On April 7, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work christened the Sea Hunter, a ship that marks the next stage in American robotic military experimenting. At 130 feet long and $20 million apiece, the robotic ship may not seem all that impressive to a country that fields the 1,106 foot and $13 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier. When it comes to future U.S. Navy operations, however, the progress of systems like the Sea Hunter may be more important to the United States’ ability to project power.
How could such a small craft be so important? While large, weapon-packed platforms like the Zumwalt destroyer or the Ford-class carrier have their uses, technological changes could allow American rivals to prevent the United States from projecting power. The proliferation of smart missiles, drones, and electromagnetic tools are shifting the balance away from quality and back towards quantity.
Concerns arise then that if a conflict occurs within an anti-access and area denial environment, that the United States might not be able to respond. The concerns are not just about ships, either. Expensive and complex systems like the F-35 joint strike fighter may be put at risk by the sheer quantitative weight of an enemy response. When it comes to missile defense—both for the homeland and for ships—the United States cannot match incoming missiles with interceptors, which are much more expensive and hard to produce.
With a raft of expensive equipment that it may not want to risk for non-existential crises, the United States may be boxed out of future power struggles. As such, platforms that can absorb risk for relatively little treasure and no human life—like the Sea Hunter—could help turn the tide back in America’s favor. If the United States can produce enough of them to augment missions, these robotic platforms could undertake reconnaissance missions, swarm enemy platforms, and clear the path for the more powerful manned systems. This type of “distributed lethality” strategy has been backed by the Navy and called for by defense experts, such as Dr. Jerry Hendrix from the Center for a New American Security.
Yet, as always when it comes to this type of technological optimism, there are a few issues that could prevent this robotic distributed lethality from being developed. The first has to do with the viability of such platforms themselves. The second and third require issues in defense management that may be too intractable to overcome.
That the Sea Hunter is small (which while part of its selling point) may mean that the U.S. military will have to redevelop weapons for it to use. This may mean an accelerated pursuit of directed-energy missiles (and the energy sources for them), as small autonomous platforms may not be able to launch the missile or house the guns currently in use. Alternatively, if the military makes the platforms larger to accommodate such weapons, it will need to avoid ballooning the costs. This is two parts a technological concern, one part developmental prowess.
Perhaps the more important obstacle for the Pentagon to keep an eye on is the temptation to change platforms to the point where they can no longer undertake their original mission. For example, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is now cited as one of the large exquisite platforms that robotic platforms could assist by undertaking riskier missions. There is some irony in this, however, because the original point of the Littoral Combat Ship was to undertake those sorts of missions itself. The fact that the ship is manned, however, and its increased cost shifted the risk calculus. Can the Sea Hunter fill the gap?
In moving forward, then, the military services and the Pentagon should avoid the constant developmental changes that balloon costs and, in the end, defeat the purpose of small, agile, and low-cost platforms. While autonomous platforms have an edge in absorbing risk because they are not manned, that benefit could be nullified if they are packed with expensive kits. The benefit for using these platforms will be the ability, and willingness, to send them where they may be destroyed. Their purpose then must remain to be, at the core, disposable. If prototyping is used, then the final product should stick to lessons learned during the prototyping. Requirements creep can be limited by relying on mature or near-mature technology in the final product. Opening competition among the services to provide the needed systems could provide more options and help reduce costs.
This all then ties into an even wider organizational issue. The most efficient uses of these platforms will require changes in how the military thinks about, organizes, and deploys its forces. In a world where quantity could be the deciding factor in a battle, the United States will have to develop new organizational structures and strategies to match its new tools. But, with the military’s historical reticence to organizational change, the military will have to work hard to not simply build new tools into stale operational structures.