The Drift

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Author's Note: The piece was originally published May 28 as an e-newsletter.

WASHINGTON – Good Evening, Drifters

I trust everyone is keeping well and staying safe.

I started The Drift almost two years ago by calling it a “dispatch from my notebook,” and while it has evolved over time, that notion is how I try and keep it centered. Earlier this month at the C4ISRNet conference, I had a great conversation with the Navy’s program manager for Unmanned Maritime Systems Capt. Pete Small.

Capt. Small is a guy I have so, so many questions for so any time I get him cornered it’s a great opportunity. If you attended the conference, I apologize because tonight’s Drift will be a repeat performance. But enough of you didn’t, I thought I’d send you my notes on that conversation, which in this case is a full transcription.

Small is leading the effort on the Navy’s large and medium unmanned surface vessel program, and that’s what we talked about. Check out our conversation below.

Let’s Drift!


The Drift: It seems to me that before you can really enact a concept of operations based on unmanned systems, you need to solve some pretty basic problems, like getting a marine diesel engine to run for weeks without human intervention. Can you talk about how you’re getting after that?

Capt. Pete Small: We plan to send these systems out to sailors who are at the forefront of the fight and we need these systems to work every time and be reliable. So, reliability a fundamental issue associated with autonomous vehicles. And the example of the engine is typically where everybody goes right away: Can the engine run long enough, and how are we going to change the oil in that engine if people aren’t on board? And that’s certainly a concern. But for me, I think there is plenty of technology there and it will get better.

I’m less concerned with will the engine run long enough and more concerned with the reliability of the system as a whole. And, certainly, the autonomy running that vessel is a key aspect of the overall reliability of the system. So, there’s a code and software aspect to this, but there is also the interface between that code and the hull, mechanical and electrical systems that we have on ships.

It’s about self-awareness and the ability to self-diagnose problems and changing conditions associated with that equipment and react to those changing conditions. That’s either by alerting an operator or having an autonomous response that allows the mission to continue. There’s as strong a relationship between that and the overall reliability of those physical systems themselves.

So, I certainly think we need to focus on that and do more. A sailor would sense a vibration; a sailor would hear abnormal noise.; a sailor would see something getting warmer, do the diagnostics and take actions. That’s where we have to get after things to make the systems more reliable.

TD: What else do you need to get after to make these systems more reliable?

PS: Certainly, communications and command and control reliability are paramount: Being able to maintain those network links securely and communicate when desired with the systems as they need to move forward in their mission execution.

TD: As you are thinking about these systems, how far from home base do you imagine them straying? Are they well over the horizon from manned operators or do they stay close to home?

PS: Depending on the weapons and sensors installed in these unmanned systems, that will, to some extent, drive how close we want to keep them to the manned [command and control] nodes. Our medium unmanned surface vessel – relatively small compared to a manned warship – is intended to be further forward, longer endurance and further away from the manned assets in a sensing role.

We’re also working on a large USV, which is really about more distributed capacity. It’s a weaponized platform. And for a wide variety of reasons, we may want to have those closer into the battle force. Less risky posture, tighter command and control due to the nature of the weapons on board. So, we have a concept for a range of options for how far forward we want to put those things.

TD: The U.S. Navy has to be globally deployable and historically building ships for global operations drives cost into the hulls. How are you balancing that with the need to produce a risk-worthy platform? Will they need to be forward based in places like Spain and Singapore?

PS: All the scenarios we’re discussing are far forward: Far from the shores of the continental United States. So, there is absolutely a transit somewhere – a long transit – to get these platforms where they need to be. We’ve got to come through that in a range of ways.

For the medium and large USV, in setting up the specifications and establishing what the requirements should be for unmanned surface vessels, crossing an ocean is a critical part of those missions.

Our infrastructure now is highly optimized around large, very capable, highly manned warships. We spend a lot of time and effort preparing them for deployment and we deploy them overseas for months at a time. They are almost perfectly reliable, we generally send them on a mission, they do it and come back almost without fail.

For these distributed and smaller platforms, we’re going to have to shift that infrastructure – how we prepare, deploy, transit over and sustain these smaller platforms in theater. With a medium USV we’re kind of on the edge of whether its big enough to cross the ocean by itself, and we’re learning, you know, ‘How big does it need it to be?’

You may be able to make it smaller and cheaper to get it to do the job you want it to do ultimately, but if it has to cross the ocean to get there, that might be the overall driving requirement not the end mission requirement.

If you are going to heavy-lift them and bring them over in bulk, well that’s a new concept and we have to figure out how we’re going to do that. What ships are we going to use to do that? Where do we operate from overseas? There’s a range of options in each case, but in general we’re going to have to transition from a system more optimized around our manned fleet infrastructure to a more distributed mix of large, highly manned platforms to smaller unmanned platforms. We’re going to need to talk about things like tenders, heavy lift ships and forward operating bases: Things like that.


Our deepest thanks to Captain Small for participating in our conference. I hope you all found that as interesting as I did, these programs are among the most fascinating in the Navy today.

On to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

Just the links tonight, we’ll get back to the full format next week!

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