Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Lieutenant Commander Johnston serves on the staff of Commander, Submarine Forces Atlantic, in Submarine Warfare Development, where he has assisted in developing the U.S. Navy Fleet U11ma1111ed Undersea Systems concept of operations. Vice Admiral Richardson serves as Commander, Submarine Forces, and Commander, Sub-marine Force Atlantic.

How will high-tech undersea robots change the way we fight?

Like nuclear-powered submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) have the potential to radically change warfare below the surface. They can not only extend the reach of submarines, but also introduce new missions. This fresh potential requires us to closely examine, and where necessary change, the doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures we use to fully exploit this opportunity.

A well-thought-out experimentation plan will sharpen under-standing of these rapidly developing systems. Through exploring, testing, and validating concepts of synergized platforms, sensors, and weapons, we will guide future payloads, payload volumes, and launchers into submarines and ships. At Commander Submarine Forces headquarters, the focus is on moving briskly to test not only the technology, but also the command and control architectures that will optimize future operations and warfighting. We want to be ready when more advanced systems come on line-and many of the technologies are already available.

Through conducting limited-scope experimentation with the existing generation of manned and unmanned systems, we can learn a tremendous amount about their capabilities and limitations. At the same time, we can gain insight into the command structures at sea and ashore needed to man, train, and equip a truly combined undersea force; even unmanned systems require maintenance, support, and in some cases remote operators. Leaning about the communications and physical interfaces will enable us to launch, control, and recover these unmanned systems. It’s an exciting time to be participating in the next step of undersea warfighting. UUVs can become invaluable force-multipliers, as the following fictional scenario illustrates.

Caribbean Sea, 26 April 2021, 1035 Local Time

At the Joint Interagency Task Force- South headquarters in Key West, Florida, the watch team is riveted on the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft video feed. It has been a busy morning: A UUV conducting an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission near a small fishing village has made the first detection of a cocaine-laden mini-sub leaving the coast. These drug submarines, built in the deep jungle, have become increasingly sophisticated over time and are now the vehicle of choice for narco-trafficking. Often they net $75 million per trip between North America, Africa, and Europe.

The joint task force’s large-diameter UUV (LDUUV) has sufficient range and speed to track the drug sub, but the team prefers to maintain it on station to continue collecting intelligence while planting and recovering more remote audio and video sensors. Informed by audio and video feed from the LDUUV and its network of remote sensors, and communicating through real-time chat with the area undersea warfare commander watch team in Norfolk, Virginia, the Joint Interagency Task Force- South shifts drug-sub tracking to the supporting P-8, while coordinating an interdiction with Coast Guard and other Navy assets.

The task-force commander then exercises previously delegated undersea domain authority (granted by the area undersea warfare commander) to extend assigned water space to the LDUUV at the port entry. The mini-sub, its crew, and illegal cargo will soon be in custody, while the LDUUV continues its covert mission. Several weeks later, Joint Interagency Task Force- South will release it from ISR tasking. The unmanned vehicle will depart its surveillance area and rendezvous with a transiting destroyer for recovery.

Indian Ocean, 26 April 2021, 2235 Local Time

Halfway around the world, tensions have been escalating over the previous month and are nearly at the breaking point. A particularly troublesome coastal nation is flexing its muscles by announcing it will control shipping traffic through a major international strait. A U.S. carrier strike group is en route to the strait to back up U.S. diplomacy with military force. Captain Slade Cutter, the area undersea warfare commander battle-watch captain in Yokosuka, Japan, has the mission to support the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander as he works to maintain access to these critical sea lanes.

Captain Cutter reviews the assets available in the area: two undersea gliders, one JSR LDUUV, two subsea surveillance LDUUVs, and USS NEW HAMPSHIRE (SSN-778). Because of the level of tensions and the anti-access area-denial threat to surface ships, no independent U.S. warships are present in the area-the inbound carrier strike group will be the first surface operations in the strait since tensions have begun escalating.

Oceanographic gliders have been patrolling area for months, collecting hydrographic data and feeding a database of environmental conditions used to improve undersea sensing and weapon effectiveness. NEW HAMPSHIRE is on patrol, armed with 12 Tomahawks, 16 ADCAP (advanced capability) torpedoes, and eight long-range strike torpedoes. She is carrying an improved drydeck shelter capable of automated LDUUV launch and recovery.

The JSR LDUUV has been operating in theater since deployment by the departing USS FORT WORTH (LCS-3) some 45 days ago. To extend its endurance, NEW HAMPSHIRE has used her drydeck shelter to briefly recover the unmanned vehicle and recharge its batteries, download all of its intelligence data, and restock its payload dispensers with additional deployable sensors and communications nodes. Topped off with energy and payloads, the vehicle was redeployed three days ago in anticipation of another two months of on-station operations.

Two subsea surveillance LDUUVs were deployed 20 days ago from USS CORONADO (LCS-4), operating 400 miles off shore. Each was recharged by NEW HAMPSHIRE and operates under the control of the CORONADO, which processes their exfiltrated data and retasks the vehicles when necessary.

As the pace of developments picks up, Captain Cutter needs more continuous monitoring of the belligerent nation’s submarines, which are still in port. He tasks the JSR LDUUV to lay a distributed acoustic and video array at the mouth of the adversary’s major naval submarine port nearest the strait, and securely exfiltrate the data to NEW HAMPSHIRE. The unmanned vehicle navigates to the harbor via GPS and bottom contours, and deploys its sensors and communications nodes. Captain Cutter knows this distributed sensor network will provide immediate indications of a hostile submarine heading for the strait and enable NEW HAMPSHIRE to take appropriate action consistent with the rules of engagement.

The American submarine assumes a covert posture just off the coast of the hostile nation, collecting data with her organic sensors, monitoring LDUUV collection highlights in real time, and remaining positioned to take action if necessary. The unmanned vehicle pushes data securely to the submarine by using a combination of high-frequency acoustic communications and semi-submerged relay nodes, enabling NEW HAMPSHIRE to maintain her intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance posture closer to the strait while remaining aware of collections that the vehicle continues to make.

If further resolution is required, the SSN can launch a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UA V) on short notice to provide the continuous video feed required for positive target identification. On the area undersea warfare commander watch floor in Yokosuka, Captain Cutter has good situational awareness. The combination of manned and unmanned systems gives him an up-close picture of the tactical and operational environment. In addition, he has manned platforms in the theater that are connected to even more data and capable of taking the action dictated by the situation.

Technology with Revolutionary Potential

These scenarios are not as futuristic as they may seem. We already have much of this technology. As is the case for many other military innovations, it is the creative combination of existing technologies that will be decisive. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently issued a series of unmanned systems goals, framing the Navy’s investment strategy in this area for ground, air, surface, and subsurface systems for the next decade. The objective in the undersea domain is to “deploy large-diameter unmanned undersea vehicles (LDUUVs) from an operational UUV squadron, on independent missions, by 2020.” In support of this vision, the Navy is moving to achieve two milestones by 2018:

  • Commission a UUV squadron. This team will continue operational experimentation; develop tactics, techniques, and procedures; and begin mission planning.
  • Achieve longer endurance and greater autonomy, building to a goal of fully autonomous operations for 70 days submerged.

Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, has been pressing for some time for advanced development and rapid fielding of unmanned systems. He has articulated a clear vision of the pivotal role that unmanned systems will play in the Navy’s future force structure, and in 2008 he tasked the Strategic Studies Group to examine how unmanned systems will complement manned systems in the future. Under his direction, the Information Dominance Directorate has developed a detailed roadmap that supports the secretary’s goals. Not only does this cover UUVs, it also includes fixed and mobile sensor networks like those employed in the scenarios presented here.

Fleet experimentation and limited real-world operations have demonstrated the potential of unmanned maritime systems to support force multiplication and mission accomplishment using fewer manned platforms. The secretary’s ambitious-but achievable-goals highlight the Navy’s commitment to expand the range of UUV capabilities and apply them in a wide variety of warfighting roles. The projected advances in these vehicles, distributed sensing systems, and communications will create opportunities limited only by our operational imagination.

Working Far Forward Clandestinely

Identifying the command and control requirements for integrating UUV s and manned submarines will ultimately provide the framework for implementing many of these anticipated changes. As we define these command, control, and communications (C3) structures, however, we must remember that the fundamental role of undersea forces is to operate far forward in areas that are denied to other naval forces, exploiting concealment for their military effectiveness. Forward undersea operations within an adversary’s anti-access and area-denial perimeter have emphasized limited communication transmissions, stealth, independent operations, and a high degree of operational autonomy.

The C3 structure for integrating manned and unmanned under-sea platforms must align well with this kind of operational posture, as these same factors will continue to control the frequency, duration, and predictability of submarine and, ultimately, UUV communications. Advances in communications technology can at times bridge the gap, but determined adversaries will continue to develop detection and geo-location technology.

History provides many examples of undersea forces that were destroyed because they mistakenly believed their communications to be secure. Accordingly, it is important to identify some foundational principles that should guide our development of C3 structures for integrating undersea systems. To accomplish this, the following points need to be kept in mind.

  • Manned undersea platforms should continue to be granted the greatest possible operational autonomy. For submarines, this means operational commanders must craft their Guidance and Intent statements in a way that allows commanding officers not only to understand the mission, but to exercise boldness and initiative, discriminately applying the capabilities of the sub and unmanned assets to seize fleeting opportunities to achieve mission goals.
  • True receive-only communications methods must push information to forward undersea assets. No acknowledgement should be required unless militarily necessary.
  • Transmissions from forward undersea platforms need to be minimized and conducted via expendable communications buoys or other unmanned systems whenever possible. Transmissions directly from stealthy manned platforms forward should also be minimized; when necessary, they must be sent via the least exploitable medium.
  • Undersea systems can use short-range local communications to coordinate operations and share information whenever possible. Reach-back, long-haul communications should be used only when specifically necessary. For unmanned systems, the ability of UUVs and remote sensors to operate under the control of a manned submarine is particularly attractive in this context.
  • We need to assume for the foreseeable future that unmanned systems will expend ordnance only under the specific direction of a human with some ability to validate that a correct target is being engaged. This means unmanned systems with weapons will need a more robust C3 structure than unweaponized systems.

Some command and control issues are not unique to the undersea domain; they simply become more complex as the environment becomes more crowded. Just as the employment of widely varying unmanned aerial systems has complicated the task of controlling and coordinating air sorties, so the proliferation of UUVs that vary in size, range, payload, host platform, and mission area could make the job of undersea traffic control more challenging. This analogy suggests that an undersea tasking order similar to an air tasking order might become a necessary tool for coordinating and eventually optimizing undersea activity. Such an order would be a next logical step, building on the concepts of water-space management (preventing fratricide from undersea weapon employment) and prevention of mutual interference (undersea collisions). The undersea tasking order must go further, however, because it has to optimize the collective warfighting capability of forward undersea systems without unduly detracting from their autonomy.

Clearly, the full warfighting potential of manned and unmanned underwater systems working together requires overcoming numerous technological and conceptual challenges. The magnitude of these technological challenges in particular should not be understated. Our efforts to address the concepts, therefore, must be balanced with reasonable expectations about what is technologically feasible in the near term while remaining flexible enough to adapt to future developments. We will continue to use experimentation and fleet operations to evaluate and validate potential solutions that address the doctrinal and organizational issues raised by introduction of widespread unmanned vehicles.

Indian Ocean, 28 April 2021, 1821 Local Time

The crisis in the strait has worsened considerably. The bellig-erent nation has stepped up its hostile rhetoric by threatening to attack any U.S. forces that attempt to intervene, a clear message directed at the inbound carrier strike group. Demonstrating its resolve, the enemy launches salvos of anti-ship missiles while the carrier strike group is still 200 miles from the strait. With these defeated, the strike group continues inbound.

But then the situation changes fundamentally. In 12 hours it will be morning, and the carrier strike group will be entering the strait. By then, Captain Cutter and his watch team must have taken decisive action to ensure security of the strike group from undersea threats. This necessity is substantiated by reports from multiple intelligence streams, including the ISR LDUUV, that one of the hostile submarines is preparing to get under way. It will be destroyed before exiting the harbor; it will not even be allowed to submerge. NEW HAMPSHIRE is the best candidate to conduct such a surgical attack.

Captain Cutter exercises a freeze command to contain the LDUUV in a collapsed area. This immediately frees up water space for use by the American submarine and her weapons. From miles away, NEW HAMPSHIRE launches two extended-range strike torpedoes that maneuver like undersea Tomahawks, following predetermined paths into the harbor and to the submarine piers.

Infrared imagery from a small UA V deployed by NEW HAMPSHIRE enables the submarine to monitor the target while the strike torpedoes are inbound. If the enemy sub gets under way, one or both of the torpedoes can be shifted from strike mode to acoustic mode to complete the attack. The crew of NEW HAMPSHIRE follows the progress of the torpedoes via data returned by the fiber-optic wire connection. After viewing the target image fed back by the weapon, they authorize it to complete its attack. The first weapon works flawlessly, breaking the enemy submarine in half at the pier, as confirmed by UA V real-time video battle-damage assessment. The second is diverted to its secondary target, a floating drydock with another enemy submarine.

Captain Cutter releases the JSR LDUUV from its freeze condition. In the strait, the subsea surveillance unmanned underwater vehicles confirm there are no changes on the seabed that might indicate the presence of mines. With both the submarine and mine threats eliminated, the carrier strike group is able to enter the strait unmolested by threats below the surface.

As this scenario shows, future naval operations and maritime security will include an increasing mix of unmanned systems, and the need to effectively coordinate their operations will become even more important and challenging. UUVs will introduce revolutionary capabilities, but their full potential will be achieved only if their command and control provides for successful integration with manned platforms. The concepts and supporting principles presented here aim to accomplish this level of integration while at the same time allowing undersea forces to operate autonomously, preserving their greatest asymmetric capability of stealth.

With UUV technical development moving forward, we must use these guiding principles to ensure that doctrinal and organiza-tional arrangements, as well as C3 structures, allow the revolu-tionary potential of UUVs to be realized so that they become true force multipliers.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League