Swarming is a battlefield tactic designed to overwhelm or saturate the defenses of a target, such as a ship or military headquarters. Defenders can overcome attempts at swarming by launching countermeasures that are designed to neutralize or otherwise repel attacks.
A surprise maneuver was used by terrorists in a small boat laden with explosives in a suicide attack on the USS Cole Oct. 12, 2000, while in port in Aden, Yemen for refueling. The attack was attributed to al Qaeda and foretold the attack on the U.S. less than one year later on Sept. 11, 2001.
The explosion ripped a hole in the hull of the ship, killing 17 U.S. Sailors and injuring thirty-nine others.
Now the U.S. Navy has an advanced technology to counter swarming tactics and potential surprise attacks against its ships. Successfully demonstrated over two weeks in August on the James River in Virginia, the first-of-its-kind technology enables swarming capability for unmanned Navy vessels, allowing them to overwhelm an adversary, said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder.
The technology amazingly fits in a device that is a bit larger than a Rubik’s Cube, Klunder said to reporters Sept. 30.
“I have no doubt that if we had this technology 14 years ago, the Cole attack could have been prevented,” Klunder said. “We live in a volatile world with Sailors and Marines in harm’s way to stabilize a region. But I never want Sailors and Marines to be in a fair fight that’s why we developed this autonomous technology for patrol craft… made up of circuit boards… it fits in the palm of my hand.”
The Office of Naval Research sponsored the research that made possible this unique capability in autonomy: CARACaS, or Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing. CARACaS
enables new levels of unmanned surface vehicle (USV) autonomy, allowing multiple USVs to operate at unprecedented levels of coordinated autonomous operation — including moving in sync with other USVs; choosing their own routes; swarming on enemy vessels; escorting ships; and protecting ports, according to ONR.
A combination of hardware and software, CARACaS is the result of a decade of research and development between ONR and partners across the U.S. Navy, academia and industry. Some of the system’s components were adapted for use on small combatant craft from technology originally developed by NASA for the Mars Rover spaceflight programs.
CARACaS consists of two components: perception and decision-making. For perception, the sensor suite and radar provide situational awareness for USVs. For decision-making, advanced algorithms help a boat plan its route, as well as determine its course of action and speed.
The system's radars, electro-optical/infrared sensors and software can be packaged together into a transferable kit, which can then be put on almost any small surface vessel — it is platform agnostic. It gives U.S. naval commanders new options in how to address threats in the littorals and on the high seas — and the possibilities for CARACaS are not limited to small surface platforms. It is conceivable that large surface ships or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for instance, could one day use similar autonomous control technology, according to ONR.
Theoretically it could also be used in underwater unmanned platforms, Klunder explained. CARACaS in essence allows unmanned vehicles to communicate and coordinate autonomously, with a human operator “on the loop”—that is, supervising and ready to take control if needed — without requiring a human operator to be “in the loop,” or directing every movement of the USV remotely throughout an operation.
CARACaS uses a triple failsafe redundancy that will shut down a vessel that is not responding as expected. Each system includes a kill switch, explained Dr. Robert Brizzolara, ONR Sea Platforms and Weapons Division program manager, who joined the admiral in the brief to reporters.
CARACaS is a leap-ahead compared to remote control technologies currently in place in most naval operations, Klunder explained. Further, it is remarkably inexpensive to field and operate, he said.
“That’s what we do: make innovative capabilities that are affordable. . . That’s the key: affordability. We could make exquisite weapons that we could only afford to build one of, but what good would that do. We built this crazy-affordable technology for existing craft that is already in the Navy inventory. Each system costs a couple thousand dollars to field … and we turned this demo around in just nine months,” Klunder said.
The Navy’s patrol craft include joint high speed vessels and the Cyclone-class PCs which are particularly suited for the maritime homeland security mission and have been employed jointly with the U.S. Coast Guard to help protect the nation's coastline, ports and waterways from terrorist attack; in addition, the ships have been forward deployed to the Gulf region to support operations in the Middle East.
But CARACaS technology is flexible and adaptable and could potentially be used on commercial vessels and U.S. Coast Guard ships, Klunder said.
Some of the key technical enablers of CARACaS are: advanced machine reasoning; advanced perception ability; autonomous control; and distributed, fast, low-bandwidth fusion of situational awareness across multiple USVs. Together, these create a new common operational picture, in real time, and represent a new frontier for research in autonomy, according to ONR.
The algorithmic logic is formulated based concepts of operations (CONOPS), and could be based on techniques, tactics and procedures (TTP), said Brizzolara. “That’s a future goal,” he said.
For the demonstration on the James River, 13 Navy patrol craft were outfitted with CARACaS replicating a high value vessel’s maneuvers in chokepoints such as the Straits of Malacca or Gibraltar, Klunder said.
The patrol craft were fitted with four anti-swarm payloads to demonstrate a range of options available to decision makers, including 50 caliber weapons and non-lethal payloads: flashing lights, loud noise acoustics and microwave-directed energy.
The Navy uses non-lethal advanced materials and non-lethal payloads to hail or warn, move, deny area, suppress, and temporarily disable vessels and individuals that maneuver too close to its ships.
The 13 patrol craft operated independently, as well as collectively, autonomously sensing and avoiding each other and engaging to encircle a threat, Brizzolara explained.
The demo included the operational Navy and the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command operating out of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia Beach, Virginia, Klunder said.
“We have every intention with this technology that Sailors will engage the threat and destroy it, if necessary. There is a human in the loop, the Sailor will make the decision,” Klunder said.
A Sailor remotely monitoring a patrol craft with the CARACaS capability would see a graphical interpretation of the operational picture with a radar overlay displayed on a screen. The only time intervention would be required is if the craft did not respond as expected.
Remote monitoring of a patrol craft outfitted with CARACaS requires just one Sailor as opposed to current operations where three to four Sailors are required to pilot a small craft. The savings in manpower allows Sailors to perform other critical functions onboard ship, such as manning combat or weapons systems, Klunder said.
Although 13 ships were used in the demo, conceivably CARACaS could be scaled for operations involving 20 to 30 ships, Brizzolara said.
Fielding is expected soon, according to Klunder.
“We are in conversations with the fleet commanders and Navy staff and we fully expect that the technology will be operational within the year,” Klunder said.
Office of Naval Research