Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org)
Capt. Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.): Tell us about your squadron–how it’s like other Navy squadrons and how it’s different?
Capt. Jeff Heames: We are just like other squadrons in that we have industrious sailors working to solve complex problems in the maritime environment; it’s what we work with that’s a bit different. We stood up in May of 2019 to encourage innovation and experimentation across three lanes of effort. First, we’re responsible for the maintenance, training and oversight of the Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers. Second, we’re responsible for the transition, experimentation, and integration of unmanned surface vessels (USV) to the Fleet. The third lane is broadly described as capability development operations where we engage across a wide range of initiatives and experiments to support the development of emerging technology.
Just about every system or process we work with is new or unique in some in some way. The Zumwalt class, which includes USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001), and the future USS Lyndon Baines Johnson (DDG 1002) is built on cutting-edge technology that is new to the Navy.
Our current USV fleet includes the Medium Displacement USVs (MDUSV) Sea Hunter, and Sea Hawk. We expect to take receipt of additional USVs from the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) Ghost Fleet Overlord program later this year and in 2022. Even our USV prototypes come in different configurations. For example, the MDUSVs are purposely designed to operate unmanned – there are no bathrooms, drinking water, or food onboard, while Overlord (OUSV) are converted offshore support vessels equipped with berthing and crew messing facilities.
Bottom line: every line of effort at SURFDEVRON involves some measure of advanced technology and innovation. It’s an exciting place to work and we have a tremendous opportunity to make positive impact for the surface force.
There was much promise with DDG 1000. It was going to be a stealthy ship with land attack and littoral ASW capabilities. There were going to be 32 of them, and then 24, and then 12, then seven, and eventually we got three. We’ve gone through a mission change, if you will, with the decision to discontinue the 155 mm Long-Range Attack Projectile round, and thus the Advanced Gun System (AGS) gun becomes redundant. So, how should we look at DDG 1000? What are we looking at using that ship for? How are you experimenting or innovating to put the other amazing capabilities of that ship to best use?
DDG 1000 is an opportunity for the surface force. We’ve been able to evolve, taking the best parts of the original design, while at the same time exploring new opportunities for the class. Installing the Conventional Prompt Strike weapon system on the Zumwalt class is one example. In the near term, we continue to work closely with the program offices to deliver capability and take the ship to sea.
I believe the Zumwalt class has potential to inspire new warfighting capabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for the fleet. We worked closely with the Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center (SMWDC) on the concept of operations (CONOPS), so we have that guidance and are moving forward with it. We’re driving towards more involvement in fleet training and operations. USS Michael Monsoor’s participation in the Integrated Battle Problem earlier this year is one example and we have our eye on some other fleet events.
Zumwalt was designed to have incredible stealth, which would allow it to operate in the littorals. Has that proven to be realized?
I can’t talk to specific capability but will say I am very enthusiastic about the potential.
The next lane you mentioned was unmanned surface vessels. Do you also get involved with unmanned air and underwater systems? Is that also part of your charter in terms of integrating within the surface force?
We’ve done some experiments and integration with a variety of USV, UAV and UUV combinations. We are working closely with our UAV and UUV partners and learning a lot from them. We have strong relationships with SUBDEVRON 5, UUVRON-1, VUP-19, HSCWINGPAC as well as industry partners and entities within the Navy Research and Development Enterprise (NRDE) like ONR, DARPA, and JHU APL. Navy unmanned is a broad ecosystem with many players and the program offices are the glue keeping it together; so we keep a tight alignment there as well.
Have you had a chance to work with either of those “Ghost Ships” yet?
We’ve been working very closely with PMS 406 and SCO on the OUSV at-sea demonstrations and activity. Working with the OUSVs is a win for us, as it helps us posture to integrate those vessels into our future fleet operations.
You mentioned the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk USVs. You have had Sea Hunter for a little while to work, and you recently added Sea Hawk. Are they identical twins, or do they have different characteristics?
They’re very similar in design and equipment, with some minor variations based on lessons learned from one vessel to the next.
Are Sailors operating them? Are they maintaining them? And how are fleet operational units interfacing with the unmanned platforms?
USV operations are combined efforts with contractors, SURFDEVRON and Fleet sailors. For maintenance, we aim to leverage fleet skills and expertise where it makes sense, like diesel engine techs. Other systems are more exquisite and currently require contractor support but may lend themselves to fleet maintainers at a later date. We are working closely with PMS 406 to refine our plan and maintenance needs.
The centerpiece of USV operations is the Unmanned Operations Center (UOC), which has the control system we use to interface with the vessel, plan missions, direct the vessel and display information from the vessel. Recently we were able to have both Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk at sea simultaneously using a UOC ashore controlling one USV and a UOC afloat controlling the other.
Afloat control is the future; operating USVs from a manned warship as an extension of their combat capability using ships force personnel whenever possible – that’s how we get USVs into the DNA of surface warfare.
How are we training Sailors? Is there a school for USV operators?
We have a portfolio of training material we deliver to train Fleet sailors on the nuances associated with operating USVs together with manned ships. While the schoolhouse doesn’t exist yet, for current operations SURFDEVRON provides the training directly to operators prior to Fleet events. In the future, it’s not outside the realm of the possible to envision more formal training pipelines, NECs, or even the potential for an unmanned rating.
How have you been integrating these USVs into fleet exercises or operations?
The MDUSVs have strengths in autonomy and endurance that make them excellent platforms for a variety of payloads and experimentation. Large training events like SWATT as well as smaller events with one or two ships give us the opportunity to integrate USVs on a regular basis. Our control systems can be outfitted on any class of ship so we have lots of options for the at-sea control I mentioned.
We start with a basic sketch of what we might accomplish, work those into objectives with the program office and then jump into the planning process with fleet operators. Like most staffs, we like to begin integrating early and use the Plan, Brief, Executed, Debrief (PBED) process. Having our Sailors and other operators engage early in planning, participate directly in execution and debrief has been very productive. After the events, we gather the learning points and offer them to the program office for consideration.
Have you found that there’s a demand signal for USVs in exercises now that people know they’re out there?
Absolutely. Sailors want to see these platforms in action and they recognize them as part of the future force. There is strong desire to interact with USVs and we are in the position of having to say no more often than we can say yes. We try to approach our fleet interactions with intent to learn as much as possible and provide meaningful capability. It’s not just about accruing hours in autonomous mode, it’s really about the discoveries we make and learning we generate from feedback provided when operating with the fleet.
You talked about the third lane–the basic innovation and experimentation. Tell me how you are encouraging and embracing innovation with your squadron?
I tell our Sailors they don’t need a PhD in artificial intelligence and machine learning to add value. Even with a basic level of fleet experience, our Sailors can tell whether or not a technology is adding value. Whether they know it or now, they can spot good manned-unmanned teaming and come up with ways to improve it – our job is to facilitate that opportunity.
There is a lot of effort in motion across the fleet and the NRDE, which translates into a lot of opportunity. Here in the San Diego area, we are operating USVs regularly and we are working on plans to do more as we take on the OUSVs later this year. We are also involved with CNOs Unmanned Task Force run through OPNAV N9 staff as well as Task Force 59, which recently stood up in the Fifth Fleet AOR.
At SURFDEVRON, we’re in a great position to innovate and we encourage it. Not just in manned-unmanned teaming at sea, but also with USV payloads in terms of what we could do to make the fleet more lethal. The good news is that sailors at SURFDEVRON aren’t afraid to tackle complex, new challenges and bring forward their ideas. I’ve got a team of fantastic self-starters, which is tremendous. I see a big part of our job as keeping our aperture open to new ideas and seeking to understand and articulate new ways to increase lethality within the surface force.
What are the priorities in achieving your vision?
With USVs our priorities are three-fold. 1) Building trust with the Fleet. 2) Achieving cohesion with manned-unmanned teaming. 3) Establishing performance and functional benchmarks. We build this trust by regularly operating with fleet units and normalizing USV-warship operations, we achieve cohesion by adding value to the warfighter and then we look at the data to see where we need to improve.
What are some of those benchmarks, or the metrics that you would be looking at? Would they be the engineering metrics, or range or payload, or navigation and safety?
We are very interested in how well the perception sensors and autonomy are working. We are equally interested in the hull, mechanical and electrical components.
More broadly, we are focused on understanding the potential for how command and control of USVs could be exercised, supporting longer range transits with USVs, effecting C2 handovers between controlling stations for different missions, increasing payload functionality and achieving better technical integration with fleet systems. Ultimately, we want reliable USV teammates equipped with payloads that our sailors and commanders can get excited about.
PMS 406 leads the performance measurement and analysis and we provide input based on what we observe at sea and the feedback from fleet operators. It’s a team effort.
If you can provide that feedback in real time or near to real time, it can be it can be applied immediately.
Faster is the intent. We have been accelerating speed to feedback and developing replay and reconstruction tools similar to those used at SWATT and we’ve made some great progress.
We’re excited to be standing up USV Division One. This new command composed of approximately 150 Sailors will work directly for SURFDEVRON from their facilities in Naval Base Ventura County, California. Their charter will be the transition, integration and operations of USVs with the fleet. Over time, two MDUSVs, four OUSVs from the Ghost Fleet Overlord program and one purpose-built prototype USV will join the Division.
At SURFDEVRON, and soon with USV Division ONE, we continue to thrive in uncharted territory. We are revolutionizing the way we fight by bringing advanced capability to the hands of today’s Sailors – that’s how make these platforms part of our warfighting DNA. It’s an awesome responsibility and we’re up to the task!