Navies around the world are investing in unmanned systems, to provide short-term fixes for operations today and to grow longerterm capability and capacity to enable a more sustained operational contribution from such systems in the future.
The challenges of operating unmanned systems out of sight – for example, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) beyond the horizon or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) below the surface – has perhaps contributed to some navies’ reticence in fully embracing what unmanned systems can bring. Such reticence can also be explained by some navies having to find a financial and operational balance between investing in unmanned systems or in new manned platforms.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), however, is one navy actively introducing unmanned systems for current and future operations, and to augment the output of its people onboard its range of new platforms. The RAN certainly intends to combine its manned navy with new unmanned kit.
Australia’s new navy is manifested in different platform types. At the centre of this new force structure are several already-operational platforms: two Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships; and three Hobart-class air-warfare focused guided-missile destroyers (DDGs). These ships will be joined in the medium to longer term by: nine Hunterclass guided-missile frigates, 12 Attackclass diesel-electric submarines, and 12 Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs).
The RAN’s approach to employing unmanned systems is that it will use such capabilities to integrate and enhance – not replace – the outputs of crewed platforms. This approach was set out in the navy’s new unmanned systems strategy, titled RAS-AI Strategy 2040: Warfare Innovation Navy, published in October 2020.
Fighting and thinking RAN Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan sees his service as a ‘fighting’ and a ‘thinking’ force. In this context, the Chief noted (in his Foreword to the strategy) that, “As a fighting and thinking navy, we must leverage these advances [provided by unmanned systems] to … transform, and improve, our ability to fight and win at sea.” Such advances must be leveraged, he continued, to support delivery of the five ‘Navy Outcomes’ (also known as 4PC): force protection; force projection; partnership to improve joint force integration; maximising force potential; and control (namely, sovereign capability).
The RAS-AI Strategy 2040 defines the challenges and opportunities presented by unmanned systems, and sets out how the RAN aims to develop lines of effort to realise their benefits, especially in enhancing warfighting output and the role of people therein.
“In embracing technology, we must remember that warfare is, and will remain, a fundamentally human activity. Our people will be at the core of our technological advances, and we must design systems with them at the centre,” Vice Adm Noonan wrote. “RAS-AI [Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and Artificial Intelligence] will make our people better warfighters, and will enable us to achieve expanded reach across the region.”
In the strategy, the RAN presented its technology context, vision, and design principles for developing its RAS-AI approach and capability. The navy noted that military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) technologies developed by other Australian services or international partners do not necessarily provide the right capability or capacity to meet the limitations, constraints, and opportunities inherent in Australia’s unique geostrategic maritime environment. To meet such bespoke needs, the document, while not singling out specific technologies, defined the drivers, trends, and challenges that RASAI create for maritime forces, seeking in particular “common enablers that will be required to make the navy ‘RASAI ready’”. Looking out to the 2040 timeframe, the strategy will be supported by a campaign plan consisting of milestones, key performance indicators, lines of effort metrics, and a strategy review (timetabled for 2024).
According to the RAN, the regional geography it operates in is defined by distance and challenging environmental conditions. Across and through this geography, forces (including unmanned systems) must: build common operating pictures; maintain long-range communications; collect, process, and disseminate information in a timely manner; and generate massed effects in multiple locations. Here, the navy noted the role of unmanned systems in operating independently but also in complementing manned platform operations.
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