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Uncrewed Vessels and the Digital Ocean

Originally published on our weekly Edge of Defence newsletter.  Sign up here for more excellent analysis on science and technology advancements and defence. 

As the underlying technologies become ever more advanced, navies around the world are looking to integrate uncrewed vessels into their fleets.

Uncrewed vessels can fulfil different missions than their crewed counterparts.  Ships without humans on board can be designed to operate at extreme speeds or to perform sharp turns that would not be possible with a crew. They are also cheaper – both to acquire and to sustain. A lack of crew means that no crew support systems are required in the design and the vessel needs fewer resupplies while on mission. All of this means that an uncrewed vessel can stay out at sea for longer periods at a time – and smaller vessels powered by the sun or wind could potentially remain at sea almost indefinitely. This brings with it huge possibilities to augment maritime domain awareness via intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities – particularly with a large number of small assets spread over the vast expanses of the ocean.

These possibilities are being ably demonstrated by the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 59, the Fifth Fleet’s incubator for uncrewed systems based out of Bahrain and Jordan. Since its launch in 2021, the task force has aggressively experimented with new capabilities, testing a variety of systems including the T-38 Devil Ray, the Saildrone Explorer, and the MANTAS T-12, as well as uncrewed aerial and underwater vehicles. Task Force 59’s success has led the U.S. Navy to announce the creation of similar task forces in other commands.

The Royal Navy is incubating these technologies via NavyX, its autonomy and lethality accelerator, which operates out of the Defence BattleLab and via its sleek “maritime sandbox” ship, XV Patrick Blackett. British personnel have also been working with Task Force 59 as part of Operation Sentinel, including trials of saildrones.

Uncrewed systems of various sizes and functions need to be effectively folded into operations in order that they work effectively with existing crewed ships and aircraft, particularly if they have a measure of autonomy. Considerable planning already goes into making sure that surface, subsurface, and air assets all work well together towards the achieving of a particular goal – adding uncrewed versions into these domains gives commanders more options, but only if those uncrewed systems are fully able to work as part of that wider whole on an operational level.

New systems mean new logistical and support needs, and different ways of thinking about command and control. It is vital that military planners ask the right questions and identify how to evolve doctrine and operational concepts in order to fully capitalise on the advantages brought by innovative technology, and make sure that these new approaches are carefully tested and evaluated. Technology gives us new ways to maximise defensive and combat effectiveness, but only if we fully appreciate the need for our operational concepts to evolve alongside our platforms.

The overarching goal for navies is to achieve some form of a “Digital Ocean” – as U.S. Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper recently described it, “This means every partner and every sensor collecting new data, adding it to an intelligent synthesis of around-the-clock inputs, encompassing thousands of images from seabed to space, from ships, unmanned systems, subsea sensors, satellites, buoys, and other persistent technologies”. Such inputs would then allow other parts of the fleet to react more quickly and efficiently to threats, enhancing operational effectiveness at sea.

Advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, data networks, and many related areas show huge promise in augmenting awareness in all warfighting domains – but the maritime domain, with its huge expanses of open ocean, will benefit in particular from the capability to monitor activity in real time via a web of cheap, persistent, and easily sustained assets.  The digital ocean is moving ever closer, and a navy that masters it will be able to dominate the seas.

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