Unmanned Naval Warfare: Developing a Mechanism for the Future of Unmanned Systems


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in Geopolitics Magazine, May 2015.)

The year is 2020. A strategic entente has long been reached between the USA, India, Australia, Japan and the ASEAN to provide cooperative security in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the West Pacific. Japan has since 2018 been unleashed from military strictures imposed after the World War II by the San Francisco treaty of 1951, the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 and the Cairo Declaration of 1943. In the meantime the situation in the South China Sea has reached a flashpoint. China has unilaterally declared the South China Sea as defined by the 9-dash line as a territorial sea while enabling the third island chain strategy to provide security to their energy and trade routes. The third island chain runs an arc from the north of Japan, east of the Mariana Trench passing through the Makkasar and the Lombok Straits extending to the Chagos archipelago. The US installation of ABM batteries in the littorals, series of hot incidents in China’s East China Sea air defense identification zone and the escalating clashes between maritime security forces in the South China Sea has provoked an aggressive reaction from China. In a rapid joint amphibious assault PLA forces have occupied the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait.

In the Indian Ocean, China as a part of their Africa strategy has laid stifling embargos on use by the entente of all “Maritime Silk Road” gateways and infrastructures that they helped finance particularly the TanZam rail corridor and ports of Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, ports of Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo in Tanzania and the port of Djibouti. They have similarly denied access to the ports on the west coast of Africa particularly Kirbi in Cameroon. The PLAN have deployed the Liaoning carrier group along with supporting nuclear attack submarines and surveillance elements for SLOC control and security in the North Indian Ocean.

The Indian CCS have accepted the need for joint Entente operations to enhance surveillance and mark PLAN forces. Accordingly the Vikramaditya carrier group has been deployed in standoff mode while several US long endurance surveillance and strike UAVs have been tasked for surveillance of Chinese forces.US unmanned denial forces have been assigned distant ‘marking’ tasks. The composite Entente task force is designated TF 911; it is supported by precision and persistent satellite surveillance, ABM batteries and nuclear attack submarines.

 After a series of fruitless diplomatic exchanges and strident demarches, Chinese high command establishes a 200 nautical mile moving Exclusion Zone around the Liaoning Group. Task Force Commander (TFC) 911 is ordered to challenge this zone. Accordingly he prepares to tighten the surveillance perimeter and bring in his long range strike and surveillance UAVs to maintain shadowing distance of 190 nautical miles by reprogramming their surveillance sectors while deploying his unmanned denial forces to marking range of 100 nautical miles. As the new deployment pattern is executed TFC 911 receives an alarm report that the satellite surveillance picture is snowed out while both UAVs and unmanned denial forces were not under command and had reverted to their default “come home” mode which would navigate them away from the scene of operations to a distant stand by way point.

Cyber attacks unleashed by the PLAN had breached and spoofed the satellite surveillance networks; while the command and control links of the unmanned vehicles had been penetrated, their command computers disabled and control codes hacked into; effectively both UAVs and unmanned denial forces had turned rogue! CTF 911 is faced with a serious operational quandary, should he risk man with material to go in harms way? Would the introduction of manned units comprise an escalation of the situation? Will an engagement involving casualties spin out of control? At a more profound level was a doubt; could the unmanned replace the manned combatant?

To be sure this is a gaming scenario, but the fear of loss of control of remote forces is a reality that no Commander at sea can wish away particularly when cyber security is an inverse function of use, while use is central to efficiency. Also, the gap in singularity between man and remote weapon will always exists as an exploitable vulnerability. The CTFs’ operational dilemma is an existential predicament when the option to use unmanned vehicles is available. His more profound doubt captured the essence of the unmanned combatant; to integrate and enhance rather than replace.

The Battle of Lake Poyang [i]

In 1363 CE a curious battle was fought between the ruling Han fleet of Chen Youliang and the warring founder of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang, the outcome of the battle would decide control of China. Chen had amassed a large Han armada comprising big deep draught heavy artillery tower ships for the investment of the riverine city of Nanchang along the south west bank of the Poyang lake, the largest inland fresh water body in China. The aim was to gain a strategic foothold in Ming territory. Drought conditions and nature of the waters made pilotage difficult due shallows and strong shore setting currents created by the river Ga Jiang that drained into the lake. The Han armada was restricted in manoeuvre to a disproportionately small deep water pool. The Ming fleet however saw tactical advantage in speed, mobility and manoeuvre. Accordingly their fleet depended on agility, shallow draught and lightly cannoned hulls. The engagement between the two was pitched, asymmetric and prolonged without reaching a decision till the Ming Navy introduced small unmanned fire ships into the fray. The crafts were loaded with straw and tinder, dummies were erected to simulate a watch on deck and they were towed stealthily to their release points upstream and upwind of the Han armada. The straw was set afire just as the tow was slipped. With their helms seized the fire-ships drifted rapidly on to the bunched Han armada, ramming and setting ablaze the lumbering tower ships. Nanchang was relieved and the Han never recovered from this defeat.

The Battle of Poyang is important to our study for two reasons: firstly, the use of unmanned war ships is not a new phenomenon in maritime conflicts as the 14th century Zhu Yuanzhang will testify; secondly, planning, coordination and direction is a command function that cannot be left to the ‘intelligence of a drifting fire ship; thirdly, as the Commander of Task Force 911 realized in our creative scenario of 2020, the future of unmanned systems at sea and across the entire spectrum of maritime operations must remain focused on integrating with the manned platform.

Case for Unmanned Combat Platforms

Convergence of three critical factors will impact the development and constituents of tomorrows’ Fleet, and indeed, will form the driving force for the adoption of unmanned combat platforms. Firstly, a convincing argument may be made of how unmanned platforms will improve combat capabilities without the risks involved in committing humans for high hazard operations such as minesweeping, surveillance, low intensity operations and marking of high value potentially hostile units. Secondly, a cost benefit analysis will readily reveal the obvious that payload to platform dimensions is adversely affected by the need to provide safety and hotel services for manned platforms, as a thumb rule this may be taken between 20% to 25% by volume and an equal amount by cost. Lastly, the economics of matching tight budgets with increasing demands on the operational tempo of the Navy will call for cutting back on manpower through increased automation, technology substitutes and incorporating artificial intelligence; this in turn will have a positive effect on reducing bulk, increasing platform lethality and enhancing mobility.

Technology Trends and the Planner’s Vision        

The spectrum of applications where unmanned systems may find use, range from automated systems that ease operator load and in turn reduce complement of crew to completely autonomous platforms that makes decisions based on artificial intelligence and may be programmed for a variety of missions from start to termination without human intervention. However our 2020 scenario will suggest an operational vision that is tempered by four guiding factors:

  • Unmanned systems will augment and not replace existing and projected manned force structures.
  • Unmanned systems will be standardized to four basic design categories: Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV to include sea bed mobility). Mission packages will be modular and will conform to respective design categories. Platform size will be minimized.
  • Unmanned systems will be compatible for operations by all major surface combatants.
  • While automation will be enhanced to give near autonomy to platforms, high level human supervision will, however, prevail. Weapon release will in most cases require human control.

Platform Priority for development may be distinguished by operational needs, a suggested set of priorities are: Priority 1: Scouting, Priority 2: Mine sweeping and hunting, Priority 3: Undersea offensive operations.

Operational Mission Requirements: Unmanned Combat Systems

We have thus far, through the devices of a simulated scenario and historical reference made a macro case for the development, induction and integration of unmanned systems into the Navy of the foreseeable future. While our approach has been evolutionary we have to remain sensitive to the fact that risk aversion and economics alone cannot be the reason for an unmanned orientation. After all from a moral standpoint, armed conflict is a national political endeavour that is characterized by human violence; to remove the human from one side in order to sanitize war fighting is to run the danger of trivializing armed conflict to a video game. The man must not only take responsibility for decisions he makes, but also for the consequences of his action. Because the systems we are dealing with are maritime systems, in peacetime they will be forward deployed in international waters for operations that aim at monitoring and projecting presence to a greater degree than other technologies. As discussed earlier their very character will encourage their use in a wider variety of contexts than current manned units. Both forward deployment and broader applications give to the unmanned maritime systems an operational potential that in theory places them in the vanguard of operational utility. Given such a potential it is extremely important that the Commander at sea envision what transformation the system will bring about and how both man and material must respond. Two factors play a pivotal role in understanding the altered circumstance; firstly, the unmanned system remains a tool in the hands of planners to further, as always, political objectives whether these are humanitarian, economic, surveillance or power projection. Second, most contemporary assessments about these systems build a rationale a that unmanned systems, being defenceless against a well equipped foe, can figure with any prominence only in the Navy’s benign and policing roles without a mention on the impact that it may have on the future operational maritime space. This second consideration is hardly surprising since assessments can only be made with some anticipated use in mind and perhaps the most simplistic is that it extends an existing capability; overlooking the discreet strike role that these systems played in America’s war on terror in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan and the surveillance role that they continue to play in disputed waters such as the South China Sea.

Deployments of unmanned systems in numbers particularly space based systems for operational and even tactical scenarios will require changes to our command and control doctrines and structures. This is significantly true in dense and complex situations when the fleet commander and his deployed combatant elements are recipients of combat information from unmanned systems over which they have no control yet will have to respond to. Satellite and long range surveillance imagery are cases in point when the sensors and remote sensing devices could well be national assets that deliver right up to the tactical level. Therefore while defining the mission requirements for the instruments of unmanned naval warfare it is important to keep the larger context of the nature of armed conflict in stark perspective. The primary requirement, within the parameters of the planner’s vision (discussed earlier) is for war fighting. This will include scouting by which is meant missions’ involving search, patrol, tracking or reconnaissance.[ii] All four design categories of unmanned systems may be engaged in scouting operations. It must be noted that when deployed on patrol missions, a strike capability is intrinsic either by a cooperating unit or by the unmanned system. Human supervision is an essential part of our requirements for our unmanned combat systems accordingly a special cadre will have to be raised for control. Tactical and operational assignments may include deception, electronic warfare, information warfare and environment data collection (both meteorological and hydrological) in all three dimensions. The planner will also remind us that operational decisions always carry with them a probabilistic uncertainty much in the mould of CTF 911’s quandary. In the aggregate what the planner behind his desk will do well to pay heed to while defining the mission requirements of the unmanned combat system and the Commander at sea hark back to before deploying his mission is Clausewitz’ insightful message on the non-linearity of warfare, that the “complexity of war is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Mission Packages

Mission packages for the four standard design categories identified earlier must necessarily lead off from the operational mission requirements identified earlier and conform to the considerations that influence the planner’s vision. Platform standardisation, modularity of mission packages that would permit easy role configuration changes within a standard platform as well as between platforms (where possible) as well as adaptation of the technology trends particularly those related to automation, autonomy and control will be central to the realisation of the mission packages. In broad terms, five main mission packages have been identified which may further be de-aggregated to functional modules. The 5 packages are:

  • Scouting, navigation, target acquisition and weapon delivery.
  • Sensors.
  • Meteorology, hydrology, bathythermal and underwater topography.
  • Information warfare, Electronic warfare and communication relay.
  • Battle Damage Assessment.

Conclusion: To Catch the Transformatory Moment

Induction of unmanned combat systems into the Indian Navy has thus far been haphazard. It has neither been guided by an integrated approach between services nor has development of unmanned systems for the navy followed a set of priority driven requirements. The approach hitherto has been, unique designs for stand alone specific missions and a concentration on performance. How else does one explain the sponsoring of the Nishant short endurance UAV, acquisition of the medium endurance UAV Searcher, acquisition of the long endurance Heron and the induction of an assortment of mine sweeping and mine hunting UUVs? There has been no movement towards developing a planner’s vision nor a policy orientation directed at standardisation of platforms, modularity of mission packages, recognising technology trends or creating control compatibility and interoperability. So currently the Navy finds itself with non interactive systems segregated into unique and specific platform “stove pipes” with little or no compatibility with major manned combatants.

In the absence of a mechanism that first, makes a prognostication of the direction that unmanned naval warfare is likely to take and then formulates plans and coordinates the future of unmanned systems; the Indian Navy is quite likely to miss a tranformatory moment in the course of maritime warfare. We began with a hypothetical maritime scenario when the Commander of Task Force 911 was placed on the horns of an operational dilemma through loss of control of his unmanned forces, the situation was more a planner’s lesson that unmanned forces are not intended to replace manned combatants but to integrate and enhance capability. In order to do so a case was made in support of the unmanned combat platform at sea and a tempered operational vision was developed for standardising unmanned platforms. This led to the macro definition of mission requirements in all three dimensions and then zeroed in on the essential mission packages. While emphasising the need for an integrated approach what should not be lost sight of is the perils of viewing the unmanned system as an economical weapon that could avert risks to the man behind the machine, rather the intention is not to replace but combine. In our historical review of the Battle of Poyang we saw how well directed unmanned fire ships delivered victory to an inferior force; the question before us is clear do we choose the Zhu Yuanzhang model and catch the transformatory moment or not.

End Notes 

[i] Dreyer Edward L, The Poyang Campaign, 1363. The Chinese Ways of Warfare edited by Frank A Keirman and John K Fairbank. Harvard University Press 1974. pgs 202-242.

[ii] Allied Naval Manoeuvring Instructions. NATO Publication 1957, Pg 8-3


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