Rough seas ahead for usv

Unmanned surface vehicles might be the Navy’s future, but they have obstacles to overcome

In October 2000, the guided missle destroyer USS Cole was attached in the Gulf of Aden. The Cole attack, accomplished by ramming the warship with a small speedboat laden with explosives, killed 17 sailors and left a huge gash in the Cole’s hull.

A warship equipped with an outer network of unmanned surface vehicles — small craft propelled along the water’s surface — might have repelled such an attack. That is part of the vision for USVs outlined in the Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan, issued in July.

“The USV vision is [to] develop and field cost-effective USVs to enhance Naval and Joint capability to support Homeland Defense, the Global War on Terror, Irregular Warfare and conventional campaigns,” the USV Master Plan states. “USVs will be highly automated to reduce communication/data exchange requirements and operator loading. They will deploy and retrieve devices, gather, transmit or act on all types of information, and engage targets with minimal risk or burden to U.S. and Coalition Forces.” Navy officials declined to comment further for this story.

Unmanned vehicles have been viewed as a key component of defense transformation at least since the mid-1990s. The Navy Department, which includes both the Navy and Marine Corps, will be unique among U.S. military services by eventually acquiring every major kind of unmanned vehicle.

At the policy and acquisition levels, unmanned air and ground vehicles have captured the lion’s share of government attention and energy. The fiscal 2001 Defense Authorization Act, for example, set goals for the proportion of unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles to be fielded by 2010 and 2015, respectively.

A 2005 report from the Naval Studies Board recommended acceleration of the Navy’s introduction of unmanned air, underwater and ground vehicles without paying much attention to USVs.

The military services have been historically resistant to the introduction of unmanned vehicles, said Robert Work, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “There was clear operational need for unmanned air vehicles, yet the Air Force pretty much fought against them until the 1990s.”

Advances in flight control software changed the Air Force’s attitude, Work said, and now, the Navy is playing catch-up.

What got the Navy interested in USVs, Work said, was the advent of the Littoral Combat Ship. The LCS is designed as a high-speed vessel for operations in shallow waters close to shore. It is equipped with interchangeable mission modules that allow the ship to support anti-submarine, surface and mine warfare missions.

The LCS’ modular design supports the incorporation of USVs. General Dynamics Robotic Systems has been awarded $12.7 million to develop USVs for the LCS.

“The LCS is designed from the get-go to use USVs,” Work said. Using USVs with other naval warfare platforms, such as the DD(X) destroyer, requires cramming specialized cranes on to the deck of the warship for loading and unloading the craft.

If the LCS has inspired the accelerated development of USVs, it could also be the source of problems on several levels. But the LCS has run into trouble with Washington policy-makers. The Navy has canceled construction of one LCS contracted to Lockheed Martin because of cost overruns, according to reports in the Navy Times. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that some of the LCS’ woes stem from the Navy’s desire to build a completely integrated and interoperable capability, taking the system-of-systems approach.

The Navy USV master plan calls for the same type of approach. This tack has landed other government programs in hot water because of technical and management difficulties. But the master plan’s emphasis on the adherence to communications standards could mitigate some of those problems, said Carl Evans, a senior engineer at Applied Perception, a developer of unmanned systems.

That does not mean the Navy’s USV program is dead in the water, but it is unclear how USVs will be used in future naval combat.

The Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan reviewed various available USV types and characteristics, analyzed the attributes associated with USV missions and compared vehicle attributes to mission needs. The review led to the conclusion that smaller USVs, seven to 11 meters in length, should be the backbone of the USV fleet. These are divided into four classes of vehicles — X, Harbor, Snorkeler and Fleet — to perform missions such as searching, minesweeping, towing, anti-submarine activity, electronic warfare and others. The master plan also advocated technology investments that would minimize the use of bandwidth by individual USVs, enable obstacle and collision avoidance, and develop coupled payloads and weapons. The plan also called for developing USVs consistent with the Defense Department’s Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS). “What is striking about the master plan is that it essentially says that we’re going to take standard stuff we already have and develop a master plan around them,” Work said. “The plan advocates the continued use of the seven- and 11-meter rigid inflatable boats (RIBs). The Navy already has the infrastructure to support them. Most ships have the cranes to support seven- and 11-meter USVs.”

Work said the Navy will follow the pattern the Air Force has set for unmanned aerial vehicles. “First they built the Predator, then they went to the Global Hawk. The same thing will happen with USVs. If they prove useful, they will build bigger ones. They may go to a 20-meter RIB with more payload and more capabilities. But you have to get them into the fleet first to prove their worth. A squadron of 40 or 50 USVs could do what a frigate has done in the past and do it cheaper because there are no personnel onboard.”

The system-of-systems approach in the master plan means at the simplest level that “every piece fits within the whole,” Work said. At a higher level, “all parts of the network are interconnected so that they can talk to each other and share data.”

“Interoperability involves more than the cross-compatibility of information systems and messaging,” Evans said. “What we want to do is make a generic base platform on which different modules can be placed. If the vehicle’s mission is a rescue operation, a patient bay module would be slid on. If the next mission is for reconnaissance, you can take that off and put on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors. This will involve incorporating a standard mounting interface into the design.” Standard power, network and video interfaces will also be included.

But, Work said, developing separate components that “sync up is one of the consistent challenges present in any network system.” The Navy wants a series of products manufactured by different vendors that will be able to interoperate with one another, share data seamlessly and be operated from a single location. This system-of-systems approach employed by DOD in the past involves an “arrangement of interdependent systems that are related or connected to provide a given capability,” a January 2006 GAO report said. But this same approach has been discredited in several instances, especially in cases that demand high levels of systems engineering and integration.

“There is a tendency for big defense contractors to want to propose and build these very complex and elaborate programs,” said Philip Coyle, senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based research organization, and a former assistant secretary of Defense. “These programs can be very difficult to manage and very expensive and complex. They say you should never run before you walk or walk before you crawl, but in these programs, the contractors often jump in with both feet, and the programs then crash of their own weight.”

GAO has documented some of the management difficulties associated with large integrated projects. “Programs that are intended to produce interdependent systems are too often managed independently,” GAO said in its January 2006 report. “DOD program management and acquisition oversight tend to focus on individual programs and not necessarily on synchronizing multiple programs to deliver interdependent systems at the same time, as required to achieve the intended capability. Developing more technical complex families of weapon systems as one package “vastly increases management challenges and makes it more difficult to oversee contractors,” GAO said.

Those management difficulties have manifested themselves in the Coast Guard’s Deepwater modernization program, an effort run jointly by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

“That program continues to face a degree of underlying risk, in part because of the unique system-of-systems approach with the contractor acting as overall integrator,” GAO said in an April 2006 report.

In addition to the management difficulties inherent in large government procurements there are technical difficulties associated with the integration of technologies and data.

“Software problems in complex systems can be quite daunting,” Coyle said. “If some of the code is written by one company in India and another part by a different company in the United States, it is easy for things to go wrong unless communications are outstanding.”

As GAO said in its January 2006 report, there are significant risks inherent in attempting to develop a fully integrated system. “The loss of any part of the system will significantly degrade the performance or capabilities of the whole,” the report states.

There are several cases in point. The Navy’s DDG-51 destroyer, FFG-7 frigate and LPD-4 Amphibious Transport Dock Ship, each representing an integrated systems approach, experienced problems with subsystems. The problems, GAO said, have affected the vessels’ day-to-day operations, including online training and personnel activities. The Army’s Future Combat Systems, another network-centric project, has also faltered on requirements and schedules, according to GAO. A December 2005 GAO report cited two key FCS components, the Joint Tactical Radio System and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, for raising “uncertainty about the ability of the FCS network to perform as intended,” GAO recommended establishing low-risk schedules for JTRS and WIN-T.

Thereafter, the JTRS program was reorganized to reflect more modest but achievable goals. WIN-T took a hit on its funding and scheduling and was also reorganized.

Despite the difficulties in developing an interoperable family of USVs, Work said he expects demand for USVs to grow during the next 10 years. “The next iteration of USVs will probably call for bigger and more capable craft.”

Nor does Work expect the fate of the LCS to dictate the future of USVs. “The Navy has said that even if the LCS goes away, USVs will still be utilized by other ships,” he said. “I foresee the Navy issuing tenders for USVs in the 20s and 30s rather than onesies and twosies.”

Work said he believes the master plan is a “good first step” to the eventual introduction of USVs to the arsenal of naval combat capabilities. “It outlines the conceptual mission and leverages existing infrastructure. It lays out a relatively reasonable approach. If the concept proves out, it will lead to bigger and better things.”

Work said he expects the future development of USVs to follow the trend already established by the Air Force in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles. “No one is clamoring for USVs right now,” he said. “But once you get them in the water and in the hands of sailors who have been trained in their use, they will probably find ways to use them that have not even been considered today.”

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