Maintaining Maritime Military Advantage

October 4, 2019 – In this emerging era of great-power competition, the goal of outpacing potential adversaries in developing military technology takes on a new urgency. As emphasized by the late Shawn Brimley in his strategic analysis “While We Can,” recent history teaches that each lead in technological capability is fleeting at best. The U.S. experienced roughly a decade of advantage in the early nuclear era and several decades during the evolution of precision-guided weapons—what defense analysts refer to as the first and second offset strategies. Today’s trends are not conducive to maintaining a decisive edge as the rapid proliferation of technology in the global marketplace will continue to compress the duration of any military technology advantage. It is possible that the emergence of any disruptive technology will be matched within a decade.

The race for military advantage, well underway in the maritime surface, air, space and cyber domains, is also accelerating undersea. In “The Operational Environment, 2035-2050: The Emerging Character of Warfare,” the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) categorizes the development of future weapons systems, many relevant to the undersea domain, for example, range and lethality versus close engagement and survivability; finders versus hiders; connection/aggregation/centralization versus disconnection/disaggregation/decentralization; planning and judgement versus reaction and autonomy. Consistent with current doctrine, the force with the greater range-lethality will maintain a battlespace advantage, enabled by long-range precision sensors—active and passive, above and below the surface. Active sensors, with the advantage that comes with illuminating targets but the drawback of revealing the emitter’s position, will continue to have utility, depending on the degree of battlespace control and adversarial sophistication.

An exception to the range-lethality paradigm is the ability to employ survivable (hardened, concealable) or expendable assets that operate forward in contested environments without requiring full control of the physical space or sensing/communications spectrum. With respect to finders versus hiders, in future land and air engagements, concealment will be very difficult, although that advantage will likely be maintained for the mid-term in the undersea domain—given the cost of operating in harsh conditions, opacity to electro-magnetic radiation, and challenges to acoustic reconnaissance/surveillance that include high clutter and propagation ambiguity. Eventually, for offboard platforms to remain concealed, passive-only sensing, combined with artificial intelligence-based information processing, will be key enablers.

Cooperative networks of offboard systems will be essential to future battlespace operations—and this is where the final two TRADOC categories come into play. The trade space between maintaining control with full communications and accepting the risk of acting without (or with limited) communications will continue to evolve with technology. Centralized control of these networks in the challenging maritime environment will rely heavily on improvements in communications range, resilience and bandwidth; while game-changing modes of independent operation will be enabled by advances in navigation, perception and autonomy. Both centralized and decentralized control will require the processing of large, incomplete and rapidly changing data; faster-than-human decisions; and automation of key decision processes.

Clearly, the formulation of a third offset strategy for maritime superiority will rely on evolutionary and revolutionary progress in sensing and automation. Key developments will be in the areas of advanced sensors; multisensor fusion; signal and information processing; environmental/target modeling and physics; communications and navigation; cooperative  autonomy; quantum computing and sensing; big-data analytics; and machine perception, reasoning and intelligence. These will help realize a networked force of manned and unmanned systems that can sense, comprehend, communicate, predict, plan and take appropriate action in the future operational environment.

Center for a New American Security photo