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Swarm saviours

Ship & Boat International: November/December 2015

Nobody wants to get in the way of a swarm. And having many small units converge on a larger foe is as effective today as it was in the age of Pericles.

It’s this strategy that lies behind the US Navy’s development of its Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) system. Strained acronyms aside, last year’s tests showcased the abilities of the semi-autonomous system but recent events may now show another way this technology could be put to use.

Mounted on 13 separate RIBs, CARACaS allows the boats to communicate, identify a threat and manoeuvre to protect a high-value vessel ­ all without a single sailor on board. The control box, which can be installed on anything from a patrol boat to a destroyer, has a ‘secret sauce’: a fusion of complex mathematics underpinned by a desire to make warfare safer for naval personnel. Most importantly, CARACaS represents a step beyond remote-controlled vehicles: the RIBs were issued orders and they carried them out autonomously.

Rise of the drones
CARACaS comes three years after the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) trials of its Blackfish system, developed with QinetiQ North America. In the case of Blackfish, the semi- autonomous vessel consists of a retrofitted jet-ski, designed to protect larger ships by providing cheap and effective patrol around a harbour (QinetiQ is looking to market Blackfish to police and security forces).

There have been a couple of motivating factors behind these developments. First is the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in which a small boat detonated against the hull of the ship, killing 17. Rear Admiral Klunder,head of the ONR, was reported to have said that, had drone capabilities been readily available to the US Navy, “I’m sure we could have saved that ship”.

The second factor is the wider context of possible conflict in the Persian Gulf. The Millennium Challenge wargames of 2002 were designed to test the ability of an integrated US command against an unidentified Middle Eastern force.

During this exercise, Lieutenant General Paul van Riper was given command of the opposing team and, using a combination of asymmetric tactics (read: suicide attacks using fishing boats and an overwhelming barrage of cruise missiles), managed to inflict up to 20,000 imaginary casualties on the US side, including ‘sinking’ an aircraft carrier.

The US Navy has hopes these systems will represent an effective countermeasure: the RIBS can be outfitted with machine guns as well as high-tech weapon systems currently being developed by the ONR. As a result, these tests seem to be gradually turning warfare into a computer game, at least for forces with these systems.

Humanitarian significance
Therefore maritime drones could now be experiencing something of an arms race, especially as it has been realised they can outmatch their airborne counterparts both in accuracy and payload capacity. Further, undersea versions might not need to surface when providing coverage.

However, it’s not all about ‘strike force’: one of the tasks the designers envisage for these drones is the defusing of sea mines.

Moreover, the capability to provide effective maritime patrol and reconnaissance has been shown to have humanitarian significance. Schiebel’s heli-drone has already been used by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) to aid the rescue of more than 11,000 people in the Mediterranean.

Rescue operations like these are a prime opportunity for the US Navy to test drone technology’s capabilities while saving lives. The ability to detect and intercept capsized vessels is exactly the kind of task an integrated, network-first force is suited to.

At present, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide unparalleled reconnaissance, and now unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) have the capacity to patrol high-traffic waters without the need to send sailors on unrewarding tasks. The ability for several autonomous systems to work together is what the US Navy is striving for, and, with thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean each year, something as simple as a lifejacket-loaded RIB stands to save many lives.

We’ve already seen that, when it comes to humanitarian missions, having dedicated rescue vessels in range can be costly. However, an integrated air and sea drone operation could potentially detect and swarm rescue boats to the aid of drowning seafarers.

If only the US Navy could spare a few of its small silver boxes.

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