The Royal Australian Navy’s new strategy for developing unmanned surface and sub-surface systems delivers both capability and capacity to support the navy’s new fleet.
Navies around the world are investing in unmanned systems, to provide short-term fixes for operations today and to grow longer-term capability and capacity to enable a more sustained operational contribution from such systems in the future.
The challenges of operating unmanned systems out of sight – for example, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) beyond the horizon or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) below the surface – has perhaps contributed to some navies’ reticence in fully embracing what unmanned systems can bring. Such reticence can also be explained by some navies having to find a financial and operational balance between investing in unmanned systems or in new manned platforms.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), however, is one navy actively introducing unmanned systems for current and future operations, and to augment the output of its people onboard its range of new platforms. The RAN certainly intends to combine its manned navy with new unmanned kit.
Australia’s new navy is manifested in different platform types. At the centre of this new force structure are several already-operational platforms: two Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships; and three Hobart-class air-warfare focused guided-missile destroyers (DDGs). These ships will be joined in the medium to longer term by: nine Hunter-class guided-missile frigates, 12 Attack-class diesel-electric submarines, and 12 Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs).
The RAN’s approach to employing unmanned systems is that it will use such capabilities to integrate and enhance – not replace – the outputs of crewed platforms. This approach was set out in the navy’s new unmanned systems strategy, titled RAS-AI Strategy 2040: Warfare Innovation Navy, published in October 2020.
Fighting and thinking
RAN Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan sees his service as a ‘fighting’ and a ‘thinking’ force. In this context, the Chief noted (in his Foreword to the strategy) that, “As a fighting and thinking navy, we must leverage these advances [provided by unmanned systems] to … transform, and improve, our ability to fight and win at sea.” Such advances must be leveraged, he continued, to support delivery of the five ‘Navy Outcomes’ (also known as 4PC): force protection; force projection; partnership to improve joint force integration; maximising force potential; and control (namely, sovereign capability).
The RAS-AI Strategy 2040 defines the challenges and opportunities presented by unmanned systems, and sets out how the RAN aims to develop lines of effort to realise their benefits, especially in enhancing warfighting output and the role of people therein. “In embracing technology, we must remember that warfare is, and will remain, a fundamentally human activity. Our people will be at the core of our technological advances, and we must design systems with them at the centre,” Vice Adm Noonan wrote. “RAS-AI [Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and Artificial Intelligence] will make our people better warfighters, and will enable us to achieve expanded reach across the region.”
In the strategy, the RAN presented its technology context, vision, and design principles for developing its RAS-AI approach and capability. The navy noted that military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) technologies developed by other Australian services or international partners do not necessarily provide the right capability or capacity to meet the limitations, constraints, and opportunities inherent in Australia’s unique geostrategic maritime environment. To meet such bespoke needs, the document, while not singling out specific technologies, defined the drivers, trends, and challenges that RAS-AI create for maritime forces, seeking in particular “common enablers that will be required to make the navy ‘RAS-AI ready’”. Looking out to the 2040 timeframe, the strategy will be supported by a campaign plan consisting of milestones, key performance indicators, lines of effort metrics, and a strategy review (timetabled for 2024).
According to the RAN, the regional geography it operates in is defined by distance and challenging environmental conditions. Across and through this geography, forces (including unmanned systems) must: build common operating pictures; maintain long-range communications; collect, process, and disseminate information in a timely manner; and generate massed effects in multiple locations. Here, the navy noted the role of unmanned systems in operating independently but also in complementing manned platform operations.
In addition, the strategy observed that rapid regional military technological modernisation is reducing strategic warning time. Consequently, unmanned systems need to provide (in operational terms) forward-deployed, wide area, persistent presence, and (in capability terms) a ‘toolbox’ of agile, flexible systems.
Highlighting unmanned systems’ role in enhancing crewed platform operations, the RAN assesses that “[the navy] is growing its surface fleet through programmes such as the Hunter-class frigate and the Arafuraclass OPV. These systems, however, will require supplementation by RAS-AI to increase presence across Australia’s maritime interests.”
Across the RAN’s vast and complex operating environment, the strategy highlighted the security threat to Australian interests generated by the pace of technology modernisation.
Here, the RAN saw a need to “pursue disruptive RAS-AI technologies that have the potential to be ‘game changing’”. In this context, although the RAN is procuring a range of manned platforms, for unmanned platforms it will “require a system-of-systems acquisition methodology that is not platform centric”, underlining the role of unmanned systems as enablers and integrators for crewed platforms.
Set against this context, the RAN sees the mission potential of USVs and UUVs as evolving, from today’s operations (using existing technology adapted for naval operations), across likely near-term opportunities (drawing on projects currently in planning), and towards long-term development (subject to technology improvements) out to the 2040 timeframe.
For USVs, the strategy listed current mission profiles as including: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks in permissive environments; minesweeping; and search and rescue. Likely near-term tasks could include: mine countermeasures (MCM) operations; armed escort; anti-submarine warfare (ASW); air and missile-defence sensing; electronic warfare; and remote-controlled countering of fast-attack craft (FAC). By 2040, tasks potentially could include: ISR in hostile environments; mine laying; kinetic air- and missile-defence operations; autonomous countering of FAC; and ground attack.
For UUVs, current tasks listed include: MCM; countering deployed sensors; monitoring sub-surface infrastructure and coastal areas; communications relay; decoy tasks; inspection of infrastructure and ship hulls; and oceanographic activities. Near-term tasks could include: long-endurance ISR; tracking submarines to support ASW; countering surface vessels; operating as a communications node to connect other assets; and navigation survey tasks. The RAN sees the long-term potential of UUVs as offering simple but significant impact – providing rapid response, time-critical (and covert) land attack capability.
Thus, the RAN envisions unmanned systems as potentially offering a broad range of significant operational impacts, enhanced when integrated with the platforms in the navy’s new force structure. Such vision is also not theoretical. On operations, the RAN, its sister services, and other Australian security agencies are already sharing unmanned systems to provide co-operative capability. The benefits of such technologies are also being tested in extensive experimentation. “To fulfill our potential, we need to engage in constant experimentation, and encourage collaboration and innovation at all levels,” Vice Adm Noonan wrote.
One of the most significant recent developments for the RAN was Autonomous Warrior 2018 (AW18), which took place in November 2018 off the coast of New South Wales. The culmination of five years work, including the RAN’s Hell Bay trials series and Wizard of Aus exercise as well as international activities like the UK’s 2016 Unmanned Warrior exercise, AW18 was designed to demonstrate the potential of unmanned systems to transform defence capability and capacity.
As set out in the strategy, and underlining the importance of regular and rigorous testing in developing unmanned systems concepts and capabilities, from 2021 Autonomous Warrior will transition from being a biennial exercise series to a schedule of four annual events. In 2020, the RAN conducted a national Autonomous Warrior exercise to inform development of the four-event series for 2021 (known as AW21). According to the strategy, this evolved schedule for Autonomous Warrior will help the RAN “demonstrate, evaluate, and trial emerging RAS-AI capabilities at a variety of TRL [technology readiness levels]”: it will also increase defence and industry collaboration, and RAN familiarity with RAS capability. Such co-operation, the strategy revealed, “will underpin a programme of learning by doing, continuous improvement, and development”, and will enable rapid capability introduction.
Shortly after the RAN hosted AW18, Australia’s first major RAS programme – MCM capability development, under Project SEA 1905 – was announced. MCM activities are an initial focus for many navies in developing and operating unmanned systems, given particular desire to keep personnel out of harm’s way. However, the RAN sees the operational impact of unmanned systems as very wide ranging.
In capability terms, “We envisage there are very few operational tasks that cannot be enhanced by RAS and AI,” Commander Paul Hornsby, the RAN’s lead for autonomous warfare systems, told AMR. In operational terms, the complexity of the RAN’s challenge is emphasised by the fact that it faces security challenges ranging from low- to high-end risks in waters ranging from shallow, archipelagic littorals to deep blue ocean. “While littoral operations are the priority, there are no operational applications that we are not exploring [for] the use of these technologies,” Cdr Hornsby added.
Combining the capability and operational requirements, Cdr Hornsby pointed to five primary reasons why RAS-AI technologies are important to Australia. First, Australia has large territories and interests, ashore and at sea, to protect with a relatively smaller population. Second, the need to ‘be there’ across such territories and interests thus requires a balance between human and autonomous presence. Third, there remains the need to reduce risk to personnel. Fourth, unmanned technologies can enhance platform and people outputs. Fifth, there is technology innovation and sovereign capability value in building systems bespoke for the unique challenges of the RAN’s operating environment.
AW18 demonstrated to the RAN not only the ‘art of the possible’ with unmanned systems, but also the importance of trials. “Perhaps the most important lesson of AW18 was just how important it is to conduct operational experimentation,” said Cdr Hornsby. “RAS and AI technology is developing so fast and with such a rapid capability life-cycle that, to stay ahead, we must ‘snapshot’ emerging technologies alongside leading industry products and operational fleet capabilities.”
Reflecting the effectiveness of combining national and multinational activities in the build-up to AW18, Cdr Hornsby said that the rolling ‘Autonomous Warrior’ programme from 2021 will provide focused domain activities every quarter, with the RAN also continuing to learn from allies and their programmes. For the RAN’s own programmes, he explained, “‘Unmanned Warrior’ was about the acceptance of RAS and AI technologies; AW18 was about the application of these technologies. Subsequent programmes are not just about integration and interoperability but, in the near future, interchangeability.”
AW18 and steps forward from it also reflect elements of the RAN’s ‘4PC’ Navy Outcomes construct, for example in terms of partnering with other stakeholders and how this is already delivering technology and capability to support operational use of USVs and UUVs. “Since AW18, the RAN and Australia’s Defence Department have established three particular means to leverage industry and academic innovation,” said Cdr Hornsby. “These are: the Defence Innovation Hub [DIH], which largely deals with smaller turnkey proposals; the Defence Co-operative Research Centre [CRC] for Trusted Autonomous Systems, which deals with larger and more complex partnerships in addition to legal and ethical considerations; and, specific to the RAN, our East and West Coast Centres For Innovation (CFIs), which encourage grass-root proposals from the ‘waterfront’.” The RAN’s two main fleet bases are located on the country’s East and West Coasts: Fleet Base East, at HMAS Kuttabul, Sydney, New South Wales; and Fleet Base West, at HMAS Stirling, near Perth, Western Australia.
As regards the impact of the new partnering constructs, “We are getting a lot of winners, and a lot of lessons, from these three entities,” said Cdr Hornsby. There are several examples. These include, via the DIH, the RAN and Ocius Technology delivering the Bluebottle USV: the wind-, wave-, and solarpowered vehicle, currently being tested off Darwin on Australia’s North Coast, can act as a ‘gateway’ surface platform to enable communications with UUVs and can also be used for surveillance tasks across the spectrum of operations. Similarly, Defence CRC has enabled the establishment of the ‘Autonomous MCM In-A-Day’ project, while the two CFIs have also delivered applications for printing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) parts.
Programmes and technologies
As the RAN begins to move towards the 2040 timeframe and its vision of what unmanned capabilities could achieve, for the period up to 2030 several key programmes are already underway. Alongside SEA 1905, these are: SEA 1770, seeking to develop capability for rapid environmental assessment; SEA 1778, looking to develop a deployable MCM capability; and SEA 129, developing maritime unmanned tactical aerial systems.
The RAN also is keeping a close eye on emerging technologies that will be central to these programmes. “I would envisage Common Control Systems (CCS) and nanotechnology being fundamental to leveraging unmanned systems, and quantum processing being fundamental to leveraging AI,” said Cdr Hornsby. CCS concepts involve the development of a common system for delivering co-ordinated command and control of various different unmanned platforms. Cdr Hornsby also highlighted other technologies that may better enable and integrate the use of USVs and UUVs: “The key ones are underwater communications and combat AI; [these] by requirement need to be as limited as possible. After all, water is never going to be an efficient medium in which to transmit data, by sound or light.”
Australia’s unmanned capabilities are being driven forward by bottom-up and top-down approaches. In the bottom-up context, such is the progress the RAN has made in developing unmanned capabilities that operational squadrons dedicated to their development and operational use have been stood up. These include 822X Squadron (responsible for UAV capabilities) and Australian Mine Warfare Team 16 (USV and UUV capabilities). These squadrons are now well established, said Cdr Hornsby, although he noted that the navy’s Deployable Geo-Spatial Survey Teams (DGST) are perhaps further ahead in applying unmanned capabilities for operations.
In the top-down context, senior officers across the RAN are underlining how unmanned systems have evolved from being ‘add-ons’ to manned RAN capabilities, to being integral to naval activities. Such a combined bottomup/ top-down approach is enabling the RAN to meet another of its 4PC outcomes: maintaining sovereign control in developing unmanned system capabilities. Overall, taking sovereign steps forward in developing unmanned capability is central to the RAN’s strategy. In closing his Foreword, Vice Adm Noonan said “The race in autonomous warfare has already begun. Doing nothing, or waiting for allies to solve our requirements, in not an option.”