ComNavOps has railed against unmanned vehicles, at least as the Navy envisions them, but is there an unmanned future that might make sense? I do actually see a future for unmanned combat but not the way the Navy is going about it. Let’s do a fictional exploration of the unmanned future done the right way.
By the way, here’s a couple of previous posts on the subject:
Here’s a story describing a different approach to unmanned combat. As always, and especially so in this case, this is not an attempt at presenting a realistic combat simulation. It is just a presentation of concepts in a more entertaining story form.
The enemy island base had become an intolerable thorn in the Navy’s side. The base’s surveillance UAVs were ranging far and wide and restricting what the Navy could accomplish. The effective surveillance had enabled the enemy to employ their own anti-ship missiles to hold the Navy at a distant arm’s length. Cruise missile attacks against the base had proven fruitless as the enemy AAW laser emplacements, railguns, and miniature hypersonic Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) had simply blotted the attacking cruise missiles from the sky and the few missiles that had gotten through had been insufficient to make an appreciable dent in the base’s operations due to the facilities having been built into underground, reinforced structures or above ground, hardened shelters.
It was time for some up close and personal attention. The Navy was going to conduct an amphibious assault against the base but it would be in a form unimaginable to the sailors and Marines who had conducted the long series of amphibious assaults in the Pacific of WWII. As a former Marine Commandant had once said, the Marines were out of the frontal assault business but that didn’t mean that an assault couldn’t be done.
As the invasion fleet began its approach – ‘approach’ being a relative term for a fleet still a thousand miles away! - to the island, the opening moves began.
The fleet’s UAV carriers began launching unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV) to seek out and destroy the enemy’s long range manned and unmanned aircraft. These UCAVs were not the ‘Terminators’ of popular conception that could go to toe-to-toe with manned fighters – not even close! Instead, the UCAVs had a simple search and destroy function that was successful due to numbers rather than individual capability. In fact, the UCAVs weren’t much more than aerial missiles that, themselves, carried two missiles, each. The UCAVs were designated areas to search and instructed to destroy anything they found. The first wave consisted of almost 200 UCAVs. This was massing at the local level.
Of course, the enemy had their own UCAVs and the attrition rates on both sides were stunning, the more so when unmanned aircraft met manned. The manned aircraft generally made short work of the UCAVs but the overwhelming numbers of unmanned aircraft ensured that they could still accomplish their mission.
The first wave of UCAVs fought to a standstill but succeeded in depleting the enemy’s manned aircraft weapons and forcing them to return to base to refuel and rearm. While that was happening, the fleet’s UAV carriers launched a second wave of 200 UCAVs which, thanks to the greatly reduced enemy manned aircraft threat, was able to largely eliminate the enemy’s airborne sensor platforms which allowed the fleet to continue its approach to the island with only a greatly reduced anti-ship missile threat to deal with.
As the UCAV battle progressed, the UAV carriers also launched a wave of nearly a hundred unmanned sensor monitors. These were UAVs that were modified to fly to a designated location and then ‘crash’ into the sea whereupon they would float and act as passive monitors. Being passive and with not much more than horizon sensing range, they were not some kind of super-sensor that could find all enemy targets in the region. Instead, they functioned more by providing a sense of where the enemy was not rather than where they were. Of course, occasionally, they were able to definitively detect enemy units but that was almost a side benefit. Thus, the invasion fleet was able to establish a reasonable picture of enemy locations and activity.
Despite the reduced anti-ship missile threat, enough got through the fleet’s defenses that a few ships were sunk and several damaged to the point that they had to individually retire and make their way back to base. Still, a sufficiently intact fleet arrived at the actual assault point.
At this point, the UAV carriers launched a wave of sonar equipped underwater unmanned scout vehicles (SUUV) to scout the approaches to the landing site. The SUUVs quickly identified shoals of enemy mobile mines slowly converging on the fleet, drawn to it by their passive sonar. These mobile mines were, essentially, torpedoes optimized for long range, slow speed approaches, hugging the bottom of the ocean floor. Their intent was to reach a point under a ship and then initiate a near-vertical terminal sprint into the underside of the target ship.
The UAV carriers had a counter for the mobile mines which were smaller, faster underwater ‘fighter’ UUVs (FUUV) that would search for the mobile mines and fire very small torpedoes which mimicked the function of an aircraft’s air-to-air missiles. The FUUVs engaged in underwater ‘strafing’ attacks against the mobile mines and were able to largely destroy the threat. Again, not all could be stopped and several more ships were damaged and two more sunk.
As the FUUVs were being recovered back aboard the UAV carriers, those same carriers began simultaneously launching the first assault wave of crawlers. The crawlers were an amphibious, mobile vehicle that traveled on spherical, tracked rollers that granted tremendous maneuverability and the ability to traverse broken ground and obstacles on land or under the sea. With the mine threat eliminated, the crawlers were able to complete their slow approach to the beach whereupon they began emerging from the waves and started to move inland.
The crawlers were programmed with simple destination and targeting instructions and were free to choose their own paths to the enemy base. While they were easy enough to kill individually, their numbers and small size ensured that many would survive to reach the target base. This was massing on a local basis and it was effective. Once at the base, the crawlers performed simple optical and IR scans to locate suitable, pre-defined target types, approached those targets, and detonated themselves. Of course, the enemy had their own unmanned, ground combat vehicles that roamed the battlefield and tried to intercept the crawlers. However, the degree of intelligence and capability of the sensors that could be fit into small unmanned ground combat vehicles was limited and while many crawlers were intercepted and destroyed, the massed crawler numbers were sufficient to ensure that enough got through to the target.
The crawler’s main targets were the SAM radars, launchers, and reloads and they were sufficiently successful that the fleet could begin launching cruise missiles and aircraft for more precise strikes with larger weapons.
At this point, there would be a great deal of hard fighting still to come but the assault was a success. The enemy’s defenses had been breached and follow on forces could complete the mission.
Here’s a description of some of the unmanned vehicles mentioned in the story.
Crawlers – These are small, heavily armored, mobile explosives. They are spherically tracked which gives them great maneuverability and the ability to traverse broken terrain and obstacles. They are equipped with various short range sensors and rudimentary find and destroy ‘intelligence’. They seek out a designated target, move up to it, and explode. The heavy armor makes them hard to kill. They can crawl along the sea floor and on land equally well. They are employed by the thousands. Each has an explosive equivalent to an 8” shell which, with propulsion gear and sensors, gives a total weight of around 500 lbs.
Waves of these crawl up out of the sea and inexorably move to the designated targets and explode.
Lest you think this is a ridiculous, scifi, fantasy concoction, note that we already almost have this in the form of two separate, existing vehicles:
Ground robots – For example, the QuinetiQ Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS)
Mobile mines – For example, the US Navy Mk67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine (SLMM)
All that is needed is to marry the two concepts.
Monitors – These are UAVs that would fly to a designated location and then ‘crash’ into the sea whereupon they would convert to a floating ‘raft’ of sorts with passive optical, communication, and IR sensors as well as a small onboard solar power generator. The sensors, being located very low on the water, had only a horizon range sensing capability although the comm sensors could often detect signals originating much farther away thanks to signal ducting in the atmosphere. The value of the monitors was the ability to develop a picture of where the enemy was not more so than where they were. Precursors of this already exist in the form of sonobuoys and Chinese floating sensor platforms. All that is needed is to scale the concept to the appropriate size.
|Floating Sensor Platform|
FUUV – These are unmanned underwater vehicles that are the equivalent of UCAVs. Equipped with passive and short range active sonar, FUAVs use a simple seek and destroy control program and are armed with two micro-torpedoes which are the functional equivalent of Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. A precursor of this already exists in the form of Archerfish, Barracuda, and others.
SUUV – These are unmanned underwater scout vehicles. Equipped with passive and short range active sonar, their function is just what the name implies: to scout for enemy underwater assets. These essentially already exist in the form of Knifefish and others.
This is not in any way meant to be a realistic, balanced combat simulation. It is simply a more entertaining way of illustrating some unmanned concepts. So, what are the key takeaways from this?
Numbers. The common theme throughout the story is large numbers of unmanned assets. Lots and lots of numbers. By the hundreds and several times that. It is important to recognize that one of the key characteristics of unmanned assets is – or should be – cheapness which translates to numbers. Individual assets are not supremely capable and are, in fact, only marginally capable. It is in the aggregate that they become capable. Numbers. Lots and lots of numbers.
Artificial Intelligence - Unmanned assets, lacking Terminator level artificial intelligence, need to be employed in very large swarms to be effective which, again, takes us back to affordability. One of the key aspects of the story’s vision of unmanned assets is that not only are the individual assets not very ‘intelligent’, they are downright simplistic. This means that they are not suited for low end, peacetime operations that would require careful discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. Instead, they are intended only for high end combat where anything they see that meets a basic set of criteria becomes a legitimate target. This keeps the programming simple, cheap, reliable, and far less prone to deception by an enemy.
Carriers - It is obvious that launching, controlling, collating data, and recovery of the required number of unmanned assets requires a dedicated carrier capable of handling both aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles.
It is clear from this story that ComNavOps’ vision of a potential viable future for unmanned assets is radically different from the Navy’s. This vision is focused on utilizing unmanned assets for combat scenarios rather than the ridiculously optimistic scenarios that the Navy is assuming. Further, this vision of unmanned assets focuses on the characteristics and strengths of unmanned assets (cost, simplicity, numbers, and risk tolerance) rather than trying to create gold-plated unmanned systems that are unaffordable and unachievable.
There is a future for unmanned assets but it’s not the Navy’s vision.