The Navy has recently conducted the Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 (USIBP21). Supposedly, this is part of the return of the famous Fleet Problem exercises conducted in the 1920’s and 1930’s, prior to WWII and which proved so prescient and vital to the conduct of the war in the Pacific. The Navy has loudly and proudly trumpeted the return of the fleet battle problems. Let’s take a look at USIBP21.
The entire focus of USIBP21 was integrating manned and unmanned assets and it appears to have been a phenomenal success, accomplishing a never before achieved linkage between an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and a remote ship in order to direct the ship’s firing.
Using a blend of information from unmanned and manned ships and aircraft, a guided-missile destroyer launched an anti-surface missile from over-the-horizon to hit a target more than 250 miles away without using active sensors as part of the Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21, Navy officials said on Monday. (2)
The unmanned MQ-9B Sea Guardian operated in conjunction with a guided-missile cruiser, executing long-range, over-the-horizon targeting. Using sonobuoys and other assets, the Sea Guardian identified contacts and reported locations remotely to the commander on board the cruiser. (1)
Outstanding! An unmanned vehicle provided targeting data to a remote ship?! Wow!
“This was an important step in moving the ball down the field to getting unmanned plugged into that targeting solution,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Maritime Headquarters director Rear Adm. Robert Gaucher told reporters. (2)
You moved the ball big time, Admiral. Getting an unmanned vehicle to provide targeting information is the stuff of dreams. It’s science fiction brought to life! This should be front page news around the world and rightly so.
How amazing and transformative is this new technology?
"The integration between unmanned and manned capabilities shown today provides an operations approach to strengthening our manned-unmanned teaming," said Rear Adm. James A. Aiken, UxS IBP 21 tactical commander. "Putting our newest technology into our Sailors' hands directly enhances our fleet." (1)
An enhanced fleet! Outstanding! But wait, it’s even more impressive than that!
The test also shows how the lethal radius of a surface-launched missile could expand well beyond a ship’s radar range, which is limited by the curvature of the Earth. (2)
Shooting a missile beyond the horizon?! Wow! Who comes up with these breakthroughs?!
Was it hard to do?
“It was really complex… We teamed manned and unmanned vessels together. We also used the fusing capability that we’re doing some experimentation on. It was totally passive where we didn’t have active sensors on target,” Aiken said.
“We also look for space as well to actually identify the target and then once we found the target, we were able to track it because of the [electromagnetic signal] that was coming off the target, develop lines of bearing, then launched the missile.” (2)
You developed the target’s location using lines of bearing?! A pure passive location technique? No radar? That’s so advanced it borders on magic!
Do we know any details about the conditions of the exercise?
The target was equipped with a small radar reflector and a repeater that put out an electromagnetic signal. The signal from the repeater was detectable by sensors on the uncrewed aircraft and manned and unmanned surface vessels, said Carrier Strike Group 3 commander Rear Adm. James Aiken during a Monday call with reporters. (2)
The amphibious ship USS Anchorage disgorged a barge simulating an enemy warship. The barge apparently carried emitters duplicating radios, radars and other electronics. The destroyer USS John Finn stood off over the horizon—exactly how far away is a secret—and initiated a hunt for the pretend enemy ship. (3)
UAVs and robot boats crisscrossed the ocean. To avoid detection, they kept their active sensors off. Instead, they used their passive electronic receivers to “listen” for the enemy’s own electronic emissions. (3)
The drones pinpointed the barge and passed the data to a satellite, which relayed it to John Finn. The destroyer fired an SM-6 missile. The $5-million missile—which can hit targets on the sea or in the air—struck the barge “well beyond the line of sight,” according to the Navy. (3)
So, the Navy floated a barge, as a simulator for a Chinese destroyer, and loaded it with emitters of various types to ensure plenty of radiated electromagnetic noise … and we were able to find it passively?
I’m running out of adjectives to describe just how amazing this feat was!
I’m going to pause to catch my breath for a moment and let the excitement die down. While I’m doing that, I’m going to jot down a few thoughts that the Navy’s exercise prompted in me.
Thought: Didn’t we have remote unmanned (UAV) targeting decades ago? I think we did! From the mid-1980’s until the mid-2000’s, the battleships used RQ-2 Pioneer UAVs to spot for their guns in Desert Storm and elsewhere. In fact, many Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a battleship UAV in a famous incident. See, “Battleship UAVs”.
Thought: Didn’t we develop beyond the horizon missiles decades ago in the form of Harpoon and Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile, among many others?
Thought: Haven’t submarines, surface ships, and aircraft routinely used passive target locating for many, many decades? In fact, it used to be called triangulation.
So, now that my initial euphoria has worn off, I’m left to wonder … what’s the new part of this exercise? You know, the part that hasn’t actually been done many decades ago?
In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if this near miraculous exercise might not have been all that miraculous?
Miracle UAV in USIBP21 … Oops! My Mistake. This is
the RQ-2 Pioneer UAV that provided passive targeting
for battleships several decades ago.
Further, now that I’m more calmly thinking about it, there is one glaring omission from all the descriptions of the miraculous achievements … an enemy force. One of the defining characteristics of the old Fleet Problems was the existence of an active, free-acting enemy force equal to the friendly force. So, where was the enemy force in this exercise? Where were the enemy SAMs and aircraft shooting down the Sea Guardian? Where were the enemy ships, aircraft, subs, and missiles attacking our ships while they leisurely worked to develop the enemy’s location using purely passive means? Where was the enemy back-tracking the Sea Guardian to its source and destroying the facilities and communication and control capabilities? Where was the enemy satellite surveillance that finds and attacks us since we seemed able to use satellites?
Without a free-acting, unconstrained, well equipped enemy force the exercise is just a live presentation of a sales brochure. Without an enemy, this exercise didn’t validate anything. It was just an animated PowerPoint presentation.
Why not make this a real battle problem? Instead of using a barge with noisemakers to simulate a Chinese destroyer, why not use a Burke? Let the Burke use its passive sensors to try to detect our sensor platforms and let the Burke ‘shoot’ them down if they can find them. Let the Burke use its helo and Fire Scout to conduct its own hunt for our cruiser and unmanned vehicles and destroy them, if they can. Let the Burke call on long range, long endurance UAVs, as China would, to search for our ships. Give the Burke a submarine to assist it. … … … Now you’ve got a real battle problem! Well, not really. The old battle problems involved huge portions of the entire fleet. This barely qualifies as a cruise around the harbor.
This was an insult to every real Fleet Problem from the pre-WWII era and an embarrassment to the Navy.
So, aside from over-the-top exultation, what was the Navy’s reaction?
“We need to move things into the hands of sailors and then let sailors use their ingenuity,” Aiken said last week. (2)
Hey, Admiral, here’s a wild thought … why don’t you have a half-assed idea of what to do with ‘things’ before you give them to the sailors and tell them what to do with them rather than wait and hope they can tell you what to do? If you’d like, Admiral, I’ll be happy to tell you what you can do with your things.
(1)Commander, “Unmanned aerial vehicle Sea Guardian operates with naval assets”, US Pacific Fleet website, posted 21-Apr-2021
(2)USNI News website, “Unmanned Systems, Passive Sensors Help USS John Finn Bullseye Target With SM-6”, Sam LaGrone, 26-Apr-2021,
(3)Forbes website, “Robots Hunted A Mock Chinese Ship—Then a U.S. Navy Destroyer Lobbed A $5 Million Missile At It”, David Axe, 28-Apr-2021,