News   Lethality

Navy Could Use AI to Combat Swarms of Enemy Boats

April 26, 2019 | BY C. Todd Lopez
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If you've ever walked through a cloud of gnats, you'll know what a nuisance a swarm can be.

On the sea, Navy vessels occasionally encounter swarms as well, in the form of tiny, less-than-friendly enemy boats. Navy destroyers, cruisers and littoral combat ships are powerful weapon systems, but a dozen or more tiny boats, each with a cache of weapons, can be a problem for large, less-agile vessels. And big Navy ships are not optimized to fight dozens of boats shooting from different angles.

A military ship moves through the ocean.
USS Mobile Bay
The guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay cuts through the Strait of Hormuz, April 7, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Connor Loessin
VIRIN: 190407-N-YW238-016C

That kind of problem is why Matt Ward, a researcher with the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Port Hueneme, California, is developing "SWARM-Tac." He explained the motive for the project during Defense Department Lab Day at the Pentagon, April 25.

"Some of our adversaries use lots of small boats to kind of harass our ships," Ward said. "While we have a single, high-capability ship, they will have a lot of these small craft that may not have as [powerful] weapons, but just a significant number of them. What [we're] trying to do is use machine learning and artificial intelligence to generate tactics for the ship to maximize its probability of success against that type of an attack."

A display screen from SWARM-Tac.
SWARM-Tac offers suggestions on how a Navy ship might evade a swarm attack.
Photo By: Screenshot by C. Todd Lopez, DOD
VIRIN: 190425-D-NU123-005C

SWARM-Tac is software, Ward said. The AI-driven technology ingests sensor information already available on a Navy ship — radar and other things used to give sailors situational awareness of what's going on around them, as well as information about the ship itself, its available weapons, and the number of attackers.

The software synthesizes all that information into solutions — and determines the probability for success of those solutions if chosen — for how to evade or destroy a nasty swarm of enemy boats.

A military ship moves through the ocean.
USS Manchester
The USS Manchester sails in the eastern Pacific Ocean, Feb. 27, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Chief Petty Officer Shannon Renfroe
VIRIN: 190227-N-FC670-1453C

Ward said that although SWARM-Tac is still in the development phase, an at-sea test conducted last year using a ship similar to a U.S. Navy vessel yielded "pretty good results."