Drone Motherships make Debut

Sub Title : Drone Motherships may drive fleet composition of the future

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2023

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Former Director, National Maritime Foundation

Page No. : 58

Category : Military Technology

: February 6, 2023

Many navies are speaking of the  Drone Mothership. The idea is essentially to provide a platform which facilitates command and control of multiple  unmanned maritime systems  and for the Motherships to operate ahead of the fleet for situational awareness or maritime domain awareness. There are predictions that Drone Motherships will drive fleet composition of the future

The widespread proliferation of Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS) has led to the idea of Drone Mothership. These platforms can potentially eclipse destroyers and frigates that have stood in the front lines of naval warfare. In December 2022, the US Navy put out a request for information (RFI) for an AttritableUxV Mother Ship (AUMS) capable of “delivering large numbers of UxVs to forward locations in a contested environment”. The RFI includes specific requirements such as range (1,000 to 2,000 nautical miles), endurance (operate in unmanned mode for up to five days while underway), communications systems (line of sight and beyond line of sight over the horizon communications), navigation (follow designated route by using the GPS), speed (12 to 20 knots), sea states (3 to 6 and ability to survive in one sea state higher than the operating sea state), 360-degree camera coverage, resistant to boarding and “self-scuttling capability based on a remote order”. These would be deployed in strategic locations such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. The Drone Mothership also fits into the US’ Navigation Plan (NAVPLAN) announced in July 2022 which outlines Force Design 2045 that would include more than 350 manned ships, 150 large unmanned surface and subsurface platforms and about 3,000 aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is exploring to convert two containerships to serve as motherships for drone operations. Apparently, two disused 3,300 TEU sister box ships (Sarvin and Perarin) currently anchored off Bandar Abbas, have been transferred to the IRGC for conversion into a “mobile military logistics platform”. In late December 2022, the Iranian Navy test-launched an Ababil suicide drone from IRIS Lavan, a landing ship, and destroyed a simulated target presumably the Israeli Eliat Naval Base. This test appears to be prelude to the Iranian plans to deploy and operate drones from such civilian vessels.

It is fair to conjecture that the Iranian plans are also triggered by the first-of-its-kind US task force “Task Force 59” established in 2021 which is part of the US Navy 5th Fleet under the CENTCOM. It has conducted “11 bilateral maritime exercises, three major international exercises, and over 30,000 hours of safely operating [unmanned surface vessels] in waters around the Arabian Peninsula,”.

China too has unveiled  plans to build “catamaran drone mini-carrier” as part of an “experimental naval training force”. A December 2022 CCTV-7 (state television station) footage shows a Navy Experimental Training Base. Earlier, at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow, a model of the catamaran drone mini-carrier training vessel was on display, showing various features on its bow end that are similar to those shown in the CCTV-7 footage.

Also, Zhuhaiyun, a research vessel owned and operated by the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory, entered into service in January 2023. It is China’s first giant-AI controlled research drone carrier and can house and operate dozens of UMS. Although it is meant for marine scientific research including marine mapping and observation and survey sampling, the vessel can undertake sea patrols which are closely associated with surveillance, intelligence gathering and many other tasks under Gray Zone operations.

At least three other navies in the west (Russia, Belgium and Dutch) are planning to build/repurpose Drone Motherships to act as force multipliers. Similarly in Asia, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore are experimenting with ‘Drone Mothership’ concept.

Concept of Operations

UMSs can be divided into at least three categories i.e. unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), underwater unmanned vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). At the heart of “Drone Mothership” is the idea of ‘coordinated and controlled autonomy’ under which the Motherships will operate ahead of the fleet for situational awareness or maritime domain awareness as also act as the proverbial ‘naval’ scouts to forewarn the presence of the enemy. They could also function as the Command and Control of multiple sea drones operating in the area. Significantly, Drone Mothership could be painted gray as warships or wear the colour scheme of a merchant vessel adding to deception and confusion.

Drone Control Officers

It is fair to assume that Drone Motherships will be a manned vessel and the Drone Control Officer (DCO) would possess aviation-technology skills. The DCO would be entrusted with leadership responsibilities, management of the drones and operators, and administration of the drone package carried onboard. At the functional level, the DCO would assume the responsibility of launching, operating and recovering drones at sea. Within these broad responsibilities, the DCO would be entrusted with (a) Mission and flight planning; (b) Pre-flight procedures and inspections; (c) determining suitability of operations based on prevalent weather conditions; (d) addressing drone technical faults; (e) Conducting post-flight reviews, inspections-maintenance; etc.

Indian Navy and Drone Warfare

The Indian Navy has a definitive plan to acquire a variety of UMSs. The top of the line is the US origin Predator (MQ-9 Reaper) drone which is known for both precision and kill, and its capability was demonstrated with the killing of the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by using the Hellfire missile. In 2020, two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones were acquired from General Atomics on a one year lease (which was later extended to two years) by the Indian Navy. According to Admiral Hari Kumar, the Indian Navy chief, “We have gained good experiences while operating the leased drones,” These were put to use in the Indian Ocean and proved successful while detecting PLA Navy ships and submarines operating in the region. In his recent Navy Week Press Conference in December 2022, Admiral Hari Kumar made known that the original plans to acquire 30 MQ-9B Predator armed drones at a cost of over USD 3 billion is very much alive and the “case for the procurement is under process. We are discussing whether the numbers have to be rationalized,”

During the press conference, the Navy chief apparently alluded to the Indian Navy’s plans to acquire UUVs instead of minesweepers. “The Naval force, which currently did not have any single minesweepers, was having a rethink on the whole process…rather than building new minesweepers, the Navy was looking at the possibility of having a mothership that can carry out missions using autonomous technology”.  Earlier, the former Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar had outlined “four categories of UUVs: man-portable Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles (AUVs) with swarm functionality and an endurance of 10 to 20 hours, lightweight AUVs compatible with the existing lightweight torpedo tubes onboard ships and endurance of approximately two days, heavyweight AUVs compatible with the current heavyweight tubes and an endurance of the order of 3 to 4 days, and high endurance AUVs with the capability to submerge for at least 15 days”.

India’s naval ship builders and technology developers – Larson and Toubro (L&T) Defence, Mazagon Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), have begun development of UUVs. At DefExpo 2020, the L&T showcased Adamya, Amogh, and Maya AUVs. The MDL is planning to offer AUVs for export and its XLUUV is “designed to carry out operational tasks ranging from payload deployment, periodic communications, preprogrammed mission execution, and return to base”. Similarly, the DRDO is fielding the indigenous Underwater Launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (ULUAV) which would be “outfitted with ISR payloads, sensors and algorithms designed to enhance their operational capabilities”.

Legal Conundrum

The author has elsewhere noted that the technological transformation led by Industry 4.0 technologies in the war fighting menu also requires deeper understanding of “legal and ethical issues” given their  growing “salience particularly in the context of warfare where surrendering unbridled control to machines to take decisions to kill, injure, or destroy could challenge international law, ethics of war fighting, and human values.”

It is generally agreed that autonomous warfare must be tinkered by human intervention i.e. humans should decide about the use of lethal force. Also, UMSs and associated technologies must be (a) responsible; (b) equitable; (c) traceable; (d) reliable; and (e) governable. Currently, there are as yet no written rules of engagement which is critical for combat operations, and machine-learning technologies are in infancy. Also, a number of issues including conscience, morals and ethics in warfare particularly in the context of International Humanitarian Law are important issues, given that some navies are now exploring weaponisation of autonomous technologies. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

has been spearheading the global debate on ethics and conscience in the context of use of fully autonomous weapon systems and it has been argued that “a minimum level of human control be retained over weapon systems and the use of force, variously characterized as ‘meaningful’ or ‘effective’ ‘human control’ or ‘appropriate human involvement’. As such, these rules demand limits on autonomy in weapon systems.”

Concluding Thoughts

There are predictions that Drone Motherships will drive fleet composition of the future; however, it is too early to announce the death of traditional warships which would continue to spearhead combat at sea. There are several technical, doctrinal, operational, and above all legal issues that remain unanswered or even at nascent stage of understanding.