By Rear Adm. Mat Winter
Chief of Naval Research
Next week, we’ll open a futuristic new chapter in naval exercises when we kick off Unmanned Warrior, which will be hosted in Scotland by our long-standing partner, the British Royal Navy.
More than 30 international participants from allied navies, industry, academia and research laboratories will conduct groundbreaking experiments, research and training to test and demonstrate the latest in unmanned and autonomous naval technologies.
“Autonomous,” unlike “unmanned,” refers to the capability of a system to make its own decisions regarding its mission (with the exception of the use of lethal force). “Unmanned” systems, on the other hand, can be remotely operated by human controllers. To put it another way: All autonomous systems are unmanned, but not all unmanned systems are autonomous.
Autonomous systems are increasingly being integrated into naval operations as we become more familiar and more confident with the enabling technologies. Unmanned underwater, surface, air and land vehicles are extending the capability and capacity of our naval forces. Cutting-edge research at the Office of Naval Research is enabling autonomous systems to sense and comprehend their environments, and then predict, communicate and take collaborative action in support of operational missions and logistics goals.
Most important, these systems can help protect our Sailors and Marines from some of the Navy’s dull, dirty and dangerous missions like mine countermeasures, for example. Additionally, these systems can increase our capabilities at a more affordable cost of the conventional systems we currently employ.
Our naval future force will rely on autonomous capabilities-as will our adversaries. Unmanned systems are integral to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s vision outlined in “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” as well as the Marine Corps’ priorities for modernization and technology outlined in their “Advance to Contact” strategy. Follow me into the future……a future battlespace as enabled by autonomy:
It’s the year 2030 aboard USS Superiority. Unmanned autonomous systems launched from the ship operate in the air, on the surface, undersea, on land and even high in the stratosphere on the edge of space. They support a wide range of missions, including the ability to identify/disarm/destroy mines, track submarines or act as sentinels defending ships and Marine forces ashore. The use of swarms of autonomous vehicles can be used defensively to confuse and overwhelm a threat, or to attack in a group. Command and control across the manned/unmanned force is enabled by ultra-secure quantum computers and sensors to provide detailed, timely and assured battlespace awareness. Spectral adaptation ensures comprehensive maritime coordination across U.S. and coalition forces with electronic countermeasures capable of full-spectrum deception operations from autonomous decoys and countermeasures. “Superiority” and its unmanned vehicles integrate with advanced combat systems; dominate in the cyber domain; and address a wide variety of support functions like resupply, casualty evacuation and rescue/humanitarian operations.
The above scenario is a preview of future naval possibilities with unmanned systems. Autonomy will enable our naval forces to stay longer, see farther, understand more, decide faster, do more, adapt more quickly and when necessary be more lethal.
The technologies we explore during Unmanned Warrior will help develop coalition capability for enhanced sub-surface hazard detection; port security; over-the-horizon mine countermeasures; anti-submarine warfare; rapidly detecting/classifying/locating surface vessels; and will improve command and control of multiple unmanned vehicles. And as importantly, workshops with our Royal Navy partners will collect lessons learned and which will inform new tactics for our operational naval forces.
International science and technology partnerships enable innovation through collaboration and diversity of thought; shared learning with allies helps us leverage our combined technical strengths. Unmanned Warrior will bring world-class innovators together with allied navies to push the limits of unmanned and autonomous systems.
Technology innovation within the Department of the Navy begins with naval science and technology research at the Office of Naval Research. As we celebrate our 70th anniversary, we take stock in our game changing accomplishments but also in what it takes to discover, develop and deliver decisive capabilities to the fleet and force. In fact, our autonomous future has its beginnings in the basic cognitive science exploration of the 1940’s championed by research funded by the Office of Naval Research.
Autonomous systems will never replace the human in the loop-especially in making lethal decisions; that’s our warfighting philosophy, and it reflects the values of our nation. Our Sailors and Marines are the sons and daughters of America, and we will always trust our professional, well-trained warfighters with the most important of decisions. Yet advancements in autonomy will give our warfighters the decisive edge to help keep the peace, to fight when necessary, to win and to come home safe.