ComNavOps has frequently pointed out the disconnect between the Navy’s dependence on UAVs for reconnaissance, surveillance, and targeting and the utter lack of survivability of UAVs over a modern, peer-contested battlefield.
For example, the Navy believes that individual ships with very short range sensor suites, like the LCS, will be able to conduct long range, anti-surface strikes using remote targeting provided by various slow, non-stealthy, non-maneuverable UAVs. Would we allow the Chinese to use such UAVs to target us? Of course not! We’d casually shoot them down at our leisure and yet we’re basing an entire distributed lethalilty concept on these UAVs.
I’ve stated repeatedly - and I guess I just did again! – that UAVs are not survivable over the modern battlefield. On the other hand, ComNavOps has also called for UAV carriers and vastly greater numbers of UAVs on various ships. This would seem to be a contradiction. Are UAVs useful on the modern battlefield or not?
The answer is yes – if we use them properly. In fact, not only are they potentially useful, I’ll go so far as to say they’re absolutely vital. All right, how do I reconcile my conflicting statements? Well, I’ve already given the answer – it’s in the numbers.
Individual UAVs are not survivable but – and this is the key “but” – large numbers of UAVs are.
Want to scout that area for expected enemy ships? Don’t send one UAV – it will get shot down before it can accomplish anything – send one or two dozen! The laws of probability ensure that at least some will survive long enough to accomplish the mission.
Of course, this implies that the UAVs have to be cheap enough that we don’t care about the attrition rate which will be hideous. Thus, the trend towards large UAVs like the MQ-4C Triton are a mistake. We want cheap, throwaway UAVs.
Unfortunately, cheap implies small which, in turn, implies limited range, endurance, and capability. Fortunately, numbers can largely offset those disadvantages.
We can compensate for limited capability (meaning, limited sensor range and field of view) by using more UAVs to cover the same area.
We can compensate for limited range and endurance by using the UAVs as one-way, throwaway assets which doubles their “range”. We don’t want to do this routinely but we shouldn’t hesitate to do so when the need arises.
We can also compensate for limited range by having the UAVs forward deployed instead of trying to operate them from some base far behind the lines. By forward deployed, I mean deployed on every ship so that they start out as close to the enemy or the area of interest as possible.
For example, a Burke or LCS with, say, 50 small, cheap UAVs can provide its own long range surveillance and situational awareness. Sure, when contact is made with the enemy we’ll lose dozens of UAVs but with enough of them we can maintain situational awareness and generate the targeting data we need.
Now, you understand my call for UAV carriers. These would be small, WWII escort size carriers or, perhaps, converted commercial cargo vessels with a minimal flight deck (it doesn’t require much deck space to launch and recover small UAVs) that would act as surveillance and targeting escort ships for surface groups.
We can accomplish surveillance and targeting with UAVs if we’re willing to accept the attrition. Hence, numbers matter.
There’s another aspect to UAV numbers and that is the “Terminator” scenario – you know, the Terminator movie with lethal, autonomous robots attacking each other and humans. Yes, Terminator – we’ve already crossed the line. Every major country has already fielded air, land, and sea robots that are armed and we’re giving them more and more autonomy regarding killing. Future wars will be fought with large numbers of robots indiscriminately shooting.
However, as yet, they lack true AI and, therefore, numbers will matter. The robots will be equally matched and the winner on the future battlefield will be the side with more robots. Hence, numbers matter.
The takeaway from this is that we need to focus our design efforts on smaller, significantly cheaper unmanned vehicles. For the Navy, this means small, cheap, expendable UAVs for surveillance and targeting in the near term. Longer term, cheap, armed UAV swarms are the next logical step. The Navy’s trend towards ultra-high end, sophisticated, ultra-capable UAVs is a mistake. They’ll wind up being just as expensive as manned aircraft, if not more so, and we’ll be unwilling to risk them which defeats their purpose.
Navy, it’s time to go small or go home!