Email this Article Email   

CHIPS Articles: What’s Over the Horizon: Making ISR a Priority for Naval Expeditionary Forces

What’s Over the Horizon: Making ISR a Priority for Naval Expeditionary Forces
By Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Neil Zerbe - January-March 2018
Lifting the Fog of War

There is little question that C4ISR capabilities are no longer just enablers, but powerful weapons that underpin the fight. For a number of reasons, these capabilities have improved at a breathtaking speed, as industry and the military have harnessed new, innovative, emerging technology (in many cases commercial off-the-shelf) to provide better command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools for our warfighters.

Many of these capabilities have focused on the C4 part of the equation, as commanders have sought better ways to command and control their forces. New technologies, such as far more powerful computers, as well as more and better satellites, have allowed those in charge of far-flung forces to direct their militaries to do what is needed to defeat an adversary.

As to latter part of the C4ISR acronym, ISR, having a better view of the battlespace has long been the dream of warfighters. The goal has always been to, as the Duke of Wellington famously said, All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I called "guessing what was at the other side of the hill." This dream was cast in a more contemporary light in 2000 when a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Admiral William A. Owens, published Lifting the Fog of War where he suggested that seeing what was on the other side of the hill would soon be possible with emerging surveillance technologies. What he predicted has become reality across the military services.

Looking back on my 25 years as a carrier naval aviator and carrier strike group C4ISR planner and coordinator, I recall that the ISR piece of the equation was the most essential — but the most difficult to achieve — part of the equation. Even with all the assets of the carrier strike group at his disposal, the commander and his staff often had an imperfect view of what was over the horizon. My post-Navy experience has convinced me that the military — and especially the Navy — would be well-served by a more intense focus on providing better ISR capabilities to our naval warfighters — especially, our aircraft carrier and expeditionary assault strike groups, in an effort to fully lift the fog of war.

Seeing What’s Over The Horizon

As a naval aviator, my first inclination is to think about things that fly as the first-order solution to meeting warfighter needs. Beyond that “aviator leaning,” airborne ISR platforms can move faster and cover more ground, and can search a larger area than their ground, seaborne or subsurface counterparts.

An aircraft carrier or expeditionary assault strike group has a number of manned aircraft that can perform the ISR mission — and perform it well — but these platforms are usually needed for other tasks. Therefore, unmanned aircraft are now increasingly seen as vital assets to provide ISR capabilities to these battle formations, leaving manned aircraft to perform the strike, strike coordination, and other offensive and defensive roles they were conceived and designed to perform.

The U.S. military — and the Navy in particular — has invested heavily in unmanned aerial systems to perform the ISR mission, such as the MQ-4C Triton and MQ-8 Fire Scout. And while the X-47B is no longer intended to be an ISR platform, but rather a refueling asset, there remains a potential for that unmanned platform to perform the ISR mission in the future. Beyond these platforms, there are many other assets described in the Department of Defense FY 2013-2038 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap that can ably perform the ISR mission.

It is not surprising that the development and fielding of unmanned aerial systems has moved forward so rapidly. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the development of unmanned air and ground vehicles to meet urgent operational needs. As a result, the lion’s share of DoD funding for unmanned systems has gone to air and ground systems, while funding for unmanned maritime systems (surface and subsurface vehicles) has lagged.

Today, I see this balance shifting, as increasingly, warfighters recognize the need for unmanned maritime systems to complement our manned platforms in the fight against high-end adversaries, as well as against nations to whom these adversaries export their weapons systems. Like their air and ground counterparts, these unmanned maritime systems are valued because of their ability to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, and to provide options to warfighters with dependable “wingmen” to complement their manned platforms.

As the Navy and Marine Corps have evaluated a wide array of unmanned maritime systems in various exercises, experiments and demonstrations, the list of potential missions for unmanned maritime systems has grown dramatically, as operators recognize the value of these assets to perform missions not anticipated by the DoD-industry teams that build and acquire them.

Unmanned Maritime Systems: ISR Mission for Naval Expeditionary Forces

The United States has global commitments that stress our Navy, especially in today’s challenging budget environment. Increasingly, the U.S. military is finding that its expeditionary forces — built around our amphibious ships and strike groups — are the ones that are most useful in meeting those global commitments.

But the cost of new ships for any navy is substantial, and the U.S. Navy, especially its amphibious forces, has looked to new technology to complement what billion-dollar ships bring to the fight. Increasingly, Navy and Marine Corps leadership recognizes that unmanned systems must be part of their future force structure. And while the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have embraced introducing unmanned systems of all types into their force structure, it is the Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary forces that have been the most proactive in experimenting with a wide variety of unmanned systems.

Two of the most important events in the last year where the Navy and Marine Corps evaluated new technologies were the West Coast Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (S2ME2 ANTX) and the East Coast Bold Alligator 2017 (BA 2017). I had the opportunity to closely observe both events, and was impressed by the potential of unmanned maritime systems to be force multipliers for expeditionary strike groups, ably fulfilling the ISR role.

Unmanned Maritime Systems Evolve as Critical ISR Assets

The importance of using unmanned systems to complement Navy and Marine Corps manned assets was recently emphasized by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, William Bray, in USNI news where he noted, “Responding to a threat today means using unmanned systems to collect data and then delivering that information to surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. The challenge is delivering this data quickly and in formats allowing for quick action.” This emphasis on unmanned systems to support Navy and Marine Corps warfighters can also be seen in the latest R&D plan issued by the Office of Naval Research, Naval Research and Development: A Framework for Accelerating to the Navy and Marine Corps After Next.

While it is one thing to emphasize a platform, system, sensor or weapon in a policy or planning document, it is quite another to test it in the operating environment where it will actually be used. The S2ME2 ANTX is a recent case of the Department of the Navy doing just that with unmanned maritime systems. S2ME2 ANTX provided a realistic operating scenario to demonstrate emerging technology that could complement existing platforms in support of Navy and Marine Corps missions. The S2ME2 ANTX experiment focused specifically on exploring the operational impact of having advanced unmanned maritime systems complement existing Navy and Marine Corps platforms.

Most military professionals recognize the amphibious ship-to-shore mission as one of the most challenging tasks the Navy-Marine Corps team must undertake. During this mission it is crucial to mitigate potential deadly threats prior to putting troops ashore in the face of a prepared enemy force. For this reason, S2ME2 ANTX looked to unmanned systems — especially unmanned surface systems — that could provide ISR, as well as intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). These missions are typically performed by warfighters who risk being killed or captured as they work under enemy threats to provide ISR and IPB.

During the S2ME2 ANTX, the expeditionary force employed an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) aggressively in the face of prepared enemy defenses. A man-portable tactical autonomous system (MANTASTM) USV was commanded to reconnoiter the Del Mar Boat Basin to scout for enemy forces. Once in the boat basin, where it remained undetected, it relayed information to the mission commanders offshore. Subsequent to the ISR scouting mission, the force commander used the same USV to provide intelligence preparation of the battlespace, driving the MANTAS USV into and through the surf zone to provide IPB on information that is typically gathered by warfighters such as the presence of mines, improvised explosive devices and man-made obstacles. As unmanned maritime systems technologies advance, it is likely they will be used even more extensively for ISR and IPB missions.

Several months after the completion of the S2ME2 ANTX demonstration, the Navy-Marine Corps team again tested unmanned maritime systems in a full-on exercise, Bold Alligator 2017, a live event designed to stress expeditionary force capabilities. As in previous Bold Alligator exercises, this year’s event was used to assess new technologies that might support the Navy-Marine Corps team. While S2ME2 ANTX was confined to a relatively constrained operating area off the coast of Southern California, Bold Alligator 2017 was played out over a wide geographic area. The command center was located at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, while expeditionary units operated in and around Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The initial phases of Bold Alligator 2017 were used to find ways to provide long range reconnaissance for the expeditionary strike group. Appropriately named the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance (LRLR) exercise, during this phase of Bold Alligator 2017, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade operators used two MANTAS USVs (6-foot and 12-foot) in the ISR and IPB roles to provide long-range reconnaissance of adversary beaches and waterways. The 12-foot USV was equipped with forward-looking sonar to provide real-time imaging of surf zone conditions, as well as a FLIR camera to provide surveillance prior to the assault phase of the operation.

It is clear that the ability to provide ISR and IPB is crucial for any amphibious operation, especially one where decision-makers are located at some distance from the assault force. It is likely that this type of testing will continue in exercises, experiments and demonstrations throughout 2018 and beyond. And given the challenges the Navy-Marine Corps team is having with maintaining readiness — let alone procuring more expensive ships and other platforms — there will quite likely be an increasing emphasis on harnessing commercial off-the-shelf technology to complement existing amphibious assault forces.

Providing Robust ISR Capabilities to Expeditionary Strike Groups

As stated at the outset, the DON has been proactive — and will likely continue to be so — in introducing unmanned maritime systems into exercises, experiments and demonstrations. A number of upcoming national and international exercises such as RIMPAC 2018, Valiant Shield 2018, Talisman Saber 2018, Bold Alligator 2018, Unmanned Warrior 2018 and Cobra Gold, among others, will provide more opportunities to explore the ability of unmanned maritime systems to provide ISR and IPB for naval expeditionary forces.

I appreciate today’s fiscal constraints, including the uncertainty introduced by continuing resolutions, the Budget Control Act, sequestration, and other factors, that impede an orderly acquisition process. I believe that the Navy-Marine Corps team would be well-served by considering COTS technology, such as unmanned surface vehicles, to complement the manned platforms in today’s expeditionary strike groups.

The DON’s labs and warfare centers are finding ways to enhance the value of unmanned surface vehicles that provide ISR and IPB by enhancing their utility via the other portions of the C4ISR equation: secure real-time transmission of what these USVs see, decision-quality displays for commanders, and the ability to task and re-task these unmanned surface vehicles to operate with varying degrees of autonomy.

This isn’t a hypothetical or long-range requirement; it is an urgent need today. One only need read the summary of the recent (December 1-3, 2017) Reagan National Defense Forum, where speakers such as National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, outlined a wide array of threats: from China, to Russia, to North Korea, to Iran, to ISIS. These threats — as well as others that require a response by Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary forces — were given special emphasis in the recently issued National Security Strategy. And one only need read the headlines to see that the coasts of these nations are the areas where our carrier and expeditionary strike groups are operating. There likely has been no time in recent memory where our Navy and Marine Corps warfighters have had a more urgent need to see what’s on the other side of the hill, as well as to lift the fog of war. Unmanned vehicles can deliver that capability.

Neil Zerbe is a retired U.S. Navy captain with a distinguished career spanning four decades. He was a carrier strike aviator and veteran of deployments worldwide. He has planned and led air combat operations worldwide. He was the Third Fleet J5 and C5ISR planner and coordinator. He participated in the first fleet battle experiments that have now evolved to a formal experimentation process known as Trident Warrior and has worked with the integration of the earliest instantiations of unmanned aerial systems into the fleet. Zerbe is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Naval Postgraduate School and the Defense Acquisition Management School.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Honorable Sean Stackley and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller learn more about the Expeditionary Manufacturing (EXMAN) additive manufacturing capability SSC Pacific rapidly developed and deployed to the Marines at the S2ME2 exercise at Camp Pendleton. Official U.S. Navy photo by Katherine Connor/released
Acting Secretary of the Navy Honorable Sean Stackley and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller learn more about the Expeditionary Manufacturing (EXMAN) additive manufacturing capability SSC Pacific rapidly developed and deployed to the Marines at the S2ME2 exercise at Camp Pendleton. Official U.S. Navy photo by Katherine Connor/released

An Amphibious Assault Vehicle with 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion launches into the water to perform amphibious breaching operations in preparation for the combined, joint exercise, Bold Alligator at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sept. 20, 2017. The training was designed to bolster the Marines’ proficiency and prepare them for supporting future operations. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ashley Lawson
An Amphibious Assault Vehicle with 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion launches into the water to perform amphibious breaching operations in preparation for the combined, joint exercise, Bold Alligator at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sept. 20, 2017. The training was designed to bolster the Marines’ proficiency and prepare them for supporting future operations. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ashley Lawson
Related CHIPS Articles
Related DON CIO News
Related DON CIO Policy

CHIPS is an official U.S. Navy website sponsored by the Department of the Navy (DON) Chief Information Officer, the Department of Defense Enterprise Software Initiative (ESI) and the DON's ESI Software Product Manager Team at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

Online ISSN 2154-1779; Print ISSN 1047-9988
Hyperlink Disclaimer