The Navy, CEC, Project Overmatch, and the Kill WebBlog
February 26, 2022
WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. Last time, we looked at the Army’s IBCS (Integrated Battle Command System) program and Project Convergence exercises, through the eyes of their advanced AI (artificial intelligence) Kill Web algorithms (Rainmaker, Prometheus, FIRESTORM, and SHOT). Unfortunately, the Navy doesn’t talk much about AI algorithms, so that forces us to reluctantly abandon the trusted engineering principle of consistent analytical continuity and view their progress through what they do talk about: their platforms.
The Navy's equivalent of the Army’s program and exercises are the CEC (Cooperative Engagement Capability) program and their Project Overmatch exercises, but they don’t talk much about them either. If you do a web search on “Navy CEC," you come up with the Navy’s "Civil Engineer Corp." That’s the people who manage their shore facilities. If you do a web search on "Navy Project Overmatch," you’ll find references to a secret project for connecting Navy platforms, weapons, and sensors together on a network but no details. What the Navy does is use different names for each exercise or sub-project based on the platforms involved, where the exercises are held, or what they are trying to do (like NetANTX, IMX-22, New Horizon, "Ghost Fleet," Global-14, and Project Overlord).Before we attempt cutting through this Gordian Sailor’s Knot, it’s best that we understand the Navy’s predicament. They got themselves into a big hot mess trying to field unrefined and unproven technologies on new platforms. The LCS (Littoral Combat Ship), the stealthy Zumwalt destroyer, and the new USS Ford aircraft carrier all had major problems. So, the Navy has been overwhelmed by trying to do too many new things with too many new technologies on too many new platforms at the same time. At this point, the Navy is considering retiring older ships (for maintenance cost reasons) faster than they are commissioning new ones. Congress and the Navy Secretary have rejected the Navy’s Force Structure and Fleet Plan proposals several times and the Pentagon has now taken-over that responsibility. They have gone through eight secretaries in about three years and their missions are unclear, except FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations: sailing through international waters without being molested).
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Additionally, several Navy ships have experienced collisions with other ships, multiple ship fires (including the complete loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard), a nuclear submarine crashing into an underwater mountain, several aviation accidents aboard carriers (including the loss of an F-35 fighter plane), and leaking 14,000 gallons of jet fuel from storage tanks and contaminating the local water supply on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Along with these incidents, Navy fighter pilots have been unsuccessfully chasing alien spaceships (UFOs) across the Pacific. So, let’s give these folks a break as we look at what they are trying to do with the Kill Web. Manned surface warships are the first area to probe and aircraft carriers are at the top of that category. In late January, the Navy announced "significant Project Overmatch upgrades" to four existing carriers. But, they didn’t name the ships or what the upgrades will do so we can only speculate. I suspect the upgrades are mostly new communications technologies, that connect the sensors from the ships and aircraft in the strike group into a mesh network and share radar targeting data. Another guess is adding the new AN/SPY-6 longer-range radars. The only detail in the announcement was that they didn’t have to break-out the torches and cut holes in the hulls to get the new gear onboard. The Marines (a division of the Navy) have divested their tank and artillery units to the Army, so their mission now is mostly amphibious assault. The Navy has new LHA-X platforms, that look like small aircraft carriers, to launch the F-35B (vertical take off and landing) fighter planes, helicopters, and landing craft to carry Marines and supplies ashore. Eight Marines and a sailor drowned when their AAV (amphibious assault vehicle) sank in an exercise in 2020, so they are looking at new Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and amphibious vehicle designs. Basically, the Marines are transitioning into a light infantry unit specializing in attacking islands like they did in WWII. Next up are new manned surface ships in design. Again in January, the Navy released an artist’s rendering of the new DDG(X) destroyer. This ship will replace the 70 aging Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (about 10,000 tons displacement) now in service. The 16,000 ton Zumwalt design has been rejected after 3 ships were built. DDG(X) has some of the Zumwalt destroyer stealth features but looks like a traditional ship (no funky-looking tumblehome bow). No further details were included in the announcement. But, destroyers are too cumbersome for many missions, so the Navy is going to build 20 FFG(X) missile frigates (about 7,000 tons). These ships will have 32 missiles tubes onboard, along with a 57mm deck gun, and be able to destroy enemy ships, submarines, small boat swarms, and enemy aircraft attacking larger ships in the strike force. The next ship size under the frigate is the corvette (500 to 3,000 tons), and the Navy already has 23 of them (with 12 more on order). Those are the LCS boats mentioned above, that operate in shallow waters. The latest upgrade for these boats is adding short-range missile tubes on their decks. Basically, corvettes are small fast lightly-armed ships used by countries that cannot afford a navy. They have limited range, very small ammunition magazines, and are mostly used for coastal defense. What’s more interesting is what the Navy is doing with unmanned underwater vessels (UUV) and unmanned surface vessels (USV). Back in December, the Navy opened a new skunkworks for developing and testing unmanned vessels in Ventura County, California. They are playing with XLUUVs (extra large unmanned underwater vessels) like the Orca, about the size of a subway car. The next sizes are the LUUV (large unmanned underwater vessels) and MUUV (medium unmanned underwater vessels). It looks like those platforms will be used for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), anti-submarine warfare, and mine sweeping. The Navy already has some SUUVs (small unmanned underwater vessels) that can be shot out of torpedo tubes or dropped over the side of the ship like Swordfish, Bluefin, and Remus. New SUUV platforms in design and testing are Lionfish, Viperfish, and Snakehead. DARPA and the Navy are now testing a new SUUV shaped like a manta ray, that flaps its wings to move through the water. These small platforms are for ISR missions. One interesting thing about the Navy’s SUUV program is how they plan to charge-up the batteries on those platforms during extended missions. Bringing in a large ship and hanging charging cables over the side will expose that ship to enemy fire while it just sits there for hours. So, they have a plan for a floating low-profile barge covered with solar panels and storage batteries. A cable will drop beneath the barge suspending a charging hub. The UUVs will pick-up a homing signal, come to the hub, plug themselves in, and charge-up much like the Roomba vacuum cleaner does today except it’s all done underwater. As for full-size underwater vessels, the Navy is working on the new SSN(X) attack sub, to go after enemy surface vessels and submarines. These will replace the present Virginia-class subs. The SSBN(X) Columbia-class nuclear missile submarine design is slated to replace the present Ohio-class. But it takes decades to design and build new submarines, so building some cheaper armed XLUUVs, to work alongside our present submarines, could fill the gap until the new subs are ready. On the ocean surface, their LUSV (large unmanned surface vessel) concept will be 200 to 300 feet long and displace about 2,000 tons (larger than a corvette, smaller than a frigate). These platforms will be “missile barges”, carrying a large number of land-attack and anti-ship missiles, and replace the LCS boats now in service. The next size will be the MUSV (medium unmanned surface vessel), 45 to 190 feet long and displacing 500 tons. They are about the size of a patrol boat and their missions will be ISR and EW (electronic warfare). As for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the Navy converted the MQ-25 Stingray drone into a carrier-based aerial tanker. It has been tested over land, but they need to test it at sea (take off from a carrier, refuel a fighter plane, and land back on the carrier). They have the MQ-4 Triton drones (based on the RQ-4 Global Hawk airframe that can stay aloft for 30 hours) for sea surveillance, but they only fly from land-based runways. The Navy also flies the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter from ships, to do sub hunting at sea. It can stay aloft for 8 hours. One thing to note about all these existing unmanned Navy platforms: none of them carry weapons. They are all purely aerial refueling, ISR, ASW (anti-submarine warfare), and EW platforms. Their recent experience makes them very hesitant about putting weapons on UAVs, USVs, or UUVs. Now, let’s explore a few of their recent exercises and programs. In February, more than 60 nations, 9,000 people, and 50 ships participated in IMX-22 (International Maritime Exercise 2022) for 18 days across the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, and North Indian Ocean. They also included some USVs, UUVs, and UAVs in the platform mix. It looks like the objective of this exercise was to share ISR data and radar images with U.S. and other nations’ warships across those five bodies of water. Next, let’s define other programs and exercises under CEC. NetANTX (Networks Advanced Technology Exercise) is their effort to connect all their sensors, weapons, and platforms together. Last October, the Navy sailed some Mantas-T12 small unmanned surface vessels autonomously, along side several manned U.S. and Bahrain ships, without hitting anything. That was called the "New Horizon” exercise. Project Overlord was the exercise where the Navy sent one of their MUSV boats from the Gulf of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and up the coast of California autonomously in June 2021. Ghost Fleet is the general term for all the Navy's autonomous USVs and UUVs with no sailors onboard. And Global-14 was a table-top exercise simulating a naval conflict in the Pacific Ocean, held back in November. Now you see what I mean about the lack of references to CEC and Project Overmatch: the underlying exercises and programs are named differently and scattered all around. When confronting China at sea, the Navy’s new strategy is called DMO (Distributed Maritime Operations), or Distributed Lethality, or "spread out and communicate," or "man-unmanned teaming" (take your pick). But the Navy is on the horns of a dilemma: how many ships they need, their sizes, how many are unmanned, how many are on the surface or underwater, their specific missions, and where to put the weapons are all under review. Navy leaders have declared that humans must fire all their offensive weapons, but can be aided by AI targeting algorithms. They are not following what the Army did in Project Convergence (let the algorithm autonomously find the target and fire the weapon). I suspect the next big thing the Navy does is put the navigation algorithms tested on the MUSV in Project Overlord on some manned ships, but just as a tool for the ship drivers to use. In late January, Mitsui OSK Lines in Japan sent a loaded cargo ship from Tsuruga Port to Sakai Port (over 100 miles) totally autonomously without incident. The Navy needs to look into that. It looks like the Navy is justifiably apprehensive about new technologies, AI algorithms, unmanned vessels, and autonomous weapons based on their troubled track record. I further suspect that Instead of writing and testing new advanced AI algorithms (like Rainmaker, Prometheus, FIRESTORM, and SHOT), they will use their proven AEGIS combat system as a baseline and put a version of those computers and software on other manned ships to reduce the risk of failure. AEGIS works and all it needs is the integration of the different sensors and weapons on the other ships, along with adding some new satellite and radio links to connect the fleet together into a mesh network. The Navy is coming nervously, secretly, slowly, and very carefully into the Kill Web. Well, that’s the best I can do on this topic. I hope it gives you a general idea about what the Navy is doing and the challenges they face. If you want to learn more about how naval warfare is changing, I recommend that you read chapters 7 and 8 of George and Meredith Friedman’s book, "The Future of War" (1996). We’ll see how their IMX-22 exercises played out and how the Navy's systems performed, but I don’t expect anything exciting in the reports. Next time, we’ll take a look at what the Air Force or the Space Force is doing. Both are much more aggressive about deploying new technologies and joining the Kill Web. They haven’t been jaded by failures and accidents like the Navy.