The Royal Navy and Maritime Autonomous Systems – better late than never

Despite pioneering an unmanned mine-hunting system used in the Gulf War as far back as 2003, the RN has since made very little progress in deploying Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) operationally. There has been a recent increase in development initiatives but integration of MAS into the core activities and operating doctrine of the fleet seems some way off.

A serving RN officer recently wrote, “The Royal Navy’s strategic design is based in a post-cold war fantasy, where carrier or littoral strike groups can operate around the world, uncontested”. This may be a rather extreme view but it is certainly the case that many areas the RN may wish to operate are becoming more dangerous. A proliferation of lethal anti-ship missiles, quiet submarines, mines and autonomous systems threatens even the most well-equipped surface combatants. Developing a suite of its own MAS offers one way for the RN to restore its dominance.

Without going into great detail about the full range of capabilities MAS may offer, there are obvious advantages. MAS can extend the range at which warships can understand the space around them and launch weapons at range. (As examined in the previous article, both the Type 26 and Type 31 have been designed with mission bays that could considerably add to these frigates’ capabilities if equipped with the right MAS.) These systems can be deployed in numbers and may go some way to help mitigate the shortage of hulls. MAS can be employed on dull, dangerous, dirty and repetitive tasks in a way that can be impossible or very challenging for manned alternatives. When autonomous systems start to fully leverage developments in artificial intelligence (AI) they will become increasingly capable. MAS does not signal the end of the manned platforms, at least for several decades, but they will be a central component of the strategic balance and of future conflicts.

A lost decade

The RN’s Fleet Underwater Unmanned Vehicle Unit (FUUVU) was mobilised in the 2003 Gulf War and helped deliver the Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) procured as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). SWIMS successfully used remotely controlled Combat Support boats with towed bodies to clear and detonate mines, opening the way for ships to use the ports of Southern Iraq. After the war, instead of building on this success, the FUUVU reverted to a trials unit, its successor today has the same status and is now named the MAS Trials Team (MASTT). Even in 2003, the technology for MAS was already developing and it would not have required great foresight to predict its future importance in warfare. 15 years after SWIMS was used in the Gulf a much-refined version, the ATLAS Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System (ARCIMS) was finally handed over to the RN last year.

The Hydroid REMUS 600 UUV which is capable of searching for mines and surveying large areas underwater was delivered to FUUVU in 2007. The US Navy received the system later but tested it in the Gulf and now deploys it operationally (Seen recently in use by US Personnel operating from RFA Cardigan Bay during exercises in the Gulf.) Meanwhile 12 years later, the REMUS 600 is still not operational with the RN and remains “under evaluation” by MASTT.

An underwhelming display of RN autonomous and remote systems at the recent NavyX event. (Left to right) REMUS 600, 100, IVER3, M500 ROV and an Mk1 mine shape. REMUS and IVER UUVs have been commercially available for over a decade. The blame for a lack of frontline MAS does not lie with the hard-working FUUVU and MASTT teams, but with lack of vision and direction at higher levels.

In October 2014 the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas made a significant speech in which he stated: “The Royal Navy will lead and win through the innovative and robust exploitation of Maritime Autonomous Systems.” The importance of MAS had finally been recognised, although the mission statement was rather vague, lacking defined goals or a timetable for delivering on the frontline.

For a navy with limited personnel numbers living within a constrained budget while charged with the complex regeneration of Carrier Strike and maintaining CASD, the lack of spare capacity to make radical changes is a partial excuse. Despite the Exercise Unmanned Warrior initiatives and plans for a fully autonomous mine-hunting capability, since 2014 the has been no drive to bring MAS into every branch and every aspect of operations. Instead, a low-cost, low-risk series of trials and experiments is the order of the day. Establishing the post of Fleet Robotics Officer was another step in the right direction but this is a single person, lacking the budget and staff to make a big impact. MASTT continue their trials work but is a unit of just 20 sailors. In place of the RN defining requirements and KPIs and issuing orders to industry for bespoke MAS, innovation has largely been left to the commercial sector.

As the RN is unlikely to receive any major increase in its budget (in fact its buying power is constantly being eroded by defence inflation), hard choices would have to be made. The RN wishes to portray itself as innovative both historically and currently. In truth, it is a very mixed picture. The service frequently demonstrates it has the ability to innovate in many areas, eg the design of HMS Queen Elizabeth or new operating patterns for the fleet but is there a willingness to embrace radical new warfare concepts in response to a changing world? A recent Wavell Room article argues “Success tomorrow depends on disruption today”. It would take courage to mothball or axe conventional capabilities in order to develop world-leading MAS and AI capabilities but that should be a leader’s job. Innovating at the leading edge will inevitably involve risk of failures but trailing in the wake of commercial developments or behind other nations will diminish the credibility of the RN over time. The greatest obstacle to RN MAS innovation and implementation is intellectual – in the minds of its people. Left alone, staff officers whose prime instinct is to fight to maintain their particular branch or specialisation, are likely to come to a rare consensus that MAS is a threat to them all. It is the responsibility of those at the very top to reduce this resistance through education at every level of the service.

Never knowingly over-sold

Typically autonomous and unmanned systems have been promoted as having two main benefits; they are cheap and they reduce the dangers to personnel. In many cases, this may be true but these advantages alone do not make a compelling case for the adoption of MAS for those concerned with delivering operational effects. The ability to regain sea control, fight more effectively in contested areas, dominate and win should be understood and the prime motivations to adopt MAS.

Although for now, unmanned systems are relatively cheap, the rapidly developing nature of the technology means the time they hold the advantage will be limited and give them a short service life before becoming obsolete. Particularly for larger, more critical unmanned systems they will become targets of counter-MAS weapons and will start to need their own protection and stealth measures, adding to their cost. In the longer, term MAS procurement will need a higher tempo of investment than current conventional assets, the unmanned arms-race has started and we must plan accordingly.

A new dawn?

The Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is clearly an enthusiast for new technologies and has ring-fenced £160 Million from the MoD budget for a “Transformational Fund”. The creation of this fund has been stimulated in part by the recognition that the normal armed forces procurement process is far too slow to react to the pace of technological change. It also aims to deliver equipment to the frontline more cheaply by utilising as much existing commercial technology as possible. Although small change compared with the overheated £37 Billion defence budget, Williamson hopes to secure another £340 Million for the TF at the next Spending Review. Besides the Littoral Strike Ship concept, the TF launched in early April 2019 will buy two new autonomous mine hunters to be deployed to the Gulf (presumably ARCIMS actually operational in theatre).

More significantly the NavyX initiative is described by the MoD as an “autonomy and lethality accelerator to overhaul and turbocharge the way the Royal Navy buys the latest technology, streamlining the process and creating a brand-new facility where industry, military and academia can test, assess and purchase new equipment”. It is high time for such changes although critics would argue this is political window dressing when there is a multi-billion pound deficit in the main MoD equipment plan.

There have also been a number of other related initiatives in this field that should be noted. In March a consortium led by Blue Bear Systems Research Ltd was awarded a £2.5m contract to develop drone swarm technology. Around 20 simple UAVs will be used as a testbed for swarming techniques which have obvious defence applications in the land, sea and air domains.

In parallel with conventional exercise Joint Warrior 2019, the annual Exercise Information Warrior was held at Portsdown Technology Park between 25 March and 11 April. This tests and expands the RNs ability to exploit the information environment and is closely linked to the development and deployment of MAS. Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is also hosting an AI Defence and Security Conference on 5th June.

The Royal Marines and QinetiQ recently staged exercise Commando Warrior – the first trial integrating technology for the ‘Future Commando Force’ and the first test of the’ Autonomous Advanced Force’ concept.

OCEAN 2020 is the first research programme awarded by the European Defence Agency. UK participation in the EDA is somewhat controversial but 42 partners from 15 European countries are working on a large project to improve maritime situational awareness for naval operations through the integration of unmanned systems with ISTAR payload capabilities. QinetiQ is contributing its expertise in the command and control of multiple autonomous vehicles with its Autonomous Control Exploitation Realisation (ACER) system. The first operational demonstration will take place in 2019 in the Mediterranean Sea including Leonardo’s ‘Hero’ and ‘Solo’ unmanned helicopters.

The US Navy is ahead in this field – Boeing was awarded a $43-million contract to build four Orca XLUUVs in February which will have approximately 6,500 nm range. (Image of Boeing ORCA concept)

On 16 April the RN issued a request to industry for a large unmanned underwater vehicle as a testbed for future Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUV) technology. It must be able to operate independently for 3 months, cover 3,000nm, carry a 2-tonne payload and provide ASW barrier capability. The £2.5 million budget is modest and the 3-year time frame is reasonably taut. This is significant, besides the half-hearted efforts with the Scan Eagle UAV, this is the first step to embracing MAS beyond hydrography and mine warfare. It also signals an intention to develop an indigenous manufacturing capability, rather than just buy off-the-shelf from the US.

Prove in action

To build confidence and prove their utility MAS need to be given specific initial missions and there are some possible examples that could be considered. An XLUUV that can patrol at slow speed for weeks on end listening for intruders and surveying the seabed could be deployed around the Firth of Clyde and to sanitise the area for transiting RN ballistic missile submarines. This would relive SSNs and helicopters of this duty and may also prove to be a more effective platform for the task. Other naval bases and key UK ports could also benefit from this kind of underwater surveillance. In the longer term, XLUUVs could be embarked in the mission bay of a Type 26 frigate and then covertly launched on similar missions in strategically important areas overseas.

With the added impetus of Brexit, UK territorial waters and fishing grounds are in need of surveillance more than ever. Long endurance UAVs would be able to provide coverage of the sea at a fraction of the expense of manned aircraft and could be used as a vast ‘force multiplier’ for the inadequate number of RN OPVs. If every deploying warship embarked at least one rotary UAVs (Such as the Leonardo Hero in the mock-up at the head of the article) these could reduce the burden on the Merlin and Wildcat helicopters. A Wildcat helicopter costs at least £20,000 per hour to fly while a RWUAV can be launched at a fraction of that cost. Some of the surveillance tasks could be done by UAVs to extend the ISTAR range and reach of the ship as well as saving money and reducing aircrew fatigue. Experience and confidence gained would pave the way for more sophisticated, and potentially weaponised, UAVs at sea in the future.

The time for considering autonomous systems as an amusing sideline are over, the RN must find the means to procure and field them quickly while assimilating their deployment into core operating doctrine.