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Part One

Commander Martin is an Engineering Duty Officer currently attached to the Strategic Systems Program Office. She wrote this paper while a student at The Naval War College and was awarded The Naval Submarine League Prize for her research and writing on a submarine topic.

The first part of this paper discusses the potential for an approach to free the Submarine Force from many of the costly constraints of platform Centric acquisition paradigms and pave the way for a submarine-led revolution in military affairs. The second part of this paper addresses the more general issue of defining the differences between disruptive innovation and evolutionary innovation and the requirements for establishing an environment in which this type of innovation can succeed.

Many of the proud accomplishments of the submarine force’s history highlight the importance of creativity and our of the box thinking in waging war within the sea in the context of both operations and systems design. The term disruptive technology describes those technologies capable of facilitating revolutionary change by providing the means to jump from one evolutionary path to another offering a broader and/or more cost effective set of options for the future.

Emerging automation and robotics technologies hold the key to disruptive innovation in naval systems architectures through their integration into unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and networked undersea systems. A submarine controlling a reconfigurable swarm of automated, off-board tactical systems represents the opportunity for developing new approaches to undersea warfare and affordably achieving quantum leap improvements in our ability dominate the littorals on a sustained basis.

Part I: A Different Way of Looking at Problems and Solutions

Modern naval platforms are complex, carefully integrated, and expensive systems of systems with very long life spans.1 The ships, submarines and aircraft being acquired, designed and contemplated today represent the Navy’s long term future. Decisions soon to be made concerning systems development and technology implementation for these platforms and their payload systems of weapons, sensors and communications suites will determine the Navy and Marine Corps’ warfighting capability and subsequently affect the employment of U.S. naval forces not just in the 2010 time frame, but for the better part of the next century.

The desirability of tying key aspects of platform systems design to the development of warfighting strategies and mission requirements is intuitively obvious, but up until now, submarine payload capacity has been inherently limited by volume availability within the hull. Seawolf and Virginia class designs incorporate sensor, weapons and communications performance enhancements appropriate for littoral operations, but neither possesses the magazine or payload capacity for an individual submarine to provide sustained support for expeditionary maneuver warfare.

Innovation vs. Platform Centric Mind-Set In The Submarine Community

Submarines, like all major warfare platforms, take a long time to design and build. Both platforms themselves and key subsystems are becoming ever more complex and expensive. Implementation of most proposals to enhance the payload capacity of current submarines would impact other shipboard systems and capabilities adversely. At the same time, successive sustaining chains of incremental innovations are required to retain leading edge
1 Defense Science Board Task Force on Submarine of the Future estimates the life span of a next generation submarine would be on the order of 50 years, Report of..The Defense Science Board Tusk Force on Submarines of the Future, July 1998 pg. 6.

advantages in both offensive and defensive capabilities.2 With our primary focus having been first on getting Seawolf to sea and now on Virginia, there have been insufficient funding and resources to support initiating major new efforts in submarine design or payload systems development outside of these programs. Many of our current payload systems are overdue for modernization.

Both the Defense Science Board Submarine of the Future Task Force and the Submarine Technology Assessment Panel expressed concern with the state of research and development in the submarine community and the prospects this posed for the Virginia class and potential follow-on submarines. Their recommendations to better prepare for the future differed in a number of respects. However, both recommended initiation of a properly funded submarine research and development program with measures to foster innovation leading to greater payload flexibility and capacity.

The Defense Science Board Task Force chose to make payload a focus of their study and recommended that Virginia evolve into a next generation design with a projected IOC of approximately 2020. In their report, this next generation submarine is envisioned as a cost effective, large, nuclear submarine differing from earlier designs chiefly in its weapons and sensor suites (larger numbers/more space). The task force considered submarine payload modernization and expansion so important, they recommended that the submarine community defer continued investigation and implementation of some promising propulsion and quieting technologies to provide necessary resources to step up efforts in this area. As a result, this study predicted that its contemplated larger follow-on would employ essentially the same propulsion plant as the Virginia class.3


2This trend and its implications are documented in detail in The Future of War Power. Technology and American World Dominance .in the 212Century, by George and Meredith Friedman, (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1997).

3Defense Science Board Task Force on Submarine of the Future, Report of the Defense Science Board Task force on Submarine of the Future, July 1998 pg. 26, 29, 30 and 31.

At first look, this appears to be a sound, cost conscious approach for producing a submarine capable of performing a broad range of missions in the littorals. However, this approach does involve some considerable risks. The Submarine Technology Assessment Panel identified most of these risks for us.4

VIRGINIA, as a single entity, represents a submarine superior to those other nations are currently capable of putting in the sea. However, it is not possible to accurately predict other nations’ capabilities to design and build submarines 20 years and more into the future. Also, U.S. submarine mission requirements may change significantly, driving us to seek additional performance margins.

Insertion of mission specific hull sections, frequently postulated for adding payload volume to the Virginia class, without changes in the propulsion system, would result in a longer, slower submarine. The impact on ship’s maneuverability resulting from greater size and less speed will depend on mission and operating environments, but decreased maneuverability is generally not desirable for either open-ocean or littoral operations. Integration of payload modules represents cost savings over designing and building an entirely new submarine, however, the resulting modified submarine(s) will be more expensive than a Virginia class. The current program of record shows no identifiable funding for either the design or acquisition of such modifications indicating that this course could result in further slowing down of an already very slow submarine building rate.

An additional important factor to consider is that submarine nuclear propulsion plants are a highly specialized technology area with no current commercial application. The Navy is presently the only potential customer for new nuclear reactor plant design in the United States. A design freeze lasting from today through a Virginia follow-on, a period most likely on the order of 20-30 years at a minimum, would most likely result in a total loss of U.S. nuclear reactor design capability.
4Submarine Technology Assessment Panel, Submarine Technology Assessment Panel final Report, 15 March 1996 pg. 12.

Intricate interplay and interrelationships between systems and the need to insure proper fit and function within the tight confines of a pressure hull, play a major part in contributing to the long period of time between design initiation and deployment. By the time key up-grades, and new systems are fully implemented some components are already obsolete. Meanwhile, technology refresh cycles are tending to become shorter especially in the areas of computer speed and computational capacity, sensor technology, micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and electronics, indicating this situation is likely to get worse.

With specialized components and materials being purchased only in small volume due to current low build rates, per unit cost increases contribute to high submarine building and life-cycle support costs. Procurement programs are subsequently stretched out and shifted to the right to fit funding profiles further exacerbating the problem. As a result of low activity rates, and decreases in funding availability, there is growing concern about the viability of both the industrial base and the technology base that supports the industrial base and depends on it for funding. This all sums to a self-fueling cycle and constitutes a critical dilemma or platform-centric warfare.

A solution is needed which can provide the necessary increases in payload volume and flexibility without adding significantly to the complexity (and cost) of the submarine or adversely impacting attributes affecting its ability to access or maneuver in littoral waters. This solution must also preserve our ability efficiently and cost-effectively to pursue research, development and implementation of new technologies and concepts in all aspects of submarine and submarine systems design.

Putting Together an Innovative Solution

The DSB Task Force and Technology Assessment Panel Reports do not specifically recognize the role of the platform-centric paradigm in submarine design and payload modernization problems. A variety of factors such as time constraints, the desire to convey support for additional incorporation of modem technologies without seeming to provide meddlesome direction, or simply being too close to the problem may account for their silence on this subject. Identification of this as an underlying factor suggests we should examine modern technologies, especially automation and network-centric technologies, for out of the box concepts capable of breaking the platform-centric paradigm. If a valid alternative path can be developed, the next generation submarine, when required, may be more cost and operationally effective without having to be larger.

Taken independently, recent advances in automation and reduced maintenance systems, rugged, compact miniature electronics, applications of state of the art computer and software technologies in navigation, guidance, and control systems, built in monitoring and test capabilities, and undersea communications are impressive. Taken in combination, within the venue of robotic vehicles and distributed undersea networks, they represent an opportunity to achieve what some are now starting to define as a disruptive technology leap to a whole new way of doing things.5

UUVs as Disruptive Technology

As is often the case with disruptive technologies, no single development or breakthrough is responsible for the growing interest in robotics and the perception that technologies in this field represent practically unlimited potential for growth. Rather, it is the simultaneous maturation of a number of enabling hardware and software technologies and insightful integration, packaging, and application of these technologies that is exciting. Robotic vehicles have been used in niche applications for years but are now finding broader applications. Airborne robotic vehicles (UAVs) are rapidly
5Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, by (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997) pg. 14 and Disruptive Technologies. Catching (he Wave, published in Seeing Differently Insights on Innovation, edited by John Seely Brown, (Boston MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1997) pg. 123-140.

gaining acceptance for tactical battlefield surveillance roles and other applications. The ability of submarines to interface with these valuable assets has already been demonstrated.6 Current tactical UAVs are not designed for submarine launch, but a number of proposals exist for both low observable and long endurance UAV and armed combat UCAV systems capable of being both launched as well as controlled by submarines.

Sea-based applications of automation and robotics technologies are also experiencing a boom. A proliferating variety of compact high quality sensors, navigation systems and automated control systems designed or adapted for use in the undersea littoral environment are now available. Similarly, a growing number of robotic undersea vehicles (UUVs) can be found, providing sufficient payload volume, power, mobility and the means of data transfer for modification and update of programming and exercise of decision authority, to support both highly specialized and multifunction missions for academic research, commercial and military applications.

A number of today’s UUVs bear significant physical resemblance to their ancestor, the torpedo. In the future this will probably be less commonly the case.7 New materials and refinement of hull-form designs for maneuver in littoral waters using new hydro-dynamics modeling and simulation techniques should result in greater stability, better range, longer endurance and very different looking vehicles. The ability to fit in a torpedo tube need not be a firm requirement. This will give additional freedom for UUV designers to allow mission requirements, operational
6USS CHICAGO conducted operations interfacing with a Predator UA V in June 1996. See Chief of Naval Operations, Submarine Warfare N87 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, published on the N87 Internet Home Page (

7By visiting NUWC and examining Woods Hole Internet home page (and other UUV web pages), I learned that UUVs currently operated by NUWC and Woods Hole are shaped like torpedoes (and use components derived from torpedoes and 1orpedo research). Many of the systems they have currently under design and development, however, are no longer 1orpedo shaped.

environments and available technologies to drive the form vehicles will take in the future. Operating with submarines or being controlled by submarines need not always necessitate that tactical UUVs fit in submarines. Both submarine organic UUVs and those launched by other means have a place in the development of this capability. It is possible for them to provide submarines with effectively greater payload without ever physically being submarine payloads.

With appropriate consideration given to platform packaging many of the payload systems we currently think of as organic or indigenous to submarines and other major warships may no longer have to be hosted onboard the major platform itself. Platform packaging in this case includes size, weight, power supply requirements, and provision for automated systems to perform periodic routine calibration activities as well as monitor status and performance. Advances in computer processing, storage capabilities and the ability to employ a variety of new communications techniques have played a key role in making remote and autonomous systems more attractive for a wide variety of uses. Breakthroughs in these areas are being made steadily and have widespread applicability in a growing number of commercial and defense sector markets.

Development of vehicles with the reliability, range and endurance to make moving major systems off-board practical and cost effective has been proposed and preliminary engineering studies have been initiated at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and elsewhere. Integration of such vehicles with payload packages and network-centric communications systems appropriate for littoral warfare missions can be contemplated for a timeframe compatible with both the USMC’s projected implementation of Ship to Objective Maneuver architectures (2015) and the Defense Science Board Task Force’s 2020 projected need date for a follow-on to the Virginia class. Payload capacity increases via UUV may facilitate extending the service life of the Virginia class, especially since this design incorporates modular design concepts and significant provisions for periodic technology refresh in many of its on-board systems. We should ensure that the technologies and systems required to interface with tactical UUV’s and networks of deployable arrays of sensor and communications systems figure prominently in our plans for such future upgrades.

Shifting from Platforms to Swarms and from Nets to Webs

Like their industrial cousins, naval UUVs are ideal candidates for a broad range of repetitive, boring, time consuming, dirty or dangerous tasks we might wish to spare humans from performing. Some of these may include underwater hull inspection and maintenance activities, oceanographic surveys and mapping, various long term surveillance, monitoring, and data collection activities, mine detection, and neutralization, or placement and servicing of sea-based sensors, navigation aids and communications equipment. These are important, make economic sense, and aid in improving the quality of life for our personnel. However, these applications do not convey the full extent of how important this technology may be in the future to our Navy.

UUVs and deployable automated systems have a potential role in more complex mission environments as well. Rather than considering them as replacing manned platforms in this context they should be viewed as means of enhancing and extending the capabilities of the manned platform, much like the Cooperative Engagement Capability and other emerging techniques for networking manned platforms to each other. The manned platform and the vehicles and automated systems it controls or operates with should be seen as a robust non-physically integrated system of systems or swarm. While it is unlikely that we can define all of the potential implications of such a revolutionary discontinuous change in our approach to systems packaging and delivery today, it is possible to speculate broadly about a few of these.

Like their equivalents in the air (UAVs) and on land (UGVs), UUVs represent the potential to maneuver in the sea environment in ways that would be impractical, impossible, or excessively dangerous to achieve with manned systems. The small size and precise maneuvering capabilities of these vehicles will allow our forces to establish presence and control over waters too shallow, too hazardous, or too contentious for manned platforms to occupy. They can provide means to position sensors or weapons systems at specific sites or within optimum target acquisition boxes over extended periods without impacting the maneuverability of a warship.8 A network of undersea sensors and UUVs could play a significant role in providing security for a forward-deployed seabase envisioned in many USMC architectures. UUVs could provide many routine services within such architectures, allowing manned warships, with their virtually unlimited range and freedom of mobility, and their most important asset, human reasoning capacity, to be reserved for more demanding missions.

Establishing strong, flexible C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capability to conduct intensive expeditionary operations in remote locales can be difficult and time-consuming. It involves temporarily and locally converting the permanent worldwide surveillance and information net into a tighter more complex integrated surveillance web. Currently, this often means obtaining permission and priority to relocate very capable and very expensive sensor platforms, that exist in very short supply and require extensive support, to positions from which they can access the theater of operations. Establishing battlespace superiority to ensure their safety is often a pre-condition for the deployment of many manned seas or air-based C4ISR assets.

As the capability to conduct network-centric warfare spreads among potential adversaries and rogue states, we can expect it to become more important for our initial forward-deployed expeditionary forces (Navy and USMC forces) to possess strong organic capabilities to initiate a localized enhancement of C4ISR capability. These capabilities will be needed to deny potential adversaries the benefits of information superiority in the event conflict should erupt. Equipping UUVs and deployable automated undersea systems with appropriate sensor and communications packages and developing the capability to position, control, and retrieve them, from the sea, can be an extremely cost-effective means for conducting sustained, long-term surveillance and monitoring. These systems could furnish and confirm critical intelligence and provide analysis of expeditionary environments that would most likely be unavailable by any other means. Early, covert, non-provocative deployment in the pre-crisis stages of a potential conflict situation could provide critical information for diplomatic efforts and mission planning.

Potential Benefits

Tactically and operationally, the manned submarine will no longer be a single, localized point of capability or vulnerability. The manned platform and its accompanying swarm represent a modem, inexpensive variant of the battle group concept providing distributed mass with force projection capability and its own defensive screen. The submarine becomes a nimble spider capable of monitoring and responding simultaneously to events anywhere within its extended web vice a delivery truck sequentially servicing stops on its route. Each submarine and its swarm in the battlespace will represent a greater threat to our adversaries since it will truly have the capability to be many places at once acting against their forces or serving to increase our access to and control of the battlespace. Two or more platforms operating cooperatively might also share capabilities provided by swarm elements. Individual automated elements could be transferred easily from the control of one manned element to another or shared between platforms. Submarines, surface vessels, aircraft, and land-based units or remote command authorities properly equipped to interface with them could benefit from the information they provide or direct their activities.

There is offensive force multiplication with the ability to penetrate deeper into the enemy’s territory and attack multiple targets from multiple trajectories simultaneously without risk to manned systems. Manned elements may standoff in safety while autonomous robotic swarm elements attack, weaken, divert or confuse enemy defenses. UUVs can provide a relatively inexpensive means to tailor a ship’s capabilities specifically for the mission it is assigned or the battlespace to which it is deployed. By varying the number and type of swarm elements assigned to a manned platform, we can increase the ship’s magazine capacity, give it a new sensor suite, or additional communications systems. Critical capabilities located off-hull can remain deployed when the manned platform cycles off-station.

There is defensive force multiplication through the ability to detect and attack enemy units at greater range, in a variety of fashions simultaneously. Defensive attacks can be executed by robotic elements while the manned element(s) remain hidden or withdraw to a safer position. Presenting a distributed force of many elements should result in vulnerability to enemy countermeasures and asymmetric warfare capabilities. Swarms can complicate an adversary’s tactical picture and make it more difficult for its forces to degrade our capabilities. An adversary will have to expand significantly greater effort at identifying and targeting key components of the swarm. Detecting, targeting, and attacking the critical manned platform, the brain of the swarm, will become a complex multi-variable problem ravenously consuming the adversary’s time, energy, and resources. Loss of autonomous unmanned systems will not represent a significant, demoralizing event, and need not result in a serious degradation in even localized warfighting capability. Recovery of the swarm can be swift, without causing expeditionary forces to falter in their execution of a mission. Vehicle duty assignments will simply be reprogrammed on the fly and the mission will continue.

There is deterrent force multiplication and preemptive situation control through early and ensured access to network-centric warfare systems and enhanced flexibly to furnish necessary and sufficient firepower to counter any breakout. Early detailed, unambiguous, knowledge is a critical element of deterrence, counter-proliferation, enforcement of diplomatic sanctions, and other efforts to maintain peace. UUVs have the potential to figure prominently in extending our capabilities in this area effectively and economically. They can facilitate a capacity immediately to deploy a broad range of emerging high-quality sensors that are readily reconfigurable and retrievable arrays locally to augment permanent strategic sensor grids. In addition to collecting necessary data to expose violations of international agreements, human rights atrocities, or activities indicating hostile intent to the international community, advanced robotic vehicles can provide the potential for intervening aggressively in response, without bringing manned systems into play. The capacity to execute missions of this type, before an aggravated crisis situation develops, without needing to expose personnel or major assets to risk, can send potential rogues and allies alike strong signals of the value the U.S. places on the world and regional peace.

For force structure planners and budgeters, there is increased flexibility and cost savings. They will have wide latitude to tailor the combination and number of swarm elements and capabilities to meet mission requirements. Submarines and other platforms capable of interfacing with and employing off-board vehicles and systems will be smaller, more maneuverable, and able to exercise control over a greater portion of the battlespace. Expensive manned platforms will be likely to spend less time in the near littorals within range of coastal defenses and an adversary’s patrol craft. Delegating hazardous functions in these waters to unmanned systems will significantly enhance the survivability of major platforms. There will be more opportunities to adjust architectures and capabilities in response to changes in the threat and deploy new payload technologies as they mature and become ready to put to sea. Major changes in capability or critical new weapons, sensors, and communications systems will not always result in typically costly major platform refits required for system back fits, or acquisition of a new, manned, major platform. Many new sensor and weapons systems instead will result in new variants of swarm vehicles.

In the area of ship and systems design and acquisition, there is potential relief from problems in matching volume and power requirements that a system might need with what a platform can afford, as well as other compatibility constraints in integrating complex systems into major platforms. This is especially important when one considers that platforms currently being designed may be in service for 50 years or more while the evolutionary cycles of many weapons, sensors, and communications technologies are shorter than ever before.

Each component of a swarm, including the critical manned submarine, can be made smaller, simpler, and less expensive than would be possible in architectures relying on a single all-encompassing platform. Simpler submarine designs and subsequently lower acquisition costs, should contribute significantly to the community’s resource allocation profiles taking on a much less spiky character than is currently the case. With research, design, and procurement funds available at nearer to constant levels, better program stability will be possible. There will likely be more construction taking place, possibly involving a greater number of vendors, resulting in lower per-unit costs and greater stability in the industrial and technology bases. Extending completion of a system of systems swarm over a greater number of POM cycles may also aid in avoiding budgetary spikes while maintaining a well-balanced and capable force structure. Unlike the case where a single very complex warship is being procured, partial products delivered periodically throughout the process will allow the fleet access to new systems and new capabilities as soon as possible and prevent paralyzing adverse reactions in the industrial and technology bases. Delivery dates of individual swarm elements can be adjusted to accommodate advances or setbacks in the integration of the technologies they employ or unforeseen shifts in either the fiscal or threat environments with minimum impact on the overall architecture’s costs or force readiness.

Pan Two of Commander Martin’s article will appear in the July issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

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