The future of Littoral warfare

Autonomous vehicles, augmented reality systems and advanced wireless networks were among over 50 new technologies showcased during a recent US military exercise. Claire Apthorp tuned in as experts from industry, academia and the Naval Research and Development Establishment came together to explore new avenues across five areas of amphibious beach landing operations.


When looking toward future iterations of battlefield systems, aligning the requirements of military operators with the technological ingenuity emerging from industry can be a challenge. In decades past, the process typically began with the customer drawing up a list of needs and wants, which industry would aim to meet through the development of systems designed to suit requirements one hundred percent.

However, as budget pressures and the pace of technology development have increased in the commercial sector, today that process more often than not sees the two parties meet somewhere in the middle, with tailored off-the-shelf solutions meeting the majority of requirements. Not only does this see new technologies acquired more quickly and at a lower price point, it allows military customers to divest more of the risk associated with the development of new technologies, putting the onus onto industry to anticipate where military requirements are heading, and to meet them with potential solutions.

In order for this to work, armed forces must work more closely with the commercial sector, keeping industry abreast of how it sees its equipment requirements developing over the coming years, and keeping up-to-date with the types of technologies being worked on in the private sector. Organisations like the US military increasingly use industry days or exercises to do this, inviting participants to bring their newest or prototype wares and put them through their paces within the scope of specific operational areas.

Ship-to-Shore

The Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (S2ME2 ANTX) 2017 held in May was a prime example of this new development model.

"The exercise brought together autonomous vehicles, augmented reality systems and advanced wireless networks."

Designed to enable the US Navy and US Marine Corps to assess emerging technologies within the ship-to-shore operational segment, the exercise brought together autonomous vehicles, augmented reality systems and advanced wireless networks technologies in a series of amphibious beach landings at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Stakeholders from industry, academia and the Naval Research and Development Establishment - including the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and a number of US Navy research laboratories – along with personnel from the Navy and Marine Corps and the Department of Defense, all took part in the event.

Emerging technology innovations were demonstrated across five areas of operations in which the amphibious US forces are looking to improve their capabilities: ship-to-shore manoeuvre; weapons fire support and effects; clearing assault lanes; command and control; and information warfare.

Unmanned technologies

Key to the demonstrations was the use of unmanned vehicles – aerial, surface and underwater – with each demonstration using unmanned vehicles equipped with sensors as situational awareness scouts. These systems were sent to shore ahead of landing parties to gather information on the area and feed accurate details back to commanders, providing a live situational awareness picture for battle planning and force manoeuvre purposes.

A number of systems were tested in this sphere, including the Mine Warfare Rapid Assessment Capability (MIW RAC). This system is a 1lb quadcopter outfitted with an ultra-sensitive magnetometer sensor system to detect mines and provide real-time search data to a handheld Android device. The idea is for the UAS to be sent ahead of marines approaching the beach to quickly detect and locate mines and other hazards such as dangerous metal obstacles within coastal surf zones and very-shallow-water zones well before a dismounted marine or vehicle reaches the area.

A larger unmanned helicopter system, the Vapor 55, was also operated during the exercise. Carrying a radio payload, this UAS – with a cruise/hover endurance of 60/45 minutes – served as a surveillance asset and information conduit to relay data gathered by other platforms, including unmanned underwater vehicles, back to operators on land. This networking capability for unmanned air and maritime vehicles is the critical next step in enabling unmanned technologies, which are already making their mark in the maritime domain, to move to the next level and allow operators to fully exploit their force multiplication capabilities. Crucially, it also plays a key role in amphibious operations, which is one of the few domains where air, surface and sub-surface systems operate together.

Advanced systems

A surveillance tool originally developed for combating piracy and illegal activities in the world’s oceans, the Coalition Tactical Awareness and Response (CTAR) system, was also put to the test. This system uses Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite imagery to conduct large-scale surveillance of ocean areas in the maritime domain. Image data gathered by satellites is processed and relayed to control stations and partners, to inform understandings of maritime activities in areas of interest.

"This system uses Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite imagery to conduct large-scale surveillance of ocean areas."

Other technologies included advanced antennas and communications systems, additive manufacturing on-the-move and positioning systems for a GPS-denied environment, as was the Battlespace Exploitation of Mixed Reality lab – a mix of augmented and virtual reality technologies that allows users to explore how virtual training, data assessment, firing of weapons and even basic concepts of operations can be exploited for future warfighting systems.

Fast-tracking development

It wasn’t just new technologies that were in the spotlight at S2ME2 ANTX, but also the way in which participants brought their knowledge and skills to bear on the common goal of allowing the US Navy and Marine Corps to not only leverage the innovations that industry is developing, but also to understand which of these prototypes have the potential to provide the edge to operations.

Lt. General Robert Walsh, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and Deputy Commandant, Combat Development and Integration, said of the exercise: "Bringing in operators, laboratory capability developers, technologists, our warfare center engineers who are the key to all this, along with the industry piece of it, into a sandbox and letting everybody play in the sandbox and help us figure out where we're going to go."

In this way, exercises such as S2ME2 ANTX may also help steer the way for the US Navy and Marine Corps when it comes to prototyping the identification of those technologies that should be fast-tracked for rapid development. 

Dr. David E. Walker, director of technology for the Office of Naval Research, said: “The large scope of this exercise allows the navy and marine corps to make informed decisions about future generations of technology for use by the warfighter. This pairing of sailors and marines with scientists and technologists will help move innovation at a faster pace.”

The US military is no longer looking to go back to the drawing board every time it is looking for new kit. Exercises like this reflect the modern, collaborative methods being used to tap into industry advances and get new technology into the hands of the warfighter faster, to the benefit of both parties.