Friday, May 7, 2021

Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21

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,


  1. Why do we have a US Pacific Fleet Maritime Headquarters and what does it do that requires a Rear Admiral to head it up?

    1. I think having a RADM billet is the purpose of its existence...

  2. He is in charge of the Rust Evaluation Metrics Fleet report.
    In the USN these days that is a fast growing job.
    REMFs are the key to fleet. (according to this power point that just showed up)

  3. "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?"

    Reminds me of the report one reason the USS John S. McCain was hit, was because the ship's touchscreen controls were confusing to operate, preventing the crew from maneuvering the ship out of the incoming container ship's way. If that's what happened with just the helm, I shudder to think what'll happen with the weapons systems.

    Hope the USN debugs everything before the US gets into another war, lest the ships end up with reputations as black as the M16's when it was rushed into service.

  4. "Why not make this a real battle problem?" Because then failures would be noticed and we cannot have that even if it mans our wartime readiness is improved.

  5. I was reading the various articles about the exercise and was waiting for your thoughts CNO!!! I had the same takeaway, in that it was again an overly scripted and unbalanced "exercise"... I think we'd do well to take our less-than-perfect-record, hard drinking, aggressive sailors and put them in charge of the "red" team. Award them and promote them for shooting holes in the new tech and doctrines and winning, even by "cheating".
    As far as the hardware side of this exercise, you're right. The newness of what they've done, really isnt. And of course firing a single uncontested missile doesnt prove or validate much. And certainly not in an uncontested EM environment... To be fair, you have to start somewhere, but until the exercise is successful against a dilligent and unrestrained "red" team, it doesn't have much value...

  6. So just this morning, this comes out, not even sure its a real article or a sponsored one, probably doesn't matter! Sure looks to me this is a lot more about just buying what ever contractors are pushing with just a veneer of utility or some buzz word like unmanned to justify it to Congress. This "exercise" really isn't about utility to the navy, its just a justification to buy some useless crap.

    1. I saw no mention of jamming and other electronic warfare technology and tactics being tested in this exercise.

      China is developing the J-15D, its own EF-18G Growler analogue. The Soviets had the Su-24MP, their EF-111A Raven analogue, and I'm sure the Russians are frantically developing a replacement.

      What good will these unmanned systems be if enemy electronic warfare prevents these systems from informing us where the enemy is, and us from ordering these systems to open fire? Did the USN have a Growler unit serve as OPFOR in an exercise, to test these unmanned systems and ensure such a scenario won't come to play? Suddenly shutoff an unmanned systems control station's generator, to test whatever safety systems the unmanned systems have in place if contact was lost due to equipment malfunction, electrical storms and other vagaries of nature, or even enemy attack?

      I bet the USN didn't. US service members will pay for their commanders' oversight, if and when we get into another war.

    2. No reason for a big yard if its not a bug ship. This is all about cutting the opportunitt out for the little guy.

  7. When I first saw this exercise, I was so happy that they intend to emulate or learn from the past like everyone has been telling them to. But seeing the actual exercise, I wonder if they learn anything but slapping on the name and call it a day.

    This is such a disssapointing exercise that wargame might constitutes a more realistic condition. Cause at least, we have an active enemy force. If this constitutes as actual combat conditions (an inactive barge with ECMs???) then we must believe that the enemy doesn't have a vote because we didn't even assign them one. Maybe the Admiral should play some multi-player war video games, cause then he will be reminded of how scary a ruthless and destructive enemy force would look like.

  8. Due to earth's curvature, radar range of detecting other ships from a ship's vast, manned or unmanned is limited (max ~25 miles). This is one reason that Navy needs to fly E-2 7/24 to detect missiles fly low. Really, use drones are much more effective than unmanned surface vessels to do reconnaissance.

    Include US, several nations are developing drone to fly with advanced fighter jets as a way to fight others' stealth jet. The concept is to fly drone ahead of a fighter jet to find out stealthy fighters (they can only be detected in a short distance by conventional radars). Current challenge is that no drone is yet meet the requirement (can fly fast while maneuver as parent fighter).

    Therefore, for Navy, fly drones are much better than unmanned surface ships. On the other hand, unmanned submarines worth further development. Because sea water is conductive, communicate with underwater objects is a common difficult among nations.

    1. "On the other hand, unmanned submarines worth further development."


  9. The 20s/30s fleet problems confirmed the US Navy was number one by far.

    What will be our Mark 14/15 torpedo as we lose the upcoming war with China?

    Who is our Admiral Ghormley?

  10. Basically, this was a game of hide-and-seek with the hiding party telling you where it was hiding.

  11. Why don't we just divide the fleet in half, let them go after each other (with simulated bombs or bullets or missiles, of course) and see who wins?

    1. That's the SMART thing to do. Sadly, it seems anyone who's smart was purged from the USN, for supporting the "wrong side" or opposing the "right side"- how else do we explain why dozens of LCSs was accepted into service?

    2. "Why don't we just divide the fleet in half, let them go after each other"

      While that would be a vast improvement over what we're doing now - which is nothing useful - it would be unproductive. The purpose of a Fleet Problem has been to explore and test doctrine and tactics that we anticipate using in an actual, specific war. Just 'going after each other' does not test our specific doctrine and tactics. A Fleet Problem also has a red force that attempts to fight as the specific anticipated enemy would. Again, just 'going after each other' wouldn't provide that experience against enemy doctrine and tactics.

      "and see who wins?"

      We don't care which half of the fleet 'wins'. We care about evaluating the doctrine and tactics we plan to use against a specific enemy.

    3. Sorry, didn't go into enough detail. The idea would be one side ("BLUE") using our doctrine and tactics, and one side ("RED") using the doctrine and tactics we would expect from an enemy (China? Russia?) and the area selected for the exercise should bear at least some resemblance to the area where we would expect to engage them.

      And the first time around, if we let the play go on without imposing unrealistic limits, I would expect it wouldn't go all that well for BLUE. But we take the results and learn from them (presumably keeping the results pretty highly classified, particularly if things do go badly for BLUE).

      That's the way that I understand that the Fleet Problems went, and that's the way I understand that the Brits did Springtrain, which are the two exercises I know about.

    4. That's about right. Interestingly, the old Fleet Problems also explored the enemy's operations and tactics by having the red force attack and letting blue defend to see how we could counter the enemy's actions. One of the Fleet Problems did this and remarkably well simulated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and it did not go well for us in either the exercise (as I recall) or the real thing! So, we not only need a War Plan China, we need an idea of what actions China will attempt so that we can learn how to counter them.

      While free play action is important, it can't just be haphazard. We have to have plans for both sides. Now, after battle is joined, we may find that those plans quickly get heavily modified but we need some goals, nonetheless. This means a degree of scripting but it has to be scripting at the upper level where objectives are established, not the lower level where tactics are implemented. The lower level needs to remain 'free' to a large degree.

  12. We are SO screwed!

    I hold out hope the wheel has a few more reinventions left in it before it gives up the ghost.

    1. The USN has become an oversized and overpriced Coast Guard, able to handle pirates and non-state actors, but I have no doubt it'll be CRUSHED in battle against Iran, to say nothing of Russia and China. The rot has thoroughly set in, and a thorough cleansing- firing the harebrained admirals whose pushed to adopt new technology WITHOUT first thoroughly testing and debugging it, saddling us with useless ships like the Zumwalt, LCS, Gerald R. Ford- will be necessary to "right the ship."

    2. Iran, really?? The USN is a mess, but short of totally playing by their rules and doing somthing ignorant like trying to park a fleet within sight of their shore, I dont see how they can "crush" much of anything. Even a half-savvy commander should be able to defang Iran in a week if given free reign without absurd ROEs!!! Russia has a ways to go before its a real threat to the USN again. China on the other hand, theyre more dangerous every passing day...

    3. I didn't say the Iranian NAVY would crush the USN, or that Russian NAVY ships would do so. If Iran saturated USN ships with surface or air-launched mussiles... If Russia reused the Soviet tactic of having bombers saturate a USN fleet with missiles- and with air-launched ballistic missiles to perform the aerial equivalent of a flanking attack, with sea-skimming missiles, the Russians have more options than their predecessors did.

    4. Let's maintain a degree of reality. Iran's entire military has zero ability to 'crush' the US Navy unless the Navy obligingly lines up within the short range of Iran's anti-ship cruise missiles (Noor and derivatives, themselves derivatives of Chinese C80x), completely foregoes surveillance and early warning, allows Iran unhindered and complete first strike, and employs no defensive measures. None of that is going to happen so Iran has no ability to 'crush' the US Navy. That's just reality.

      Similarly, the Russians have relatively few operational bombers and those they do are mostly leftovers from the Soviet era. Possibly a couple dozen bombers are actually flyable? Again, unless the US Navy decides to actively cooperate in their own destruction, Russia has no chance to 'crush' the Navy.

    5. The Iran "navy" is a joke, USN will no doubt have some embarrassing moments but you can't lose to speedboats and the like unless you're literally doing it on purpose.

      Of course, any attempt at occupying Iran would end as shamefully as the other Mideast fiascoes, but that's a different matter.

      Russia, well, as long as USN subs can still do their main job (ASW) it'll be fine as well.

      I hope no US leader is retarded enough to land inside Russia proper, for very obvious reasons.

    6. "But you can't lose to speedboats and the like unless you're literally doing it on purpose."

      The USN DID lose on purpose in certain wargames, to justify the littoral combat ship. I suspect some admiral is hoping we actually lose a destroyer to an Iranian speedboat flotilla, so the USN can get more LCSs.

  13. Mid to large size unmanned ships, I agree, is a stupid idea. Drones would be much more effective than these ships. Like marine, fleet commanders want more money than think the big picture. Therefore, you get bazar ideas. Something which you can do but other means are much better.

    Perhaps, we should learn from China to build a few amphibious assault ships with drones. From published bidding documents of China's type 076 amphibious assault ships, they will have two electromagnetic ejection lines. People estimate that they are mainly for drones than manned fighter jets. This because its speed is not fast enough (typical of amphibious assault ships, not carrier's 30+ knots) plus power it can supply to eject large fighters.

    If type 076, a new class of amphibious assault ship, populate with lots of drones for various tasks, these drones can do far more than unmanned surface ships, including anti-submarine as sonobuoys have no background noise like sonars mount on ships.

  14. You make fun of Iran, yet we've already seen our lost, weeping broke down sailors surrender to them, when we had them outgunned. Order to fire was given, the sailor at the gun threw his hands up and stepped back, 2 boats surrendered, and the Iranians have a monument to the incident in downtown tehran, and that's just historical fact, dress it up however you like or qualify it however you want, doesn't change history, does it. I fear we are in for a lot more history we will wish we could change. The winner, unfortunately, gets to tell the story, it's kind of how history works. The victor gets to write the history.No one reads Carthaginian accounts of the Punic wars....


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