The fast paced evolution of autonomous systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence as witnessed in the defense applications around the world for the last 3 to 4 years has now culminated into them being an integral part. Months ago we had discussed about modern naval warfare and in the second part we had remarked upon the importance of unmanned surface vessels (USV) for an evolving modern naval warfare. The beneficiary aspects of autonomy and elimination of human component from the coming couple of years onwards will significantly outweigh any cost overruns that is being faced currently due to the time and man hours taken in developing the required embedded intelligence.
It is well known that the navies around the world are looking to capitalize on all these evolving technological advancements. The US Navy is researching vastly in this field and tremendous improvements have been made in the field of robotics and autonomous systems. These technologies are finding their application in many small and large unmanned systems. These unmanned systems can be sent into operations and areas involving high risk and can perform dangerous tasks thanks to the coupled benefits of human component elimination and availability of ultra fast network. Such systems will feature high endurance and large loitering times.
Here we shall provide some insights into the X-USVs like we call it i.e the US Navy’s M-USV (Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel) and L-USV (Large Unmanned Surface Vessel) programs.
X-USVs CONOPS and RFP
Towards the end of December 2019, the US Fleet Forces Command had issued notice to its surface force to develop a concept of operations (CONOPS) for both these programs. The CONOPS will provide information on various capabilities needed such as Initial Operating Capacity (IOC), organization, manning, training, equipping, sustaining and integrating both the USV platforms with individual units as well as with carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups and surface action groups.
The CONOPS will provide inputs to the TTP developers i.e tactics, techniques and procedures, force providers, the acquisition community and resource sponsors for the fleet requirements for X-USVs manning, training and system enhancements inorder to increase the warfighting capability of these platforms.
In July 2019, the US Navy had issued an RFP for the development of M-USV. The M-USV is said to have its initial focus on ISR payloads i.e intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as on EW systems i.e electronic warfare. It will be a pier-launched, self deployed module, open architecture surface vehicle that will be capable of autonomous navigation as well as mission execution. Various concepts such as those by Atlas NA and Austal USA were in the forefront.
In August 2019, the US Navy had released an RFP with similar requirements for the development of L-USV. The L-USV will be a high endurance, reconfigurable ship equipped with VLS cells (Vertical Launch Systems). In addition to this there will be space to accomodate various payloads. These modular payloads could include anti-ship, anti-submarine or anti-air weapons. Such a large payload capacity enables the LUSV to conduct a variety of warfare operations independently or in conjunction with manned surface combatants. The L-USV is designed to be affordable, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on existing hull forms. The beauty of L-USV is that it will be capable of semi-autonomous or fully autonomous operations thereby providing the US Navy the room to augment based on mission needs. The operators can control the USV either remotely or enable it through autonomy.
The construction of L-USV had started in 2020. $209.2 million fund for initial two L-USVs was included in the 2020 Defense Appropriations Bill which had plans to buy eight more over a five year projection known as the Future Years Defense Program. Atlas NA in partnership with Columbia Group had unveiled an L-USV design based on the MEKO A-100 hull form which is 100 metres in length. During Sea Air Space trade show 2019, Several USV designs were unveiled by Austal USA which included one based on their existing catamaran design for JHSV (Joint High Speed Vessel) which is currently known as T-EPF (The Expeditionary Fast Transport). The T-EPF is fitted with a number of VLS cells an has a length of around 103 metres.
Progress, Challenges and Solutions
On 26th August 2021, at the virtual Surface Navy Association’s 2021 Waterfront symposium, some insights were provided with regard to the M-USV and L-USV. It is learned that thanks to the US Navy’s operational experience and learning of unmanned systems, the advancement progress was made in time lesser than initially thought. One naval officer said that unmanned systems are useful for risky battle damage assessment and to close the process of netowkring the sensor to the shooter, instead of using a manned helicopter or a destroyer to accomplish the same mission. However there is no denial from them that although unmanned systems have good ISR capabilities, they still have some limitations when employed. As of now the M-USV will have sensors and electronic payloads and it will be delivered first. The L-USV however will serve as an adjunct magazine i.e multiple VLS cells and will delivered later.
Unmanned systems involve usage of data science and hence involves huge amount of data. The challenge with these programs is understanding the USV data and how to use it. There also is the issue of information overload where despite the availability of algorithms, the USV operators have to analyze such information in the available time and make operational decisions. Certain challenges involve
- Is the USV performing in line with the available data?
- How much level of trust can be placed on these USVs to go out there in the ocean on their own unmanned or unescorted?
- Are USVs really ready to do this?
- Can the USV operator trust this USV to perform the mission autonomously?
- Is the USV performing what is being asked and is it being done the desired way?
It was found that the challenge was to process huge amounts of USV data fast and timely enough for the USV operator to decide on the future usage of USV and its operations turnaround time. Until this challenge is addressed effectively, the above questions would still hold value thereby deeming the USV to be not ready. One way to address this is being done through a feedback loop from the operator to USV using operator’s experience and gathered USV data.
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