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Robot Subs, Electronic Warfare & Cyber: Navy’s Role In Offset Strategy

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Navy photo

An unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) astern of the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf

ARMY & NAVY CLUB: As the Pentagon prepares to roll out its 2017 budget, one strategically crucial piece is the so-called Third Offset Strategy. That’s the US military’s high-tech, high-stakes plan to keep our edge over Russia, China, and other rapidly advancing rivals. This morning, the Chief of Naval Research outlined some of what the Navy’s piece of that strategy would be.

“The Navy’s engagement is predominantly in UUV (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles), cyber, and EMW (Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare),” Rear Adm. Mat Winter said — but the greatest of these is the UUV effort. “We’ve been able to provide that as a cornerstone…. one of our primary contributions.”

The Navy is the most sophisticated service in electronic jamming and deception. It’s also making a major contribution in the related field of cyberspace. And autonomy, cyber and electronic warfare are all high priority parts of the Third Offset Strategy. But the other services also have significant cyber/EW efforts, whereas unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are unique to the Navy. UUVs also exist on the intersection of two strong interests of the offset strategy’s coordinator, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work: robotics and undersea warfare.

Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, head of the Office of Naval Research, shows off a robotic mini-sub, the Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV).

Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, head of the Office of Naval Research, shows off a robotic mini-sub, the Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV).

“We are knee-deep in the Third Offset Strategy discussion… along with our army and air force and DARPA leadership in supporting the DepSecDef’s focus [on] man-machine interface with cyber, EW, and unmanned systems,” Winter told a National Defense Industrial Association breakfast here. “There was a whole spectrum of initiatives when we first started talking, and then you had to get down to something that was fundable, feasible, and executable.”

Various small, short-ranged robo-subs were rushed to Bahrain-based 5th Fleet in recent years to counter Iranian threats to mine the Persian Gulf. But Work’s offset strategy calls for larger, long-range UUVs that can operate autonomously with little human intervention and deliver “payloads” — e.g. weapons — as well as scout for mines and other threats below the waves.

“Payload delivery capability [is something] we’ve demonstrated…and was embraced by senior leadership as part of the go-forward Third Offset Strategy,” Winter said. As for long-range autonomous operations by larger vessels, he said, the experimental Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) will test its skills this summer in open ocean navigation and the endurance of its new advanced fuel cell in a trip from San Diego to San Francisco.

“We are going to have unscripted obstructions and barriers, and we are going to see can it sense and avoid those,” Winter said.

In contrast to his enthusiasm about UUVs, Winter didn’t offer any details about the Navy’s contribution in cyber warfare, a highly classified field. But he did discuss the slightly less secretive subject of electromagnetic maneuver warfare.

“EMW is going to be a game changer in our ability to operate in the denied [environment], for the deceptive engagement that we’re really going to need to fight that high-end fight,” Winter said. “What’s exciting there,” he said, is giving commanders the ability to increase, decrease, and alter their emissions to best fit the mission, rather than the old binary choice of either transmitting noisily in all directions or shutting everything down to avoid detection. “It’s not just EMCON or all on,” he said, using the Navy contraction for “emissions control.”

“I used to do EMCON[:] That’s probably scaredest flying you ever do, right, turn everything off and find the ship,” Winter said. But since the Soviet Union fell, the Navy has neglected EMCON training even as it has packed ever more electronic gadgets onto ships: “We’ve been loud and proud for 20 years.”

The Office of Naval Research is already providing “actual products,” mostly to the surface fleet, that let commanders “truly understand and characterize their electronic spectrum as they are operating and be able to manipulate it” to deceive or hide from the enemy, Winter said. Rather than shutting down all emissions and losing radar and radio in the process, he said, they can “keep mission capable but also reduce their footprint.”

US Navy photo

The Navy’s Laser Weapons System (LaWS) aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf

Interestingly, Winter did not mention laser weapons — another area where the Navy has lead the way — as one of the service’s principal contributions to the offset strategy. That said, he certainly touted directed energy. The Navy has a 30-kw laser in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Ponce and has contracted with Northrop Grumman to build a “leap ahead” solid state laser in the 150-kilowatt range. There are “exciting” advances in energy density, energy storage, and advanced optics that will make high-power lasers more feasible, Winter said.

The Navy will release a new directed energy roadmap after the budget is released, Winter said. An all-service report on potential tactics and concepts of operations for future laser weapons, based on discussions between technologists and warfighters, is due to the Joint Staff in August.

But for all that progress, “we can’t just push this out there and put a laser in every pot,” Winter warned. “You can’t just plug and play.” Integrating lasers into existing ships and tactics will require serious study and major modifications, he said.

By contrast, “the core to the Third Offset Strategy in my mind is more along the lines of…looking at what we have today….and repurposing [it],” Winter said. His top example was the Tomahawk, a venerable weapon predating the 1991 Gulf War of which there are over 4,000 in the fleet. While the Navy is developing a new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, as a near-term expedient it’s found a way to trick the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile into thinking a moving ship is a stationary land target, essentially by updating target position at a faster rate. “You hit that moving ship with a land attack missile,” Winter said. “We’ve already demonstrated that.”

Overall, “one of the things we’re encouraging is repurposing [existing] capabilities, versus always searching for the new shiny object,” Winter said, with one eye clearly on the tightening budget. “We can turn around and repurpose already established and fielded capabilities with a very minor, minor technical update but a whole[sale] repurposing of TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] and CONOPs [concepts of operation].” A little new technology plus a lot of new ideas can make a big difference.

What do you think?