The panel session on Wednesday morning discussing remotely-piloted vehicles provided several insights into the future of unmanned technology. With Captain George Galdorisi moderating, the panel included Dr Norman Friedman, Brig Gen Peter E Gersten USAF, Col Timothy Healy USA, and LTCol Thomas “Buzz” Rempfer USAF.

This is the second time I have heard LtCol Rempfer discuss unmanned systems. He is a former F-16 and A-10 pilot who flies UAVs today in the combat air support role for troops over Afghanistan, and previously Iraq. LtCol Rempfer discussed the big differences between flying combat air support missions in fixed wing aircraft vs what he is able to do today with remotely piloted vehicles. With his A-10 he usually had just enough fuel to take a tasking, orient towards a target, strike the target, and go home. Despite the ability to deliver a punch in his A-10, he never had any opportunities during a flight to get true situational awareness on the ground or develop any type of connection with the folks on the ground. With his remotely piloted vehicles he would have an opportunity to stay with the unit he was supporting for long periods of time, get to know the commanders on the ground, and get engaged in the situational awareness unlike anything a fast, manned fixed wing fighter is capable of doing. He stressed the relationship between air support and ground operators did matter, but no one knew it would until the UAVs gave the USAF more time over the AO to discover this.

Dr Friedman suggested that no one should get too comfortable with the majority of UAVs that have been developed today. The panel suggested what will likely happen is that the current generation of vehicles may end up being theater specific, incapable of scaling to other theaters primarily because today’s unmanned aviation systems over Afghanistan are largely dependent upon the assured access that we enjoy in the air. Dr. Friedman noted that several smaller companies in the unmanned systems space today may not survive as the DoD moves towards more robust systems, and may not be able to make that transition with the DoD.

But it was Col Healy who first brought up the buzz word most people look for in the unmanned systems hearings – artificial intelligence. In the context of the bandwidth discussion – which is the great limitation of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence is needed to condense the bandwidth costs of the system to allow the system to perform several functions of the aircraft without the pilot, but that doesn’t mean artificial intelligence will lead to complete autonomy. Col Healy suggested there will never be truly unmanned combat systems, “A man will always be in the loop” he said.

In response to a question, Col Healy discussed how the US Army is fielding units that have already teamed manned and unmanned systems. He stressed the value of having the manned and unmanned pilots in the same room during a mission brief was having a significant impact to how missions are conducted, and provides real opportunities to teaming as manned and unmanned systems continue to develop operational concepts and tactics. As more robust remotely controlled strike aircraft are fielded in the USAF and US Navy, the panel left the sense that teaming between unmanned and manned is likely the future in the strike space as well, and will be the future growth area of remotely controlled air systems.

There was one question raised regarding unmanned surface and underwater systems. Dr Friedman suggested that sea state is going to severely limit the utility of unmanned surface vehicles unless larger unmanned surface platforms are developed. This reminded me of the early ideas in the Navy (that were never taken seriously, unfortunately) to just make the entire Littoral Combat Ship unmanned just to see what the problems are to make a large ship unmanned work. Dr. Friedman said the missions of surface vehicles will mostly focus on port activities. Unmanned underwater systems are advancing a much greater pace, and as underwater communications continue to improve this space is going to have significant impact on the way the US Navy fights – not only with submarines but also at the fleet level. Dr Friedman specifically pointed to mine warfare as an area unmanned systems will be required in the future, because as mines continue to get more sophisticated and when deployed in large numbers, he suggested unmanned underwater systems may be the only way to clear minefields in the future.

Following the panel session I asked several in attendance regarding the US Navy’s development of unmanned systems, specifically regarding the perception that the development of unmanned systems has been it is coming along too slow. This was the view of ADM Roughead in the last days of CNO, and Bob Work has frequently discussed the necessity of the US Navy to move faster with those systems. Admiral Greenert recently announced the Navy will move faster on the Large Displacement UUV, a system that was previously thought of as nothing more than a DARPA project. The reasons for the potentially slow-go on unmanned systems include budget priorities, the usual bureaucracy, and community resistance – particularly on the naval aviation side. With the Joint Strike Fighter sucking the budget of naval aviation it is unclear if the US Navy will have anything similar to a robust UAV capability before 2020, and I’m not only speaking of carrier based UAVs but UAVs from most ships. Ultimately everyone seemed to agree it will be the submarine community that advances unmanned technologies in the Navy with the continued development and deployment of unmanned underwater technologies – which some of the folks I discussed this topic with suggested may have the most promise in unmanned technologies long term anyway. Regarding Littoral Combat Ship, it would appear morale is low, but mostly because no one really seems to have any sense of where the mission modules are in terms of development. Amusingly, it’s almost as if no one cares either.

Posted by galrahn in Innovation, Strategy, Tactics

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Beware “anticipated” underwater communications improvements.

    The real ocean is vastly more complex in structure, and internal processes, and random events that interact with the physics of acoustics; much more than the design assumptions of most systems prototyped in protected locations, away from all manner of interference found at various places and times, in the real ocean, and real fishing grounds, channels, and shipping routes.

    Tactical reliability is hard to find in the ocean, and harder – under it.

    Then there are the effects of real oceanic hazards of all types on subsurface vehicles.

    Torpedoes (which are the mothers of all UUV’s) are hard. Very hard to get right. All too often erratic.

    Beware the rosy scenario.

    Robot boats are no better, because the real, big, rough, unpredictable ocean is tough on all boats. ALL small craft.
    The weather bureau puts out special warnings for them, ya know.

    Fragile, they are.

    When matched with the real ocean, aka the old gray widow maker.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    What GBW presents is all true and established wisdom. That we believe these truisms right now is not a particularly compelling argument against going forward.

    Plenty of the world believed that manned flight was not possible in 1899. A very short time later some bicycle mechanics proved that powered manned flight was in fact the new reality. Of course these developments did not come without costs or failures, but the new reality they unlocked appear to have been well worth the investment.

    Communication at depth and speed appears to me to be a ripe area for experimentation. General Cartwright noted in his JWC address that the military needs to continue to move in the direction of solving problems at the machine (computing) level, and the processing power and software necessary to improve underwater communications seems to be within our grasp.

    The nascent radar systems at the beginning of WWII (displayed initially on an oscilloscope) had many analogous challenges such as atmospheric interference, poor reliability, inadequate training, and other real technical challenges. Compare and contrast to AEGIS today.

    One hopes that the correct experiments are chosen for UUV technology development of all sorts, but the reality must be faced that some of those experiments will fail and others will succeed. The naysayers will always point to the failures and say, “I told you so!” Teddy Roosevelt had some wise words on this very subject.

    Maybe we should do things because they are hard instead of trying to largely guaranteed success pursuing the easy. Witness the COL Ripley video to the lower right.

    Google’s effort to develop the technology for mining asteroids is a case in point. While it would be much more technically achievable to attempt to mine Luna or Mars, if Google succeeds at mining asteroids (at a greater distance and much less gravitational pull), then the techniques for mining planets will become a proven state of the art. If they fail in the experiment, then because it is more challenging, it is possible that the techniques and technology for mining planets may still be a proven state of the art.

    That is very smart experimentation. It’s an experiment with a great deal of upside potential, and as long as they are smart caries very limited downside risk.

    Some organizations in the USN practice this sort of smart development, but it is not ingrained in the culture. I’d argue that a culture change is necessary.

    It’s not nearly so much about thinking outside the box. It’s about conducting smart experiments that have the potential to expand the limits of the box while certainly taking a laser-like aim at challenging conventional wisdom.

  • Absalon

    If “…no one really seems to have any sense of where the mission modules are in terms of development. Amusingly, it’s almost as if no one cares either…”, then the LCS program is in danger.

    Bob Work has spoken of the LCS’s as ‘platforms’. If the LCS’s have nothing to carry (i.e. modules), then what role can they play? What mission requirements remain unmet by the failure to complete the mission modules (seemingly all!)?

    Does anyone (CNO, Mr Work, Congress) see the danger of a program which patently is failing to meet the core requirements it was designed to meet – especially in an era of declining budgets?

    If no one has a sense of urgency regarding the lack of modules, then why is the program proceeding?

    Secretary Panetta should focus on the modules in the same way he has recently focused on the issues surrounding the F-22. High-level attention and regular updates would help move the module issue into the light of day and – ultimately – resolution. This would – along with addressing platform related issues (which is already underway) – go a LONG way towards increasing confidence in the LCS program and this would raise morale!

    The path to success for the LCS lies with aggressively, openly and honestly tackling the issues surrounding the LCS modules. Oh and BTW – this would provide a path forward for addressing UAVs, USVs and UUVs.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I don’t think Grandpa is eschewing smart and properly understood experimentation. The notion that sticking to the fundamentals is somehow hidebound and old-fashioned has bitten our collective backsides for a very long time. Some guy even wrote a poem about it.

    “As surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn,
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings, with Terror and Slaughter return!”

    While in 1899, manned, powered flight was merely conceptual, twenty-five years later, significant numbers of “outside the box” thinkers were telling us that armies and navies were obsolete, and all future wars will be won from the air. How easily was such proven fallacious? Ask Richtofen (or Chuikov) at Stalingrad. Or ask Giap. Yet, we still have people telling us things that we know to be fundamentally flawed.

    The promise of unmanned systems (I flew UAVs for two years) is considerable, but so are their vulnerabilities. The link to C2 is fragile by very nature, unless “launch and forget” systems can be developed with such sophisticated algorithms as to virtually think for themselves. See: Skynet.

    The US Navy has long ago ceased meaningful challenges to “transformational” developments. Instead, assumptions are never really validated, nor are potential conceptual pitfalls explored, especially when those assumptions and concepts come from flag officers. Witness LCS and the myriad ways such a vessel can be a mission-kill with the most asymmetric of counter systems.

    No, this is not about doing things “because they are hard”. This is about reducing risk in some areas while assuming a great deal more of it in other, more important and less advertised areas. Largely for perceived cost savings. While UAV and UUV technology is worth pursuing, it is worth pursuing with realistic and grounded concepts of employment. Which is something the Navy has been desperately short of in the last couple of decades.

    Ain’t no delusion like self-delusion.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    You have to know the limitations imposed by the environment and the state of the art, in order to design to adapt to them and overcome them, to get to the next step up the ladder.

    You get higher with ladders which are the best method to go up to the next level. Pretty much step by step and pretty much reliably.

    Great leaps convert at the highest point to great falls, more often than not. See also Amudsen and Scott, comparative contingency planning and “daring improvements in methodology.”

    You have to have the guts to try, and the humility to know you can fall short, and the integrity to admit you did, to get lasting and meaningful improvements. See also Kipling: “The Sons of Martha.”

  • Benjamin Walthrop


    Fair enough.

    You also have to know the perceived limitations imposed by the environment and state of the art, and think to achieve more. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes those decades of struggle are worth the fight. That’s true even if the technology is not used in the way originally envisioned.

    I am merely suggesting that great leaps and small steps forward need to be combined rationally. There have been a few programs that have made what seemed to them to be small steps, but I suspect viewed from your perspective would be great leaps. Some of these have spanned decades and decades in frustrating development. Strangely enough, they now work. The methods to get through the problems you note are largely invented, experimented, and, dare I say, evolutionary challenges in the UUV world.

    The difference of great leaps vs. plodding progress are really relative to a personal view of timescales. One man’s evolutionary would be another man’s revolutionary.

    I read the Kipling piece you posted. I assume you mean that the implementers have to deal with the consequences the “ruling” class decide to pursue. If that was the point, then no kidding. We all have our own masters, but they don’t always know what has to be done to do the job. Kipling was a great observer and recorder of the human condition. He also had a tendency to look to the past as a prolog. While generally true, this is a limiting perspective.

    It’s interesting that folks advocating the study of history say two contradictory things. They are:

    1. Those who eschew the study of history are bound to REPEAT it.
    2. History doesn’t REPEAT, but it often rhymes.

    Those are logically contradictory statements although I tend to agree with the sentiment of each. The challenge then becomes deciding where to use the RESOURCES to make sure the USN is ahead of the curve of the rest of the world in terms of capability and capacity with the vision of averting potentially catastrophic war. Notice that I limited this argument to the USN. I did this intentionally because I believe that the USN (and to a limited degree the USAF) are the only real strategic forces of the USAmerica. At the same time, I remain cautious that I may have overlooked a critical vulnerability because sometimes great leaps appear to be steps on the ladder to some.

    I note that Google is suggesting that they will deliver 5 cm resolution bathymetry data to everyone with access to Google Earth in 5 years because they were curious. That is a stunning achievement (if they can pull it off). The “old grey widow maker” may have something to say about it. We’ll see.

    Finally, on your point of “guts to try, and humility to know you can fall short, and integrity to admit you did” I’d challenge you to expand your time horizons. Of course all of us “Sons of Martha” will carry the water for now.

    I’ve found that the antidote to Kipling’s relative pessimism is found in Heinlein. I’d like to hear your views on that assertion.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    No, Kipling’s work points to the folly of ignoring basic and immutable truths for the promise of shiny stuff.

    Kipling’s is not pessimism but another in his magnificent commentary on the human condition. In that, he ranks with the greats of the literary and philosophical world who have done so, as he speaks to us across more than a century as if he were mouthing the words this morning.

    Heinlein, while interesting and sometimes compelling, is not that.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Also, a serious student of history knows that two seemingly contradictory assertions are often true simultaneously.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    I am no advocate of “plodding” progress. I am (or was, not much doin’
    at this point in my life)an unapologetic fanatic about thorough preparation and thinking the process through, not to mention controlling shortcuts with an iron hand.

    While not my forte’, consider the nuclear power plant for a ship. Science fiction made manifest on a ten year pert chart. That ain’t plodding, and it revolutionized or significantly challenged naval, well, pretty much everything, not to mention the strategic implications.

    But the nuts and bolts engineering is incredibly conservative, and many of the major components of the plant are unchanged since before the first world war, in terms of principles, limitations, tolerances or maintenance requirements. Saturated steam plant, designed and built with enormous care and attention to detail.

    This, for good and ill, molds the people in that part of the Navy.

    Now which part of the outfit delivers their ships ahead of time and below budget, more or less habitually.

    The first step is to get smart. The second is to stay humble and stay on task.

    The poem is about integrity, responsibility, and realistic ambition, and the requirement built into the universe to perform all steps in logical and correct order.

    Revolutions are all too often just attempted shortcuts. Sometimes they work out. Usually they aren’t something you can keep under control, as the French and the Russians know. Or should.

  • Benjamin Walthrop


    Rickover is an interesting case study.

    From our current perspective he was quite conservative. At the time he was doing what he did, I’m not so sure.

    He was undoubtedly brilliant, and he surrounded himself with other brilliant folks. He also understood responsibility and accountability (to a degree) no doubt. At the same time he was a maverick and truly revolutionary. Theodore Rockwell (his technical director) captures this dichotomy very well in his biography of the father of the nuclear navy.

    I don’t see may shortcuts being taken by the USN in terms of unmanned technology. That’s why it’s taking so long. We shall see.

    On the other hand, I see the Chinese taking a great number of short cuts. I think that bodes ill for them. How many submarine accidents have the Chinese experienced? Is the J-20 tested in combat? How many carrier aircraft crashes on landing or take-off have they experienced?

    There are smart folks and experienced folks working these problems for the USN. I’m not one of the smart ones since I’m more GED than MIT.

    To URR: I think Heinlein and Kipling are in the same band of philosophers. The difference being is that one looks forward and the other looks back. I may be wrong.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    A discussion of Kipling is a guaranteed thread-jack. With a nod to Grandpa, too.

    Suffice to say that RK did his share of looking forward, offering advice and counsel that one ignores at one’s own peril.

  • Diogenes of NJ

    I have had the pressure to meet Admiral Rickover one time in my life when he rode us for sea trials (I did not misspell pleasure). I can emphatically state that the Admiral was NOT a proponent of automation for any system related to the reactor, or anything else aboard a submarine for that matter. He also insisted that mechanical/electrical systems be simple and that people provide the complexity where complex control systems were required.

    After Skipjack demonstrated her underwater acrobatics, the Navy developed a graphical display system for the helmsman/planesman positions (looking to fly submarines like aircraft). The development took place in the ’60 by Conolog Corp. (also the name by which the display was known), and if you thought Pong was primitive graphics, you should have tried staring at those primordial Cololog graphics when they were rigged for red. Needless to say, the Submarine Force found out that the graphical displays had a tendency to hypnotize the ship control party, and that lead to a few rather ticklish situations with respect to depth control underway. Although I have not been aboard a commissioned US Submarine this century, I would find it inconceivable that the mechanical depth gauges are not astride of the SCP.

    So here we have yet another example of the folly of ignoring basic and immutable truths for the promise of shiny stuff. There is a connection between Rudyard Kipling and Admiral Rickover. The particular poem however, is so politically incorrect that it is not spoken – even on the internet. A pity really, much wisdom will be lost.

    Diogenes got his dolphins before the current CNO, but I’m sure Admiral Greenert still remembers the principles Admiral Rickover taught to him. God help us if he’s forgotten.

    – Kyon

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    In my view, the lag in U (A,S or U)V’s is more due to imitation of the Professor Langley model of technical development (he who spent a tub of money to not build the first successful heavier than air craft) and not the Wright Brothers’ (who operated on a shoestring, checked out and verified previous efforts by others, did their basic research and engineering design and production pretty much in house, and kept their mouths shut until a successful prototype was in hand).

    Problem is guys like the Wrights and Burt Rutan are found about every generation or so, if you are lucky. But I digress.