Unmanned Tranformation

The UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed vessel operating in Jervis Bay during the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) ‘Autonomous Warrior’ exercise in 2018. As a result of ‘Autonomous Warrior’, Australia is ‘fast forwarding’ plans to introduce unmanned capabilities for MCM operations. (Commonwealth of Australia)

“Autonomous Warrior” drive RAN to boost unmanned system roles in sea control, situational awareness.

Royal Australian Navy Task Group-based operations

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is underway with a major strategic and operational transformation. With a requirement to project power across the Indo-Pacific theatre to support national interests and wider coalition and international commitments, the RAN is returning to task group-based operations.

Such operations are centred on its amphibious and maritime task groups (ATGs and MTGs). Its two Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships and three Hobart-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) are the centrepieces of such task groups.

The in-service LHDs and DDGs are to be joined in the RAN’s force structure in the medium term by nine new Hunter-class frigates (based on the UK Type 26 Global Combat Ship design), 12 new Attack-class diesel-electric submarines (based on the French Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design), and 12 new Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) (based on the Lürssen PV-80 design). Such a growth in manned platform numbers is seeing the RAN also grow in numbers of people.

The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) two landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, pictured on exercise together in 2019. Mine counter-measures (MCM) capabilities structured around unmanned systems will be a key layer in defending Australian naval task groups based around the LHDs. (Department of Defence, Commonwealth of Australia)

Unmanned platforms

Alongside these manned platforms, the RAN is seeking to add unmanned, autonomous capability above, on, and below the surface. Unmanned platforms can support task group operations in several ways, such as conducting anti-submarine or mine warfare tasks. They can also help carry the burden of presence across the vast reaches of Australia’s interests, providing sustained surveillance in areas instead of using a manned, high-end platform whose capabilities can be better deployed elsewhere.

In 2018 at the HMAS Creswell testing and training facility in Jervis Bay, New South Wales, the RAN and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology (DST) organisation hosted Autonomous Warrior 2018.

Around 77 unmanned platforms were involved in a range of trials which sought to demonstrate the potential role of unmanned systems in transforming Australian defence capability. The RAN believes the success of the event prompted a subtle shift in how the Australian Defence Force (ADF) sees the contribution of unmanned capabilities.

Commander Paul Hornsby, the RAN’s lead for autonomous warfare systems, told Navy Outlook 2019 magazine – a publication that provides for military, defence, and industrial policy-makers, an overview of RAN future plans, programmes, and budgetary needs, and is viewed by independent analysts as a semi-official RAN voice piece  – that unmanned capabilities have moved on from being seen as assets that simply assist operations to being an integral part of the overall ADF capability set.

Building Unmanned Policy

Across 2019, this strategic focus on unmanned capability has continued to build at a policy level within the ADF and Australia’s wider Department of Defence (DoD).

Speaking at the RAN-hosted Sea Power conference in Sydney in September 2019, Minister for Defence Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds listed concepts and capabilities that may prove to deliver potentially game-changing technologies: within this list, the minister said that “Unmanned underwater, air, and surface vehicles assisted by Artificial Intelligence are … rapidly emerging areas of technology that will change traditional ways of thinking about naval warfare and sea control.”

Sea control

Sea control – and denying sea control to potential adversaries – is returning as a dominant facet of naval strategy, as renewed great power competition is seeing peer navies compete to control the way in which international order flows at sea. Unmanned capabilities in the air, on the surface, and below the surface can provide sustained presence and especially surveillance and wider situational awareness to shape and support sea control and sea denial strategies.

While the RAN is growing in numbers, in platform and personnel terms, the vast geographical range of its strategic interests will still present a challenge in terms of generating and sustaining sea control, as well as the situational awareness and presence that support this, in areas of interest as and when required.

Sea Lines of Communication

In the complex and contested contemporary strategic and operational environments, threats will continue to evolve. However, some core pillars of the global strategic balance will endure. One such pillar is the importance of sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

In an interview in Navy Outlook, RAN Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan said that, despite the increasingly dynamic nature of the Indo-Pacific strategic environment, “what hasn’t changed is the importance of our SLOCs and the need to keep our maritime routes free and open”. Sustained presence, surveillance, and situational awareness offered by unmanned systems are capabilities that can support the free flow of maritime trade along such SLOCs.

In his own address at the recent Sea Power conference, VAdm Noonan said that, as a key component of how it seeks to work with Indo-Pacific regional partners, the RAN is “prioritising outcomes that lead to strengthened maritime domain awareness and maritime border protection”.

The RAN FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry frigate HMAS Melbourne (top right) conducts a passage exercise with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigate Xianning in 2018. Melbourne’s deployment saw it operating as far afield as Northeast Asia and the Gulf. Securing sea lines of communications across these regions and beyond, especially given the return of great power competition at sea, is central to RAN intentions to improve presence, surveillance, and wider sea control. (Department of Defence, Commonwealth of Australia)

This theme is reflected in RAN thinking about the contribution of sub-surface capabilities here. Talking at the Undersea Defence Technology (UDT) conference in Stockholm earlier in 2019, Commodore Michael Houghton, Director-General Future Submarines in the DoD, reinforced the importance of SLOC security as a strategic priority for Australia, and also the role of the underwater domain and unmanned platforms in supporting improved maritime situational awareness in the context of delivering sea control.

“Clearly we are very interested in [SLOCs],” he said, underlining also the importance of maintaining SLOC security as a key part of maintaining the rules-based international order, especially when set in the context of competition for influence in the unpredictable maritime environment.

“It is important to have some control of the undersea warfare area, and submarines are one part of that, but not the only part,” the commodore continued. “There is then a demand for greater situational awareness in the undersea domain, and that involves many different sensors and effectors, be they fixed, be they airborne, be they manned or unmanned, and mobile.”

Cdre Houghton’s final message pointed to the potential impact of unmanned systems in providing presence at sea. While debate at events such as UDT is often focused on technologies such as sensors, effectors, platforms, he said, it is important to consider “the need for presence”.

Many navies around the world, including the RAN, are continuing to face the challenge of matching increasing commitments with limited force levels – even if, as in the RAN’s case, such force levels are increasing to a degree. Unmanned surface and underwater vessels can provide both sustained presence while also supporting improved situational awareness.

Headmarks and Plans

To offset the challenges of a future operating environment highlighted by uncertainty, complexity, and the impact of new technology, the RAN has drawn up its Headmark 2022 concept, against which it will evolve and develop its structure, capabilities, and outputs to address the myriad operational possibilities presented in this future operating environment. The RAN intends to maintain its bearing to deliver on Headmark 2022 via its Plan Pelorus, which was launched formally in October 2019.

According to the RAN, Plan Pelorus provides the Chief of Navy’s senior advisory committee’s “direction to Navy for the next four years to achieve our Headmark, with the plan to be revised regularly as the navy seeks to deliver on five core outcomes. One such outcome – to be delivered by the service’s Head of Capability – is to ensure RAN capability “meets current requirements, evolves with changes in threats and technology, and achieves the joint integrated effect necessary, with an aim to continuously deliver and sustain an agile and lethal naval capability”.


The RAN’s current Head of Capability, RAdm Peter Quinn, told Navy Outlook that his responsibility under this particular outcome includes an enduring focus on embedding innovation across RAN technology and capability.

“Innovation has to be integrated into our DNA,” RAdm Quinn said. “Innovative ways of bringing on capability more quickly; innovative ways of adopting the sort of technologies that are around us every day – additive manufacturing, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems[;] bringing all that in and embedding it into the way we develop navy capability.”

Host Platform

Deploying unmanned systems from a host platform such as a submarine or surface ship – the latter bringing more volume, flexibility, and support in the ability to deploy such systems – also enables the more sustained operational use of unmanned systems, thus underpinning their presence capacity further still.

Writing in Navy Outlook, James Goldrick (a retired RAN rear admiral) said that: “Both surface ships and submarines will increasingly employ unmanned vehicles in high-threat areas, using them to conduct reconnaissance and, if necessary, as weapon systems for long-range precision delivery.”

For surface ships in particular, Goldrick continued, a “key opportunity … lies in their potential to become parent ships for a wide range of unmanned vehicles, whether air, surface, or sub-surface units.”

“The guaranteed proximity of a parent platform that can recover, replenish, and if necessary repair each vehicle – having conveyed them to their operating area in the first place – avoids some of the inherent limitations of unmanned units, most notably the increases in size and cost associated with extended endurance and high speed and their associated power requirements,” Goldrick added.

Having a host platform nearby also makes communication more straightforward in terms of operating unmanned systems. As regards communications and unmanned systems, RAdm Quinn said, “I actually think the secret sauce is going to be in the sort of technology you have for communicating with those systems, getting the data out of the systems and sharing it, and controlling them through our combat systems.”

Combat Systems

During Autonomous Warrior, for example, Navy Outlook reported that multiple unmanned systems operating in all domains had been connected to operate together – and this included integration with the navy’s Saab 9LV combat management system (CMS). The Saab 9LV system is providing the CMS capability for a number of RAN platforms, including the LHDs, the Hunter-class frigates, and the Arafura-class OPVs.

Saab 9LV naval combat system is viewed as “the brain that handles all the interfaces and all interaction with operators” including multiple unmanned systems. (Saab)

While the proliferation of remote and autonomous capabilities in the unmanned systems world can be a threat, such technology can also be harnessed to create an advantage, Rear Adm Quinn argued. “They’re enabling us to do things that we’ve never been able to do before,” he said.

Mine Warfare

Reflecting the view that the RAN is now changing how it is thinking about the role and contribution of unmanned systems, RAdm Quinn said the navy’s shift towards harnessing such capability was demonstrated in its new approach to mine warfare.

“From about mid-next decade, we will go away from having manned minehunters which go into minefields, and we’ll use autonomous systems to hunt and dispose of mines.” “That wouldn’t have been possible five years ago,” said RAdm Quinn, “but will be absolutely possible in five years’ time when we field those systems in quantity.”

The RAN’s introduction of unmanned systems will develop most rapidly in the remote minehunting area, RAdm Quinn added. Mine warfare is a key element of tactics, operations, and strategies for conducting sea control.

It is in the field of using unmanned surface and sub-surface vehicles where the RAN is demonstrating that the shift in strategic and operational focus towards unmanned systems is now being reflected in programme and capability developments.

Project SEA1905

In April 2019, Australia announced the building of two new mine warfare support ships, under Project SEA1905, to embark such capabilities. The decision to introduce two new ships – the design for which will be evolved from the Arafura-class OPVs – rather than extend the operational life of the four in-service Huon-class minehunter coastal (MHC) vessels was shaped in large part by ‘Autonomous Warrior.’

The exercise “was a real watershed to see how quickly these robotic and autonomous systems are developing,” said Cdr Hornsby, and “it had a significant influence on the decision not to proceed with MHC service-life extension”.

Under Project SEA1905, which will begin delivering capability in the middle of the next decade, the two ships will host remote and autonomous systems for mine counter-measures (MCM) operations.

Highlighting the role of mine warfare as both a sea control and sea denial tool, the RAN is also underway with Project SEA1778 Phase 1, which is designed to deliver MCM capability to protect the LHD-based task groups.

To meet this requirement, Navy Outlook reported, the RAN is acquiring four General Dynamics Maritime Systems Bluefin 9 autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), three Bluefin 12 AUVs, and a number of Steber International fibreglass support vessels configured as unmanned surface vessels (USVs). Delivery of initial operating capability (IOC) for what is seen as an interim MCM capability is expected in mid-2020.

by Dr. Lee Willett