ABU DHABI – It’s the return of the fun dateline!
This week’s Drift comes to you live from the back of a Lexus on Highway 10 in the United Arab Emirates between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Drift has already had datelines in Paris, over the Atlantic Ocean, New York City and my parents’ house in Southern New Jersey – it’s a regular Bond film. Well, except for South Jerz.
I’m here for IDEX, a big-ass arms convention, and I’m on location through the next Drift. (Look for the next dateline. It will be fun.) You can look forward to a special show notes edition next week.
With that, I’m very excited for this week’s edition, despite the fact that it prominently features a Patriots fan who lives in my beloved home town of Philadelphia – a slap in the face if there ever was one. But besides being a Patriots fan and one who roots for the Empire in Star Wars, Michael Horowitz is a noted expert in drones and unmanned systems, which he calls them “uninhabited” systems. At The Drift, we refer to naval drones, especially the armed variety, as killer robot ships.
Michael, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, is here to give some insight into the Navy’s plans for unmanned technology on the world’s oceans, which you can brush up on here and here.
Thanks for reading as always!
(PS: Thanks for bearing with me this week. The Drift is a Thursday email, but this Thursday disappeared into a black hole of air travel and too much plane food.)
A Special Drift Q&A: Drone Wars
There are a lot of exciting things happening in the realm of naval drones. Here’s a quick recap of some of the highlights:
With all that in the news, I thought it high time to give Professor Horowitz a call and see what he thinks of some of the CONOPS the Navy is developing in the unmanned realm. I thank him for his time.
David B. Larter: I’ve been writing a bunch about the Navy’s plans to use drones on the surface as distributed offboard sensors and shooters, networked together with larger manned combatants, as the future the Surface Fleet is driving towards. What say you about the Surface Navy’s vision?
Michael Horowitz: It’s a sensible theory, I think. I think it’s sort of interesting how, from a bureaucratic/politics perspective, it’s almost like it took the Navy longer to see the value in uninhabited systems. But now, in some ways, from an operational concepts perspective, the surface and subsurface Navy is arguably thinking more in more interesting ways than the Navy is in the air, or the Air Force itself is.
DL: What have been some of the milestones you’ve seen that give you hope the Navy is on track?
MH: Sea Hunter’s transition last year from DARPA to the Office of Naval Research was a big step in illustrating the Navy’s interest in buying into uninhabited systems on the surface and Sea Hunter is a great test platform for that.
DL: What are some of the potential weaknesses in the vision as it stands today?
MH: If you are looking for weak spots in this potential vision, they are a couple fold. On the one hand, the more things you have networked together (both shooters and sensors) it will limit your vulnerability to an adversary knocking out everything. On the other hand, it requires ever-greater miniaturization, in terms of munitions, power, etc.
Depending on how small you want these platforms to be. If what you’re talking about Sea Hunter size, well the question is could you scale Sea Hunter today? I think the production costs would likely be pretty high. I think the key will be driving down the costs of producing some of these platforms.
And then you have to think about communications. You could communicate via satellite, but then that’s vulnerable to the same anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) disruptions that you would normally have to worry about. Or you could have localized sensor nets. Then you need a way to link that data back to the human-piloted system. You need some way to get the information back to humans and that’s going to be a key vulnerability.
DL: Generally speaking, you like this idea? You think it’s a workable warfighting CONOPS?
MH: I think it’s worth experimenting with. I think the Navy is smartly making choices to invest in these capabilities. The weak point is whether you can extend your sensors, your robotic connectivity. If you think about like a chain that, say, goes all the way back to a carrier that’s really far away or a cruiser. I think it makes sense to invest in this kind of capability. Will it pan out in a way that is secure and fast, with big enough band width? These are the challenges.
You talk about remotely piloted systems, that requires a lot of bandwidth. The more nodes you have, the more you increase the risk that an adversary can disrupt you by knocking one of them out. So you deploy it as a net so that any one node isn’t critical, but then you need to deploy a lot of them. So you get back to scale.
There are some potential savings here. I do think this is a smart investment and I am cautiously optimistic.
DL: Thanks for taking the time out to talk with me!
MH: Sure, no problem.