Meeting Australia’s – and the Region’s – Defence Needs: The Role of Autonomous Systems

It is beyond debate that global trends are converging to make the 21st Century the Asia-Pacific Century. Just as certainly, for myriad reasons, the nations of the region – Australia chief among them – have moved forward proactively to enhance their defence posture.

15th Oct 2012

Uninhabited Aerial Systems

 Meeting Australia’s – and the Region’s – Defence Needs:
The Role of Autonomous Systems

Byline: George Galdorisi / California


It is beyond debate that global trends are converging to make the 21st Century the Asia-Pacific Century. Just as certainly, for myriad reasons, the nations of the region – Australia chief among them – have moved forward proactively to enhance their defence posture. This often means new platforms, sensors, systems and weapons, each seemingly more advanced than the next.

For Australia – as for many, if not most nations in the region – the focus of this enhanced defence posture is decidedly in the maritime region, for reasons that are clear from a glance at a map. This was emphasized in Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper that emphasized the nation’s shift from a continental to a maritime focus. As written about extensively in these pages over the last several years, Australia’s ambitious naval building program in but one manifestation of this dramatic shift in focus.

Geographic Realities

A primary challenge of providing a robust defence posture with a decided maritime focus – especially for Australia given the nation’s vast equities in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as surrounding seas – is simply maintaining situational awareness of the air, surface and subsurface domains in the millions of square kilometers these areas comprise. And while current and emerging systems and sensors are able to provide situational coverage in some areas for some of the time, the ability to provide continuous coverage for any reasonable oceanic expanse is nascent – at best.

Industry has leaned forward to meet this need and one of the ways of maintaining situational awareness of maritime domains has been through the use of unmanned – or more properly, autonomous – systems, primarily autonomous aerial systems (UAS). Indeed, UAS technologies have been on the cutting-edge for a number of years. The use of these systems in places like Iraq and Afghanistan has spurred this technology along and today the array of UAS (as well as autonomous surface, subsurface and ground systems) is truly breathtaking.

Australia – and many of its Asia-Pacific neighbours – are beginning to invest in these systems and the promise of providing more systems to regional militaries has inspired industry to invest R&D money into developing systems that have more speed, range, endurance and other attributes. And for the moment, this appears to be a potentially profitable business area. But as industry leans forward in marketing these systems to regional militaries, there are certain “fundamental truths” that will make their efforts either fruitful – or vastly less so.


The Grand Challenge

As industry works to provide platforms, systems, sensors and weapons for military forces, the program manager must balance upon a “three-legged stool” of cost, schedule and performance. This has been true for centuries and will likely be true for centuries hence. As one can see from the advertisements industry places in professional journals like this one or as industry presents at booths at military shows, performance is often the primary watchword. Indeed, in the wake of the 2012 London Olympic Games, the theme from Australia’s 1956 Melbourne Olympics, “Faster, Higher, Farther” comes to mind when observing how these platforms, systems, sensors and weapons are presented to potential military users.

In the face of the most challenging worldwide economic climate in at least a generation, affordability has become a new watchword, perhaps the new watchword. And increasingly, manpower has come to be understood as one of the principal drivers of the cost of military hardware. Indeed, for many militaries, this is envidenced by the fact that while the total number of men and women serving in uniform has decreased, the cost of manpower has actually increased. There are many reasons for this – but that is the subject of another article.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of unmanned – or more properly – autonomous systems (called UxS for brevity). For these systems, well and truly, are not unmanned, rather, the man has been taken out of the machine and put on the ground, in a command center, on the ship, or elsewhere. As The Economist noted in October 2011, referring to autonomous aerial systems, “Even calling them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is slightly misleading. There may not be a man in the cockpit, but each Reaper, a bigger, deadlier version of the Predator, requires more than 80 people to keep it flying.” That in a nutshell is the issue, and one that is the grand challenge for the future of these technological marvels.

The Past is Prologue: Coming Full Circle

One only has to read a few lines of defense media reports of autonomous systems development or industry advertisements regarding a particular air, ground, surface or subsurface UxS to come away with the impression that autonomous systems represent completely new technology, an artifact of the 21st Century, or perhaps the late 20th Century. But in fact, autonomous systems have been around for over a century.

As with the use of autonomous systems today in Iraq and Afghanistan, autonomous aerial systems (UAS) have led the way over most of the past century of UxS development and the exigencies of wartime have spurred rapid development of these systems. A large part of the motivation is clear; these UAS (often called drones) can go where it might be too hazardous to risk a pilot in a manned platform.

The earliest recorded use of an unmanned aerial vehicle for warfighting occurred on August 22, 1849, when the Austrians attacked the Italian city of Venice with unmanned balloons loaded with explosives. The first pilotless aircraft were built shortly after World War I. In the United States, the Army led the way, commissioning a project to build an "aerial torpedo," resulting in the “Kettering Bug” which was developed for wartime use, but which was not deployed in time to be used in World War I. Development of UAS, continued through World War II and into the second half of the last century.

Compared to today’s technologies used to control autonomous systems, the technology of the 50s, 60s and even the 70s was primitive at best. In many cases, what was being attempted with drones was, literally, a bridge too far. In fact, the failure of UAS in those early days confirmed for many that UAS were just a bad idea, truncated UAS development, and spawned the development of entire communities of manned airborne systems. But today, technology has made what was impossible decades before possible – and even compelling – today.

Technology as an Enabler

When most people think of UxS, the word “technology” immediately comes to mind. And as military futurist Max Boot famously said in his best-selling book War Made New, “My view is that technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution.” Indeed, in the past quarter-century, militaries worldwide embraced a wave of technological change that has constituted a revolution in military affairs and created the art of the possible and one of the most rapidly growing areas of technology innovation involves autonomous systems.

For autonomous systems, the development and employment of these systems has evolved to the point that they are already creating possibilities that did not exist as little as a few years ago. This remarkable transformation has been supported by the equally rapid pace of technological research and development taking place in many places, but perhaps most prominently, in industry, often in partnership with government laboratories such as DSTO.

However, for unmanned systems to reach their full potential, important Command, Control Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) considerations must be addressed. Simply put, the costs of military manpower mandate that we move beyond today’s “one man, one joystick, one vehicle” paradigm. If the vision of unmanned systems is to be fully realized, the focus must shift to their “intelligence” – that is, to their C4ISR capabilities – rather than remain on the platforms themselves. The way ahead for future autonomous systems is to enable one operator to effectively control multiple autonomous systems and for these systems to ultimately provide their own command and control and self-synchronization, thereby allowing these systems to become truly autonomous.

UxS, Technology, and Manpower

The experience of the U.S. Navy is helpful in understanding the intersection between autonomous systems, technology and manpower. A classic case is the DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) Program. In the early 1960s the Navy approved large-scale production of the QH-60C DASH helicopter with the ultimate goal of putting three DASH units on all its 240 FRAM destroyers. In January 1965 the Navy began to use the QH-50D as a reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle in Vietnam. Additionally, DASH was outfitted with ASW torpedoes to deal with the rapidly growing Soviet submarine menace, the idea being that DASH would attack the submarine with Mk-44 homing torpedoes at a distance that exceeded the range of submarine’s torpedoes. But by 1970, DASH operations ceased fleet-wide. Although DASH was a sound concept, the Achilles heel of the system was the electronic remote control system. The lack of feedback loop from the drone to the controller and its lack of transponder, accounted for 80% of all drone losses.

Even after the failure of DASH, the U.S. Navy continued to experiment with fixed and rotary wing drones. By the mid-to-late 1980s, it was experimenting with fixed-wing drones aboard Navy ships at sea with UAS systems like the RQ-2 Pioneer. I personally participated in Pioneer testing in 1990 while exec of USS New Orleans (LPH-11). A three-aircraft Pioneer detachment came aboard for a week of extensive testing, making dozens of take-offs and landings aboard the ship. In the week of testing, only one of the three drones crashed into the ocean in spite of the furious attempts of the operator to get it safely back aboard the ship.

But what has stuck with the author for over two decades after this event was not the Pioneer crash, but – and perhaps presaging where UxS systems are today – the legions of people who came aboard with the Pioneer aircraft, over three dozen of them. The manpower footprint that came with that small detachment, while admittedly including some extra test and evaluation personnel, was enormous. That may have been affordable over two decades ago – but it is not affordable today in declining defense budgets where personnel costs are the predominant driver of top-line budgets.

It is not clear that industry is being sufficiently incentivized to limit the number of people it takes to operate a given “unmanned” systems. But it is imperative that this be done and done soon. Unless or until this happens, given spiraling manpower costs across most defence organizations, autonomous systems will become increasingly unaffordable. This will cause these programs to crash, figuratively, in much the same way as DASH crashed decades ago.

While this is a challenge for all the military branches, it is perhaps most challenging for navies. While most of the support needs of UxS operators for those systems operated from a land base are often met “off the books,” every UxS operator aboard a ship must be looked after. Each person has a bunk, must be fed, and generates administrative and overhead requirements, all of which add weight and space and often more personnel to these ships. In last generation’s navies with ships with robust manning, there was some flexibility to somehow make this all work. But with today’s – and especially tomorrow’s – optimally manned ships such as the Canberra class LHDs, the manpower challenge is especially acute.

The approach taken by the United States Navy is instructive. Recognizing that one of the primary missions of autonomous systems is their role as information-gatherers, as part of the reorganization of the Navy staff, the U.S. Navy put responsibility and stewardship for autonomous systems under the Information Dominance directorate as part of the Navy’s effort to make information a weapon. The DON Chief Information Officer recently articulated the Navy’s vision for the future of autonomous systems when he noted, “Some type of autonomous analysis needs to take place on the vehicle if we hope to sever the constant link between platform and operator,” signaling the Navy’s realization that increasing investment in C4ISR for unmanned systems to make them truly autonomous may hold the answer to UxS affordability and be the sustainable way ahead for Navy UxS.

It is increasingly clear that industry must achieve greater interoperability among systems controls, communications, data products, data links, and payloads/mission equipment packages on unmanned systems including tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination if these systems are going to be attractive to military users. This transformation thus requires significant increases in the autonomy of autonomous systems. For industry this will become the gold standard for producing affordable UxS.

For navies, the full potential to have autonomous aerial and maritime systems reduce overall TOC for navy ships will not be realized without the concurrent development of the command, control, communications, and computers (C4) technology that enable these unmanned systems to not only communicate with, and be tasked by, their operators but, importantly, to communicate and self-synchronize with each other. Industry would be well-served to focus its R&D areas in this area if it wants to sell these systems to military users.

An Affordable UAS Future – Brains Trump Brawn

Unmanned systems do have the potential to create strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago – and that promise can be realized with substantial improvements in the C4ISR systems that will allow these systems to achieve true autonomy. The actions the U.S. Navy laboratory community is taking to embark on leading-edge research to address this challenge is instructive and is offered as a best-practices example to industry seeking to develop and sell UxS systems to militaries, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region:
- UV-Sentry: The “UV-Sentry” project is a joint developmental effort between the Office of Naval Research and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. This program enables cooperative autonomy and autonomous command and control of UxS. This, in turn, allows for automated data fusion into a common operational picture. Thus, a constellation of unmanned systems with increased intelligence and the ability to adaptively collect and process sensor data into actionable information operate in a self-synchronized manner without having many operators provide constant input and direction to large numbers of autonomous vehicles.
- MOCU: The Multi-Robot Operator Control Unit (MOCU) is an autonomous systems project that allows one operator to control multiple systems in order to reduce manning costs. MOCU is a graphical operator-control software package that allows simultaneous control of multiple unmanned systems from a single console. Given the severely proscribed manning profile for ships like the Canberra class LHD, technology like MOCU could be a strong enabler aboard these – as well as future – surface combatants.
- JUDIE: The Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Digital Information Exchange (JUDIE) is a project designed to enable UAS information-exchange as an initial step in enabling UAS to self-synchronize and ultimately work as swarms. It is an inter-Service project involving all the U.S. military Services and is using the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-7 Shadow UAS as test platforms.
- UCAS-D: UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator) takes advantage of emerging technology to enable autonomous unmanned vehicles to operate in a swarm. Under the evolving UCAS-D CONOPS, this swarm of UCAS-Ds would be tasked as one unit with a mission objective and once the human operator selected a mission and communicated that to the swarm as a unit, the individual vehicles would then communicate and self-synchronize amongst themselves to formulate and carry out a mission plan.

In order to provide UxS that militaries not only need but can afford, industry must emulate cutting-edge R&D efforts such as these to autonomous aerial and maritime vehicles deployed from naval ships as a matter of priority in order to reduce the extent of human operators’ engagement in direct, manual control of autonomous vehicles and thus the number of UxS operators who must be embarked on those ships. Clearly, this is the only way to make autonomous systems more affordable than the manned systems they replace throughout naval fleets.

The Way Ahead

The future for autonomous vehicles is virtually unlimited. Indeed, concepts for new missions, such as using autonomous aerial vehicles to detect approaching ballistic missiles, are being generated by visionaries who have seized on the enormous potential of these systems. But this process is not without challenges.

It will be the defence industry visionaries who develop these systems with a keen eye on reducing the manpower needed to operate these systems, and thus their total operating costs, who will be most successful in seizing the high ground and building a sustainable UxS business enterprise in the Asia-Pacific region.


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