Op-Ed: Reagan National Defense Forum highlights the relevance of new technologies on the battlefield

The Reagan National Defense Forum (RNDF) is one of the most important national security dialogues of the year. “Everyone who is anyone” in the national security space is either an invited speaker or an in-person attendee.

Given Coronado’s long association with the U.S. military, as well as today’s substantial military presence and number of residents who are either active duty or retired military members, what occurs at this event is likely of keen interest to the Coronado community.

Speakers at the most recent RNDF included the secretary of defense, secretaries of the military services, uniformed chiefs of the military services, key innovation and acquisition leaders such as the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) director, senators and congressmen from key defense committees and others who help shape U.S. national security policy.

Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) represent one of the most cutting-edge and innovative technologies in today’s defense space. Given the scope of the RNDF, not every speaker’s remarks were directly focused on unmanned surface vehicles. That said, what was discussed was national security gaps that the U.S. military needs to address, and filling these gaps had a strong emphasis on USVs.

Relevance of new technologies

Some of the high points of the event included:

  • During his remarks, the Director of the Defense Innovation Unit, Doug Beck, described three lessons about the use of disruptive technologies in the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine:
    • The relevance of new technologies on the battlefield, especially unmanned systems.
    • The power that alliances and partnerships can bring to the table.
    • The power of talent, meaning the need for smart operators to fully exploit emerging technologies.
    • Beck noted that these are three lessons that the Department of Defense is leveraging as it looks to help the United States prepare for conflict anywhere in the world, but especially in the Indo-Pacific region. For example, he noted that USVs such as MANTAS and Devil Ray have been invited to Pacific Fleet Integrated Battle Problem events over the past several years (and into 2024) due to their usefulness in the high-end fight in the Pacific theater.
Chris Valdez conducts pre-underway systems checks aboard the MANTAS T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicle during an operations demonstration on April 17, 2021. Photo courtesy of DVIDS.
  • As PACOM Commander, Admiral John Aquilino, pointed out, the United States needs to understand that our primary peer adversary, China, is also watching the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine carefully to develop the force structure, doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures to prevail against the United States.
  • In his remarks, the Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, noted that one of the important lessons we have learned from the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine is the growing need for more autonomy in unmanned systems in all domains. He called out Israel’s Harpy system (an unmanned, loitering, weaponized autonomous UAS) as one example of the kind of weapon that will be important in any conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • During his remarks, Kendall noted that a key technology vital for future conflicts, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, is the ability to implement manned-unmanned teaming to fully exploit the best attributes of both the human and the machine. As an example, he used the Air Force Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program (a manned aircraft such as the Joint Strike Fighter operating with two or more (up to five) “loyal wingmen” unmanned aircraft).
  • During her remarks, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, called out unmanned surface vehicles, which were used with deadly effect in the war in Ukraine, as key assets in any conflict with a peer competitor. She cited the work of the Navy’s Unmanned Task Force as well as numerous exercises, experiments and demonstrations to not only develop technology, but to put it in the hands of sailors and Marines to determine its usefulness. Admiral Franchetti spoke explicitly about the work of Commander Task Force 59 in the Arabian Gulf as well as the Integrated Battle Problem series of exercises where Saildrone, MANTAS and Devil Ray USVs performed several missions.
  • During his remarks, Representative Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), noted that other speakers had talked about the DoD’s “Replicator” program (a favorite program of Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks). While noting that it was a good program in concept, he was concerned that the United States does not yet have the technology to control a thousand or more drones simultaneously.
  • Representative Gallagher also noted that a key U.S. vulnerability vis-à-vis new technologies is that the U.S. hesitates to pick technology “winners and losers” (especially with AI) the same way that the CCP does. He suggested that this is slowing down the effective insertion of AI into U.S. military platforms, systems, sensors and weapons.
  • During her remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Heidi Shyu, reminded attendees that in seeking to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) for military uses, it is important to remember that without well-curated data to mine, AI and ML are all but useless.

Readers of The Coronado News who have read previous articles focused on unmanned surface vehicles are likely not surprised that this signature national security event had a strong focus on one technology. Momentum is building for the U.S. Navy to continue designing, testing, and fielding unmanned surface vehicles as one way to help secure the global commons and enhance the security and prosperity of our nation.

George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator and national security professional. His 30-year career as a naval aviator culminated in 14 years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff. He is a 40-year Coronado resident and enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of 16 books, including four consecutive New York Times best sellers.