seen in the Navy’s official Force Structure Assessment of December 2016, as well as in a series of “Future Fleet Architecture Studies.”[xv] In each of these studies: one by the Chief of Naval Operations Staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the proposed Navy future fleet architecture had large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems as part of the Navy force structure.[xvi] Indeed, these reports highlight the fact that the attributes that unmanned systems can bring to the U.S. Navy Fleet circa 2030 have the potential to be truly transformational.

The Department of the Navy has recently established goals for Navy and Marine Corps unmanned systems development. In a January 11, 2018 memorandum, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, Mr. James Geurts, highlighted the importance of unmanned systems, noting in his cover letter:

The United States Navy and Marine Corps have a strategic imperative to exploit emergent and rapidly developing unmanned and autonomous technologies. In order to accelerate the development and fielding of unmanned systems and to ensure an integrated and efficient effort, the Department of the Navy (DON) has established aggressive goals for the acceleration of the DON’s unmanned systems and to ensure the DON remains at the forefront of these emergent capabilities.[xvii]

Testing and Evaluating Unmanned Surface Vehicles

From a policy perspective, the Department of the Navy has decided that it is “full speed ahead” on unmanned systems. The number of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned vehicles envisioned in the Navy alternative architecture studies represents not only a step-increase in the number of unmanned systems in the Fleet today, but also vastly more unmanned systems than current Navy plans call for.

This is a positive sign. However, it is one thing to state the aspiration for more unmanned systems in the Navy fleet and Marine Corps forces, and quite another to develop and deploy them. And as with many novel naval technologies: ironclads, submarines, aircraft, amphibious ships, nuclear power, directed-energy weapons, as well as others, is it not the most prominent communities where this experimentation takes place, but rather, in those parts of the Navy and Marine Corps that have traditionally been out of spotlight and who need a technology boost. Today, it is naval expeditionary forces—the amphibious assault Navy—that have been proactive in experimenting with emerging unmanned systems.

The Navy and Marine Corps have a number of ways to test and evaluate unmanned maritime systems. While some of this testing and evaluating—especially in the early stages of unmanned maritime systems development—occurs at industry facilities or at U.S. Navy laboratories, once these systems are more mature, they are fielded in a wide-array of Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations in the operational environment where they will ultimately be used.

As the Department of the Navy has become increasingly interested in unmanned maritime systems for the reasons cited above, this testing and evaluating has accelerated in a number of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, such as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment, the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral demonstration, the Citadel Protect homeland security exercise, Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, Military Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration (MOTS CD), and the Navy-Marine Corps Bold Alligator 2017 exercise, among others.

The Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise is a prime example of the Department of the Navy’s push to test and evaluate unmanned maritime systems. The S2ME2 ANTX demonstration featured over one thousand participants from over forty organizations, including Navy and Marine Corps operational units, government R&D labs, industry and academia.

S2ME2 ANTX provided a unique opportunity to demonstrate emerging technology and engineering innovations that could be used to address priority Navy and Marine Corps missions. The experiment featured fifty-two dynamic systems and twenty-nine static displays in all-domains: surface, subsurface, air, ground, space and electromagnetic.

S2ME2 ANTX was especially important to the Navy and Marine Corps as the amphibious ship-to-shore mission is one of the most challenging tasks the military must undertake. Indeed, this mission has become more demanding as peer, near-peer, and other potential adversaries have invested in capabilities that enable them to effectively oppose a landing force.

A key objective of this two-week effort was to evaluate and prioritize key capabilities for 21st Century Ship-to Shore-Maneuver. The most promising technologies will be featured in upcoming Fleet exercises and other technology demonstrations including RIMPAC 2018, Valiant Shield 2018, Talisman Saber 2018, Bold Alligator 2018 and Cobra Gold, among others.

This experiment focused specifically on exploring the operational impact of advanced unmanned maritime systems, autonomy, sensors, communications, and command and control systems on emerging amphibious raid and assault concepts of operations. All-in-all, the exercise conducted over three-hundred and fifty operational assessments. Many of the technologies demonstrated will be considered for future funding under the Marine Corps Rapid Prototyping, Experimentation and Demonstration (RPED) program.

Due to the enormous stakes involved in putting troops ashore in the face of a prepared enemy force, S2ME2 ANTX had a heavy focus on unmanned systems—especially unmanned surface systems—that could provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as well as intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). These are critical missions that have been traditionally been done by U.S. Sailors, Marines, and Special Operators, but ones that put these warfighters at extreme risk.

Indeed, there is growing realization of the need to insert new technology to make the amphibious assault force more effective in the face of robust adversary defenses. In an address at the 2018 Surface Navy Association Symposium, Marine Corps Major General David Coffman, Director of Expeditionary Warfare (OPNAV N95), noted the need to make U.S. Navy amphibious ships, “More viable, lethal and survivable, with a focus on command, control, communications, computers, cyber and intelligence (C5I).”[xviii] Clearly, the ISR and IPB missions depend on these capabilities, and it is unmanned systems that can provide this function without hazarding our personnel.

For the amphibious assault mission, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are useful–but are extremely vulnerable to enemy air defenses. Unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) are useful as well, but the underwater medium makes control of these assets at distance problematic. For these reasons, S2ME2 ANTX focused heavily on unmanned surface vehicles to conduct the critical ISR and IPB missions.

During the S2ME2 ANTX the amphibious assault force employed an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) proactively—even aggressively—to thwart enemy defenses. The man-portable MANTAS USV (an eight-foot version of a family of stealthy, low profile, USVs) swam into the “enemy” harbor (the Del Mar Boat Basin on the Southern California coast), and relayed information in real-time to the amphibious force command center using its TASKER C2 system. Subsequent to this ISR mission, the MANTAS USV was driven to the surf zone to provide IPB on water conditions, beach gradient, obstacle location and other information crucial to planners prior to a manned assault. 

Carly Jackson, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s director of prototyping for Information Warfare and one of the organizers of S2ME2, explained the key element of the exercise was to demonstrate new technology developed in rapid response to real world problems facing the fleet.

This is a relatively new construct where we use the Navy’s organic labs and warfare centers to bring together emerging technologies and innovation to solve a very specific fleet force fighting problem. It’s focused on ‘first wave’ and mainly focused on unmanned systems with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.[xix]

The CHIPS article goes on to discuss the technologies on display and in demonstration at the S2ME2 event, especially networked autonomous air and maritime vehicles and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies. The amphibious raid and assault missions are ones where ISR technologies that provide intelligence preparation of the battlespace are especially important.

As Tracy Conroy, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s experimentation director pointed out, “The innovative technology of unmanned vehicles offers a way to gather information that ultimately may help save lives. It’s given us eyes on the water, eyes under the water, eyes on the beach and in the sky. We take less of a risk of losing a Marine or Navy SEAL.”

In many ways, S2ME2 ANTX was a warm-up for, and precursor to, Bold Alligator (BA) 2017, the annual Navy-Marine Corps exercise designed to enhance interoperability in the littorals and across the maritime domain. Bold Alligator was a live, scenario-driven exercise designed to demonstrate maritime and amphibious force capabilities.[xx] BA 2017 focused on refreshing the practical and mechanical aspects of planning and conducting amphibious operations, as well as evaluating new technologies that support the expeditionary force.

While the scope Bold Alligator 2017 was modified because of U.S. and partner nation efforts in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the exercise incorporated amphibious, carrier strike group, air wing, and expeditionary mine countermeasures operations to provide a rigorous training environment for the combined forces.[xxi] The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) led the exercise and operated primarily from dock landing ships USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44); amphibious transport dock USS Arlington (LPD-24).

Bold Alligator 2017 took the concepts explored during S2ME2 to the next level, employing two different size (six-foot and twelve-foot) MANTAS USVs in the ISR and IPB roles to provide long-range littoral reconnaissance of “enemy” beaches and waterways. These systems were employed in early October 2017 during the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance (LRLR) phase of the exercise.

The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade used the larger (twelve-foot) MANTAS USV, equipped with a Gyro Stabilized SeaFLIR230 EO/IR Camera and a BlueView M900 Forward Looking Imaging Sonar to provide ISR and IPB for the amphibious assault. This sonar was employed to provide bottom imaging and analysis within the surf zone of the amphibious landing area. This latter capability is crucial in amphibious operations in order to ensure that a landing craft can successfully enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects.

While S2ME2 was confined to a relatively constrained operating area off the coast of Southern California, Bold Alligator 2017 was played out over a wide geographic area. This included a Command Center at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and operating units employing forces in a wide area of the Atlantic Ocean, North and South Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as well as in Mile Hammock Bay and Intracoastal Waterway near Camp Lejeune.

During the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance phase of Bold Alligator 2017, Navy and Marine Corps operators at Naval Station Norfolk were able to control both the six-foot and twelve-foot MANTAS USVs and drive them in the Intracoastal Waterway as well as off North and South Onslow Beaches. Once positioned, both MANTAS USVs streamed live, high-resolution video and sonar images to the command center at Naval Station Norfolk several hundred miles away.

The latter capability is crucial in amphibious operations in order to ensure that a landing or other craft could successfully navigate a waterway or enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects. Clearing a path for LCACs or LCUs to safely pass through the surf zone and onto the beach during an assault is a make-or-break factor for any amphibious operation. And having the ability to view these images in real-time enables decision makers not on-scene to make time-critical go/no go determinations. The value of providing commanders with real-time ISR and IPB is difficult to overstate, and it is likely that this capability will continue to be examined in other expeditionary exercises going forward.

Moving Forward with Unmanned Systems to Support Naval Expeditionary Forces

If my three tours with the U.S. Navy’s amphibious forces taught me anything, it was that the ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force was—and remains today—the most hazardous mission for any navy.  Real-time ISR and IPB will spell the difference between victory and defeat. For this reason, it seems to me that the types of unmanned systems the Department of the Navy should acquire are those systems that directly support naval expeditionary forces that must conduct forcible entry operations. This suggests a need for unmanned surface systems to complement our expeditionary naval formations represented by the amphibious assault navy.

For this to happen, the Department of Defense, as well as the Department of Navy, must change their funding priorities. Table 1 of the FY 2013-2038 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap presents the differences in funding between the various categories of unmanned systems in stark terms. Displaying year-by-year, as well as total funding, for unmanned systems across the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) from fiscal year 2014 to 2018 (the last years for which data was available for this report) the roadmap notes that funding for unmanned aerial systems totaled $21.699B, while funding for unmanned maritime systems totaled $1.960B.[xxii]

It is clear that the combination of their extensive use in the operational environment in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the robust funding stream described above, have spurred the fielding of highly capable unmanned aerial systems for Department of Defense as well as the Department of Navy, witness the RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-4C Triton, MQ-8 Fire Scout, MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, MQ-25 Stingray and others. Now with these programs launched—literally and figuratively—perhaps it is time to shift Department of Defense and Department of Navy priorities to unmanned maritime systems to support the naval expeditionary forces that will continue to steam into harm’s way in the 21st Century.

Finally, an important attribute for any unmanned asset thrust into the harsh maritime environment is that it is robust. The importance of this ruggedness was validated during S2ME2 ANTX and Bold Alligator 2017. Unmanned surface vehicles such as United Kingdom’s Pacific Class 950 Unmanned Rigid Inflatable Boat, the U.S. MANTAS family of USVs, Australia’s Bonefish USV, and others are good candidates to be part of upcoming events where unmanned surface systems are evaluated. The success of future expeditionary operations may well be dependent on how rapidly USVs are integrated into naval forces. Indeed, USVs might well be the bridge to the Navy-after-Next.

End Notes

[i] Global Trends: Paradox of Progress (Washington, D.C.: National Intelligence Council, 2017), accessed at:

[ii] National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: The White House, December 2017) accessed at:

[iii] There are many summaries of this important national security event. For one of the most comprehensive, see Jerry Hendrix, “Little Peace, and Our Strength is Ebbing: A Report from the Reagan National Defense Forum,” National Review, December 4, 2017, accessed at:

[iv] Joint Operating Environment 2035 The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World (Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2016), accessed at:

[v] Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, Remarks to the National Defense University Convocation (August 5, 2014). 

[vi] Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History 1500 to Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2006). Boot does not present technology as the only element determining victory or defeat, giving full acknowledgement to a host of other factors, from geography, to demography, to economics, to culture, to leadership.  However, he is firm in his contention of technology’s huge impact, noting: “Some analysts may discount the importance of technology in determining the outcome of battles, but there is no denying the central importance of advanced weaponry in the rise of the West…The way to gain military advantage, therefore, is not necessarily to be the first to produce a new tool or weapon.  Often it is to figure out better than anyone else how to utilize a widely available tool or weapon.”

[vii] Bruce Berkowitz, The New Face of War: How War Will be Fought in the 21st Century (New York: The Free Press, 2003).  Berkowitz does not restrict his examples to just one conflict, noting further: “The same thing happened when the United States fought Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.  Each time experts feared the worst; each time U.S. forces won a lopsided victory.”

[viii] For some of the best work regarding unmanned systems, See, for example, Peter Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, William Arkin, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015), and Bradley Strawser and Jeff McMahan, Killing By Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military  (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[ix] Quadrennial Defense Review (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2014).

[x] FY 2013-2038 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2013).

[xi] Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, January 2012). 

[xii] Jonathan Greenert, Sailing Directions, accessed at:

[xiii] Jonathan Greenert, “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2011 and Jonathan Greenert, “Payloads Over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, July 2012.

[xiv] The Future Navy (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, May 2017) accessed at:

[xv] See, for example, “Document, Summary of the Navy’s New Force Structure Assessment,” USNI News, December 16, 2016 (updated April 6, 2017) accessed at:, for an executive summary of this document.

[xvi] See, for example, Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, October 27, 2016, MITRE, Navy Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, July 1, 2016, and CSBA, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, January 23, 2017.

[xvii] Department of the Navy Unmanned Systems Goals (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, January 11, 2018).

[xviii] Meagan Eckstein, “Navy, Marines Eyeing Ship Capability Upgrade Plans that Focus on Weapons, C5I,” USNI News, January 17, 2018, accessed at:

[xix] Patric Petrie, “Navy Lab Demonstrates High-Tech Solutions in Response to Real-World Challenges at ANTX17,” CHIPS Magazine Online, May 5, 2017, accessed at

[xx] Information on Bold Alligator 2017 is available on the U.S. Navy website at:

[xxi] Phone interview with Lieutenant Commander Wisbeck, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, Public Affairs Office, November 28, 2017.

[xxii] FY 2013-2038 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, p. 17. The roadmap breaks out funding for each category of unmanned system into RDT&E, Procurement, and Operations and Maintenance.


About the Author(s)

George Galdorisi is Director for Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures at SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific.  Prior to joining SSC Pacific, he completed a 30-year career as a naval aviator, culminating in 14 years of consecutive experience as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff; including command of HSL-43, the Navy’s first operational LAMPS Mk III squadron, HSL-41, the LAMPS Mk III Fleet Replacement Squadron, USS Cleveland (LPD-7), and Amphibious Squadron Seven.  His last operational assignment spanned five years as Chief of Staff for Cruiser-Destroyer Group Three, during which he made deployments to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf embarked in the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln.  He is a 1970 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy and holds a Masters Degree in Oceanography from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of San Diego.