Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Baby Step In The Right Direction?

ComNavOps has criticized and mocked the Navy’s headlong, uninformed leap into unmanned vessels and for good reason.  The movement is unsupported by realistic experimentation of any type.  The odds that uninformed, unsupported actions will lead to a good outcome are very poor.  However, the faintest glimmer of hope has emerged from the Navy in the form of some comments by CNO Gilday about the Navy’s unmanned plans.


As you recall, the Navy’s current path is to develop both a large (not very large actually;  corvette size) unmanned vessel (LUSV) which will be a mini-arsenal ship and a medium (pretty small actually; patrol boat size) size unmanned vessel (MUSV) which will be a sensor platform.  Now, however, CNO Gilday has hinted that plans may change and is backtracking on the MUSV.


I don’t know if we’ll have a medium unmanned or not. The stuff that [Vice Adm. Brad] Cooper’s doing right now with CTF 59 – using small unmanned [vehicles] on the scene in the air to sense the environment … in order to yield a common operational picture for allies and partners, as well as 5th Fleet headquarters, has changed my thinking on the direction of unmanned.[1]


Gilday said the service might be rethinking buying the MUSV after a series of exercises and experiments in U.S. 5th Fleet with Combined Task Force 59 … [1]


Instead of an MUSV,


However, the Navy might be able to get the sensor capability it wanted from MUSV through fused data from networked commercial systems to get an accurate maritime awareness picture more affordably. The 5th fleet started experimenting late last year with a 23-foot Saildrone Explorer out of Jordan and MARTAC’s Mantas T12 USV out of Bahrain.[1]


 Did you catch the reference to small, networked commercial systems?  This reveals a peacetime mindset – one unhindered by enemy actions or countermeasures.  I’ve pointed this out many times in the past.  The Navy simply does not appear to believe war with China will actually happen despite having publicly proclaimed that war was highly likely within the next several years.  I say they do not believe it because none of their actions show the slightest concern or desire to produce a combat fleet.  But, I digress …


 Gilday’s comments appear to be a reference to the tiny unmanned sailboats the Navy was playing with (see, “Pointless Drones”).  I’ve already mocked the sailboats but using small, cheap, expendable UAVs – though not tiny sailboats - as sensors could be an excellent option and one I’ve suggested many times.  If this is what Gilday was suggesting – and it’s far from clear that he was – then the Navy could be on a very good path to developing a viable situational awareness solution.


Still, small UAVs, of whatever type, have significant problems to overcome in order to use them as effective sensor platforms: 

  • Limited field of view
  • Constant communications requirement
  • Limited range
  • Low survivability
  • Requirement for large numbers


Gilday specifically mentioned the small sailboats but he is overlooking some serious problems and limitations with them: 

  • Seakeeping in open ocean
  • Sensor operation in open ocean will see very erratic and fragmented sensor readings due to very low sailboat height operating in waves and troughs
  • Very limited sensor range due to very low height;  horizon will be around 12 miles which is not much of a field of view relative to the area of the ocean
  • Very low speed which requires a very long time to get a sensor boat out to a useful position or to reposition it


Looming over all of the problems is the notion of using commercial unmanned vessels.  While this is appealing on the face of it, there is a potential problem with security.  Being a commercially developed system, intended for a civilian, commercial market, the controlling software and communications are highly unlikely to be able to withstand the effects of cyber attacks, cyber takeovers, emission controls, jamming, GPS disruption, etc.  It is quite likely that an enemy could commandeer these vessels, electronically or via software attacks/hacks with little effort.  It is a near certainty that China, and other unfriendly countries, already have the specs and software source code for any product with military potential.  They appear to have all our highly protected military information so why would we think they don’t have less secure, civilian information?


As CNO Gilday ponders the future of unmanned based on field experiments, the incriminating question is how come we weren’t conducting these experiments years ago before we jumped into unmanned?  We need to use surrogates and develop the concepts first, then the equipment.  We’re doing the reverse by developing the equipment first and then the concepts.




The other major question is whether these field experiments are valid or whether they’re scripted exercises designed to produce a desired result … as most military experiments are? 


Unmanned assets can be a viable and valuable means of conducting surveillance but only with very strict constraints and only with very specific and well defined concepts of operations.  Unfortunately, I see no evidence that we’re following this path.  We seem to be grasping every unmanned idea that comes along, hoping something will work.  This is why we’re changing our unmanned plans on an almost daily basis.






[1]USNI News website, “Navy Rethinking Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle After Middle East Tests, Says CNO Gilday”, Sam LaGrone, 28-Apr-2022,


  1. I wouldn't ponder what the CNO is really thinking. When he talks cheaper commercial networked I immediately think Starlink satellites. That concept could be taken to the subsurface/ASW domain in another form.

  2. Has there been any mention of any effort to harden the USVs against electronic interference, e.g., lightning strikes, hacking, jamming, the EMP a nuclear weapon will generate, etc.?

    1. No, and that's not the Navy's vision. The Navy envisions a cheap, COMMERCIAL network of sensors - sensors that have no hardening or protections of any type. Trying to add such hardening would defeat the purpose/goal of CHEAP commercial networks. The Navy continues to believe that they can operate a Navy on the cheap, without paying the price in cost or effort to create a truly tough combat fleet. We are being led down a fantasy path every bit as foolish as the Marine's missile shooting dream.

    2. Look at right now. Starlink is useful because if Russia attacks it they attack the U.S. not Ukraine. Its a great tool for proxy war. Therefore most useful be avoiding having to be in a war at all.

    3. "The Navy continues to believe that they can operate a Navy on the cheap, without paying the price in cost or effort to create a truly tough combat fleet."

      We have a real problem with government and military leaders thinking they can accomplish their goals "on the cheap." For example, many are screeching about an "imminent war" against China, but seem certain China will only fight like a retard, meaning "We can beat them with both hands tied behind our backs!" i.e., without enacting a draft, rationing, raised taxes, and other measures necessary to fight an extended war, which will make it unpopular and get those responsible voted out of office.

      The admirals' delusions re: running their fleets (into the Marianas Trench) is, sadly, a lesser concern.

    4. The trick is inhaving an open discussion on when we are conserving force to maintain a deterent and when we are just doing the cheap and shoddy thing to save money. Not that prudent use of funding isn't always a relevant factor for a public servant to consider. THis gets back to having a civilian/commercial council of defense advisers. I look at the mod to Zumwalt to launch 4 missiles for 186 million and think, "or use 1 B-52 sortie."

  3. One of the few times I would agree with you. On the issue that the current American administration and public seem unaware of how likely war might happen with China.

    I am not going to discuss the issue of China's interests with Taiwan so don't bother. But all I can say is that if the current US administration is going to take the steps it took in the last few months then it has to anticipate and at least prepare for the escalation of tensions with China.

    I have people telling me that China won't dare to go to war because of a multitude of reasons that are mostly Chinaphobic in nature. And these are the same people who loudly proclaimed that Russia would never invade Ukraine. But here we are all the same.

    This is all going to very well blow up in the faces and they will be caught with their pants down. But the American public will be caught holding the bag.

    1. "One of the few times I would agree with you."

      One of the few times you'd be right, then. :)

  4. Perhaps that UAV that the Air Force has been testing or Darpa, the Zephyr's, those that can stay up literally for several weeks? They are very slow, but go at a pretty good height, and unlike the MQ-4's, don't cost as much as an F-15. If they are shot down, the Navy would at least know that they were in an "area of high interest" and then the Navy should be looking to either its AF brethren or buying the equivalent of the AF MQ-180, which seems to be the ultimate stealthy UAV which is as secretive if not more than the b-21. Gleam what you can out of the ultra long endurance, cheaper UAV, then send in the ultra stealthy heavyweight, because at that point, you must be in a war.


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