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The Future is Now for the ADF: Shaping Space for Maritime Autonomous Systems - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, The Future is Now for the ADF: Shaping Space for Maritime Autonomous Systems, 15 April 2024

During my current visit to Australia, both at the 11 April Williams Foundation Seminar and in my interviews and discussions, there is a clear concern for ramping up ADF capabilities now. In addition to any longer term additive capabilities, it is crucial in the evolving strategic context to find ways to enhance the ADF in the near to mid-term. This means finding ways to do so.

Clearly one way to do so is in terms of building in operational space within the operating force for autonomous systems. In my recent book on the subject, I highlighted in detail how this can be done with the extant maritime autonomous systems to provide for mission threads or specific tasks. They are not replacing crewed or manned systems but they can be delegated specific ISR and C2 tasks, and with specific ways they can be weaponized to do specific missions correlated with capital assets.

I had a chance to discuss this approach with Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett, who is not only the Williams Foundation board, but also on the Trusted Autonomous Systems Cooperative Research Centre board.

As Chief of Navy, he launched the initial work on maritime autonomous systems and has seen initial systems coming to fruition. We discussed maritime autonomous systems and the way ahead with regard to the ADF.

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett highlighted: “The surface combatant review took an eye to considering autonomous systems but considered them a generation away. But the reality is that we are already down the autonomous systems path now.

“It is wrong simply to focus on long range prospects for autonomous systems not yet here, such as platforms which could potentially carry a large number of weapons cells, rather than on the systems that are already here. The current systems can deliver significant ISR capability for example, and we need to integrate these systems into the operating force.”

These systems are software and AI enabled and carry payloads. They are continuously upgraded and re-designed as they are used: they are not designed to a platform requirements standard.

As Barrett underscored: “You have to embed them into the operating force to drive the demand for further fleet innovation. They are not an add-in to some future platform.

“We need to use them actively to grow the force we need now in the threat environment we face now. We have done extensive experimentation in our Autonomous Warrior series of exercises but the future is now and we need to get on with it.”

We then turned to a subject which I think highlights how you can enhance the ADF in the next three to five years with technology at hand.

I wrote a study in 2020 on the new Offshore Patrol Vessel, which is a very flexible ship being built now. It is a platform designed to work with maritime autonomous systems. Given the absolute necessity to enhance maritime security in the northern waters of Australia, clearly the OPV in the hands of the Maritime Border Patrol plus autonomous systems is a way to go. And as ISR is enhanced for security purposes quite obviously that is a foundation for direct defense tasks as well.

Not only could the OPV operate as a center for managing the deployed fleet of autonomous systems but it could refuel those who needed to as well. And the crew could swap out or repair payloads on the autonomous systems. Some will be remotely piloted and those could be done from the OPV; others will be truly autonomous and directed to their tasks.

I asked Barrett about this opportunity which in my view is a low hanging fruit for ramping up ADF and Australian security and defence capabilities.

The T-38 MARTAC Devil Ray T-38 Autonomous Maritime Vessel being refueled at sea by a USCG Cutter after coming to the ship by self-direction in 2023 in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations. Photo Credit: MARTAC

According to Barrett: “It was the intention of the OPV to do exactly that. That is why the flight deck was retained. It was intended to compliment or supplement the hulls that are used for constabulary duty. It was to be a hull available to support the work of maritime remotes.

“But we are still experimenting. We are addressing maritime autonomous systems as if they were legacy platforms with a generational life.

“They simply are not like that. They carry payloads that are in a constant state of evolution. Their development needs to be rapid and in relation to the task at hand. They are mission thread defined: not platform defined.

“They are outside of the normal long-cycle acquisition process. In fact, the challenge is that we are NOT organized to be able to use these systems now or to engage in the transformation process driven by maritime autonomous systems.

“You cannot design a future force realistically if you are not engaged in the transformation of force through the use of maritime autonomous systems now.”


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