Navy Chief Dreams of Laser Warships, Ocean-Spanning Robots

May 25, 2011 - via

Article abstracted for AUV content - The full article can be read at the Danger Room

NEWPORT, Rhode Island — Adm. Gary Roughead will leave the Navy in September. Until then, he’s got one big, overriding mission: make the seas safe for American lasers and robots.

As the top U.S. naval officer for the past four years, Roughead’s not been the flashiest or most charismatic man in uniform. And being part of the Navy in an era of land wars makes being overshadowed somewhat inevitable. He’s earned high marks from defense wonks for largely sorting out Navy shipbuilding, perhaps his highest-profile accomplishment.

But beneath the surface, and increasingly over the past year, Roughead has been concerned with getting the Navy to develop robotic submarines that can prowl thousands of miles of ocean, and lasers that can make missiles a relic of the past.

None of this will happen on Roughead’s watch. And the Navy hasn’t been as enthusiastic about robots as the Air Force or the Army. But on a rainy New England afternoon recently, Roughead made clear that’s the course he thinks his successors need to chart.
“The future of our undersea dominance really does rest on our unmanned systems,” he said. Problem is, the Navy is “not moving fast enough” in developing a drone sub that can travel at great distances. Maybe audience members can fix the problem. Anyone got ideas for energy-efficient long-range propulsion? Roughead wanted to hear them — a challenge he’s spent months issuing.

This particular crowd wasn’t biting. But some wanted to hear more about undersea robots. Did Roughead think robotic subs will get weaponized like their deadly flying cousins? “Absolutely,” he said, musing that some unmanned subs of the future will carry weapons, and others will be weapons themselves, akin to directed robotic torpedoes. “Certainly that would be one of my objectives.”
 Roughead is thinking way beyond where the technology is: ships that patrol under water for 60 to 70 days, launched from Littoral Combat Ships or destroyers that swim as much as 7,000 miles without returning to the mothership. They’d collect intelligence, defuse mines and attack enemies, disrupting attempts to deny manned ships a piece of the ocean or the shoreline.

“What I’d like to see is [an unmanned sub] having that duration, having reconfigurable payloads — one truck with different payloads,” Roughead said, “the ability to communicate — UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] underwater, and the UAVs, use them as relays, so the network comes into play. But on the underwater side, I’d like to see a very common truck with different payloads.” In other words, the subs might carry different sensors or weapons, but all of them should be able to travel an awfully long distance.

That’s nowhere near where the Navy is right now. Unmanned subs are in their infancy, used primarily for mine clearance. The Long Term Mine Reconnaissance System, launched from manned subs, is hardly long-term enough for Roughead: It covers only 120 nautical miles, max.

Some more-experimental robot subs made by private industry, like the Columbia Group’s Proteus, tops out at 324. Propulsion and energy systems aren’t at the point where Roughead’s dream is feasible.

In part, that’s because they haven’t needed to be. Mines haven’t been as devastating for subs recently as homemade bombs have been to ground vehicles and dismounted soldiers, so there’s little urgency to innovate. “They haven’t had that moment that forces military change, where either you lose people or face a problem you can’t solve,” said Peter W. Singer, a military technology researcher at the Brookings Institution [where he's the occasional supervisor of this blog's editor, Noah Shachtman].
Roughead acknowledges that he could have emphasized drones and lasers earlier in his tenure, and warns that setbacks in a developmental cycle could spell doom for the futuristic programs. ”It will be a very easy,” he said, “in an effort to sustain the current programs, to not continue to press on some of the higher technology.”

But if the robosubs and laser weapons end up as part of the fleet of the future, Roughead “may have a second legacy,” Goure said. ”He’s bequeathing to his successor a viable naval modernization program.”

Singer agreed. “The reality is, [Roughead] faces tough budget environment, with a lot of competing interests, and under his leadership, the Navy invested enough to keep it alive and get it to this point,” Singer said. “Should he get stewardship credit? Most definitely.”

External link:

Author:Spencer Ackerman