After the technological breakthroughs especially in communication, automation, and nanotechnology systems, the development and use of unmanned systems in the field of defense continue to increase day by day. Initially, we witnessed unmanned aerial vehicles take the lead. Now we observe that Unmanned Surface Vehicles (or vessels in some cases) are gaining momentum.
The greatest advantage the USV provides a battlespace commander is the ability to operate in very high-risk areas, where the probability of losing manned vessel is considered too high.
Factually, unmanned systems have been used as platforms for the collection of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). However, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of unmanned systems in operative and tactical missions since USV concepts of employment reduced tactical and operational risks relative to current practices. Potential USV missions could range from small torpedo-size data gatherers to large unmanned ships. There are different classifications depending on the tonnage. For some:
- Small (less than 1 ton)
- Medium (less than 100 tons)
- Large (less than 1000 tons)
- Extra large (more than 1000 tons)
According to another classification, Large USVs (LUSVs) are 70 to 100 meters in length and full load displacements of 1.000 tons to 2.000 tons, which would be the size of a corvette-class warship. The Medium USVs (MUSVs) are 20 to 60 meters long, with a displacement of about 500 tons, which would be the size of a patrol craft. Small USVs (SUSVs) are smaller than 20 meters.
So far, we have witnessed mostly small-size USVs ranging from 2 to 15 m long with displacements of 1,5 to 10 tons. In the Turkish defense industry there are some examples of small-size USVs, starting with ULAQ from ARES and METEKSAN, then followed by ALBATROS‑T and ALBATROS-K High-Speed Unmanned Surface Target Boats from ASELSAN, SALVO from DEARSAN and YALTES, SANCAR from YONCA ONUK and HAVELSAN, MİR from SEFİNE Shipyard and ASELSAN…
Missions for USVs
We can currently assume that USV missions fall into two broad categories: non-lethal reconnaissance and surveillance-related tasks, and the more advanced concepts of lethal combat operations.
LUSVs and MUSVs are more suitable for missile launch while small USVs are generally suitable for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
For USV since its radar search area is limited with respect to a UAV, wide area search opportunities are limited. However, in littoral warfare, taking the advantage of their high speed and stealth due to their low radar cross-section and fingerprints, USVs can be used to scan bays, and coves to detect lurking targets, then to shadow for gathering precise target location information.In Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) the primary aim is to engage from the longest range possible. Therefore, it is vital to collect timely target information in order to establish recognized tactical surface picture.
The weapon range of Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM) exceeding the sensor range of the missile-firing unit requires the evaluation and transmission of target data by a third party, acting as an external sensor. Surveillance, identification, classification, recognition, and reporting as a contribution to the surface picture compilation by this external sensor is a prerequisite for the firing unit to decide target selection, weapon, and firing policy. Over-The-Horizon-Targeting (OTHT) is the location evaluation and reporting and transmission of data for a target outside the active sensor horizon of a missile-firing unit by means of a Target Reporting Unit (TRU).
A TRU is required for precise long-range missile strike missions for accurate and continuous data flow of targets and backgrounds. This task can be flawlessly fulfilled by unmanned systems from the air or the surface depending on availability and the various weather and material conditions at present.
USVs can rapidly move towards the target area at high speeds covertly and then detect, locate, identify and track a target of interest for engaging platforms. Engagement in any future conflicts is likely to dictate positive identification of targets before any strike so as not to engage particularly neutral vessels. USVs can meet these requirements performing as a TRU.
Following the engagement, the USV could provide real-time and accurate Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) to the shooter and also to the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC). This process is just as important as engaging the target. The shooter commander does not know whether his/her missiles hit the target, how many hits, and the current status of the target. Battle Damage Assessment is a crucial task that prevents repeated attacks on a target, preventing missile waste. The use of USVs for BDA will allow for a faster and higher quality damage assessment at closer ranges.
For lethal mission…
Armed USVs can be used to develop particularly covert attacks on enemy targets. USVs can also take risks that are unacceptable to manned systems, enabling them to help overcome an enemy’s A2/AD and sea denial efforts.
Given the size of the small USVs available and the onboard missile capacity, it would be appropriate to engage light to medium-weight surface ships. It is clear that for effective engagements MUSV and LUSVs would be more suitable. A MUSV can contain up to 16 large sizes of AShMs while small USVs can only carry a few small sizes of AShMs. A single or a few small USVs formed as a Surface Action Group can be deployed rapidly and attack light surface ships lurking in coves and bays.
The target’s location and background information must be obtained from external sources and fed into USV’s combat system. In case of synchronized attacks are planned from multiple USVs, the common C2 system that controls all USVs should provide Designated Time On Target (DTOT) engagements.
For other types of naval warfare areas such as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Mine Counter Measure (MCM) Warfare…
Both types of warfare deal with underwater, which is considered a mysterious realm due to its stealth character. Therefore, it is always safe to work afar with manned systems. So, there is a wide scope of work for unmanned systems that can operate close to the threat with higher operational efficiency.
Especially in coastal areas, mine countermeasure warfare could be carried out from command centers on the coast as well as from mother ships in open seas. It is possible to cover ranges of up to 10 km with the line of sight communication medium. Initial detection is fairly easy with a USV equipped with side-scan sonar however, destruction of the mine can be challenging. With an experience of more than 40 years world leader in ROV systems for defense, sea mine countermeasures, and deep underwater observations, IdRobotica has developed proven solutions. With the Glaucus system;
- A radio link is established between a USV and a mother ship/unit.
- The USV deploys automatically an ROV and connects to it through an umbilical.
- The ROV is controlled in real-time by the mother ship/unit.
- All ROV information and sensor output are sent to the operator in real-time.
- Both USV and ROV can perform automatic missions or be manually driven.
USVs can be used for various anti-submarine warfare missions. It could be only a detection unit as a sensor node or as an attack unit integrated into a networked-enabled command control system or could be both. Each type of mission dictates vessels of different sizes however, these would preferably be MUSVs or at least larger sizes of small USVs. Also, the use of multiple USVs of different types in a coordinated effort to search and attack would be desirable to increase effectiveness.
A high level of onboard processing and autonomy is required for any ASW task, requiring complex software and hardware development. In addition, robust communications and data transfer are essential to assess and classify submarine contact and then carry out accurate attacks from a far-end command and control station or a mother ship.
ARES Shipyard has developed the ASW version of ULAQ. According to the information shared in the media, it is seen as a sensor or weapon release platform.
Challenges Faced by Unmanned Surface Systems
In peacetime, the communications environment would be benign and without any electronic countermeasures. However, in times of crisis and war, every effort, including electronic and physical countermeasures, would be made. So, the communication systems must be robust, resilient, and redundant.
Secondly, how the USV could defend itself and continue to operate against air strikes, surface firings, deliberate ramming by another vessel, or other forms of attack? The boat must be capable of self-destructing, either by the operator or autonomously, in the event of imminent enemy capture. Deployment with manned systems would also be a solution for some cases. Particularly for MCM and ASW missions, there should be air and surface support.
Meteorological events such as adverse weather and heavy rain, extreme winds, and rough sea conditions can strongly affect the performance of USVs.
We will see more unmanned systems and vehicles in wars in the future. For now, we see mostly small USVs, however Medium and Large USVs are on the horizon. In general, the larger USV platforms tend to be more stable and offer more mission functionality.
For lethal ASuW tasks, individual uses of small USVs will be less effective due to their low firepower, but their use in groups will pose a substantial threat, especially in littorals.
We can expect optimistic results for the MCM and ASW missions. For initial implementations, their coordinated use with manned systems will yield better results.
Naturally, counter systems and tactics will also be developed against USVs. Nevertheless, USVs will find a wide range of operational uses, especially in littoral warfare.
Most USVs are adapted from manned surface vessel designs that inevitably have to deal with personnel accommodation, resulting in a decrease in the sea state a vessel can withstand. This limitation need not necessarily apply to unmanned systems, provided that a custom and a more seagoing design is developed. We will see different designs that will endure the high seas.
New concept of operations and tactics should be developed for USVs and then tried during naval exercises. Changes or improvements to platforms will take effect after feedback and other operational needs from the field. No doubt that Unmanned Surface Vessels will be force multipliers for sure.
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