There has been much debate on how the Navy should organize to promote the rapid development and fielding of unmanned systems at meaningful scale. Some have argued to “treat unmanned as unmanned” and separate it from traditional and competing manned platform resource sponsors and war-fighting institutions. Others have recommended an Autonomy Project Office similar to those stood up for the development of nuclear power, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and the Aegis combat system.1
There are pros and cons to any approach, but resourcing and developing unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) from within traditional warfighting domains and resource sponsors has an advantage in creating acceptance and ownership to support critical man–machine teaming. Consolidating acquisition efforts across warfighting domains within the Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office and Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants has allowed the Navy to create efficiencies and standardization and provide a focal point for coordination with industry, other Navy stakeholders, the Navy research-and-development enterprise, and Congress.
In unmanned expeditionary warfare, two key elements of the littoral combat ship mine countermeasures (MCM) mission package are on the verge of milestone C and low-rate initial production:
- The Knifefish MCM UUV is the Navy’s only platform capable of detecting stealthy and buried mines in a high-clutter environment. Planned upgrades will improve its sensors and target recognition software to keep pace with mine threats.
- The Unmanned Influence Sweep System variant of the MCM USV will sweep magnetic and acoustic influence mines while keeping human operators out of the minefield. In addition, MCM USV mine-hunting and mine-neutralizing variants with a towed sonar and neutralizer rounds are in development. All these capabilities also can be deployed from vessels of opportunity as part of the modular MCM force.
In unmanned surface warfare, the Navy has accelerated plans to develop medium and large USVs. Under the distributed maritime operations concept, the medium USV (MUSV) is a distributed sensing platform and the large USV (LUSV) is an adjunct magazine to bolster the lethality and survivability of the surface force.
MUSVs and LUSVs are intended as affordable platforms to be procured in greater numbers than small or large surface combatants. The Navy is reducing developmental risk by pairing program of record payloads and C4ISR systems with mature ship designs, as well as by leveraging experimentation with larger USVs from the Sea Hunter and Ghost Fleet Overlord programs.2 Both recently completed long autonomous transits compliant with the “rules of the road” established in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
The Navy recently issued a final request for proposals to procure the first MUSV. Plans for fiscal year 2020 (FY20) include awarding multiple conceptual design contracts for LUSV in preparation for procuring two per year beginning in FY21.
In unmanned undersea warfare, the Navy recently awarded Boeing a fabrication contract for five Orca Extra Large UUVs, the first of which will deliver in late 2020. These pier-launched vehicles can carry large payloads for thousands of miles and operate for weeks at a time and will provide new opportunities in warfighting and new challenges for logistics and sustainment. The submarine-deployed high-endurance Snakehead Large Displacement UUV (LDUUV) will significantly expand the sensing and payload capacity of manned submarines. Fabrication has begun on a prototype for testing and submarine integration beginning in FY21. The Navy is planning awards for additional and more capable LDUUVs in FY21.
Razorback is a medium-class submarine-launched UUV that provides persistent oceanographic sensing and data collection. It initially will be launched and recovered via a dry deck shelter. A future variant will enable launch and recovery via torpedo tubes.
In support of these acquisition efforts, the Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office is funding core technologies and working to drive standardization across all unmanned platforms, support learning and experimentation, and transition mature technologies that align with fleet priorities. The five areas of focus are endurance; autonomy and precision navigation; command, control, and communications; payloads and sensors; and platform integration. Advances in these areas deliver increased capability and improve reliability, safety, and interoperability.
These efforts operate in collaboration with the broader science and technology community, including Navy research and warfare organizations, university affiliated research centers, and the defense industry. This ensures input from fleet experimentation can be fed quickly back into the next iteration of UUV or USV designs or payloads, which will be critical to boosting the Navy’s “pivot speed,” to quote Navy acquisition chief James “Hondo” Geurts.
Two key standardization efforts are autonomy and command and control. Working with government and industry, the Navy has developed an unmanned maritime autonomy architecture that prescribes the functional and data protocols of sensor, payload, vehicle control, command and control, energy systems, and mission-level autonomies. This allows for continued upgrades without wholesale rewriting of autonomy code and for best-of-breed technologies to be inserted into vehicles without concern for vendor lock. The Navy also is developing a common control system software interface that will enable cross-domain (including aviation) operation from a single interface and simplify integration.
Fleet initiatives are ramping up to support this expanding unmanned systems portfolio. UUV Squadron One, homeported in Keyport, Washington, continues to grow and refine roles and responsibilities for experimentation and operational employment of UUVs. Surface Development Squadron One was stood up in San Diego on 22 May 2019 to help speed the experimentation and integration of unmanned surface vehicles. It eventually will operate medium and large USVs, including Sea Hunter and Overlord prototypes, to test new capabilities, concepts, and strategies. The close coordination of these fleet innovation cells with the acquisition community, technology developers, and tactics organizations is essential to effecting the exponential learning required in today’s era of great power competition.
Despite this growing momentum, there remains significant work to be done. A network of supporting programs must develop and acquire the sensors, payloads, and autonomy to outfit unmanned platforms with state-of-the-art technology. Comprehensive test plans must be developed that include robust modeling and simulation to demonstrate effective, high-endurance autonomous behaviors. Home ports and forward-deployment locations need to be identified and maintenance and logistics systems developed. And the manning profiles to operate and maintain these unmanned assets must be formalized and programmed.
The Navy is committed to developing unmanned maritime systems for employment alongside manned combatants. Investment in unmanned technologies continues to grow, balanced carefully with other fleet recapitalization efforts. These tough trades are an acknowledgment that the Navy cannot implement distributed maritime operations without affordable unmanned systems.
1. CAPT Sharif Calfee, USN, “The Navy Needs an Autonomy Project Office,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 12 (December 2018).
2. Sam LaGrone, “Navy Wants 10-Ship Unmanned ‘Ghost Fleet’ to Supplement Manned Force,” USNI News, 13 March 2019.