“Extremely successful event” … “world firsts” … “unprecedented” … “ground-breaking”. It’s safe to say that, judging from the string of superlatives, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pleased with Unmanned Warrior 16, last year’s demonstration of the potential for maritime autonomous systems to undertake military tasks. Unmanned Warrior took place off the west coast of Scotland as part of the Joint Warrior NATO naval training exercise which is hosted by the Royal Navy every autumn, and the post-event report for the activity has recently been published in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. But was the Unmanned Warrior demonstration really as innovative as the MoD would like to think it was?
Publicised as the biggest ever military exercise involving unmanned systems, Unmanned Warrior 16 brought together over 40 participants from industry, government, and academic organisations to demonstrate unmanned systems operating in the air, on the surface, and underwater in realistic military scenarios. The event took place over two weeks in October 2016, with activities centred on the QinetiQ-operated MoD test and evaluation ranges in the Hebrides and the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (BUTEC) at Kyle of Lochalsh.
Industry’s involvement in Unmanned Warrior was a central feature of the exercise, with Qinetiq organising logistics and communications infrastructure for the event and with the programme of demonstration activities designed jointly between MoD and industrial partners. The event attracted big defence industry players keen to demonstrate their equipment – including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Thales – as well as a larger number of smaller and medium enterprises.
MoD’s post-exercise report described Unmanned Warrior as a “highly successful event for all themes”. Highlights listed in the report include delivery of the largest co-ordinated unmanned anti-submarine warfare event held in UK, “the first direct comparative mine hunting trials between manned and unmanned platforms”, and the survey of over 5,000 square kilometres of ocean using unmanned systems. The report argued that unmanned technology “is more robust than generally perceived and is capable of delivering credible military capability today”, although a number of incidents were recorded, including two small aerial drones ditching into the sea, an aerial drone not performing the correct ‘lost link’ procedure, and “minor lithium battery fires” .
Tellingly, MoD also considers the event to have been a public relations success. Unmanned Warrior had a “significant media presence”, starting with a high profile test run of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s ‘Mast’ (Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed) speedboat along the River Thames. An “effective media campaign” saw features about the exercise on BBC TV’s prime time ‘The One Show’, articles in national and local media and the defence sector trade press, and a heavy social media presence. A dedicated team was set up to deal with engagement and the media, which hosted over 150 VIPs from the navies and industry of over 18 different countries and the Minister for Defence Procurement, Harriet Baldwin. The campaign “successfully raised the profile” of Unmanned Warrior, maritime autonomous systems, and the Royal Navy, and doubtless also contributed towards MoD’s wider goal of portraying military drones as a normal, accepted, and benign part of the everyday world.
The post event report lists only a limited number of general findings, although an Exploitation Paper and a Lessons Identified report (both unreleased) apparently give more detail on what was learnt as a result of the exercise and how the knowledge will be applied.
Significantly, Unmanned Warrior highlighted that the use of unmanned vehicles in the short term “is unlikely to facilitate a reduction in manpower”, but will instead require “redistribution and retraining of existing manpower”. The role of human operators is likely to change “from one physically conducting operations to one of monitoring operations and processing the data collected”. “Significant effort” will be required by the Royal Navy to develop the necessary doctrine and train suitably qualified and experienced personnel to operate unmanned vehicles to their full potential. Given that the Navy, like all the armed forces, is facing considerable financial and staffing pressures this is likely to be disappointing news to senior officers, as it will increase the challenges in using autonomous systems to undertake routine activities while allowing fewer numbers of humans to focus on core tasks.
Others have been more exacting in their evaluation of Unmanned Warrior. Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Guardian newspaper that the exercise lagged years behind similar US initiatives where manufacturers of unmanned technology “had to prove their equipment worked outside of clean conditions” in real-world operations against drug smugglers in the Caribbean. In contrast, Unmanned Warrior was “late to the game and not very ambitious” and was functioning as a “sales pitch from the UK for business”.
Tim Robinson, editor of ‘Aerospace’ magazine, asked why there were “some notable platforms missing” from Unmanned Warrior, including the RAF’s Reaper drone and pointed out the challenge that defence funding poses for unmanned systems, where “the real cost is likely to be in the IT, communications and ISTAR networks to allow imagery, data and intelligence to be shared between ships, aircraft, UAVs, and ground stations” and in integrating these systems. There is also a risk of “drawing the wrong lessons or not being innovative enough in adopting this new technology”. “Cultural obstacles and ‘we have always done it this way’ may be bigger barriers than technical challenges”, he said.
In the final evaluation, Unmanned Warrior’s significance is perhaps that the UK’s armed forces have, for the first time, incorporated drones and unmanned systems as a central element in a major international military exercise. From now on unmanned systems can be expected to be a regular feature in such exercises. Although effective at generating publicity about maritime drones, Unmanned Warrior still left a lot to be desired in terms of transparency about their military uses and potential modes of operation.