Unclear on unmanned, Pt. 3: A new year’s resolution to slow down

This is the final installment of a three-part series on the Navy’s struggles to develop unmanned ships and systems.

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Sightline Media Group

WASHINGTON Media www.rajawalisiber.com – The U.S. Navy began last year racing down a path to field a 355-ship fleet by 2030, a plan in which robot ships made up a significant portion of the new hulls, after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper endorsed the idea as a means of rapidly increasing the fleet’s capacity.

But those plans are kaput. The Navy has encountered increasing resistance on Capitol Hill to quickly launching into an acquisitions program for large unmanned surface ships and instead the service is committing to a decade of proving out technologies before expanding into an unmanned buying spree.

In a phone call Friday with reporters ahead of the annual Surface Navy Association symposium, the Navy’s top officer said the service is looking to slow down and get things right.

“I’m not talking about buying large numbers of unmanned by the mid-2020s,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday. “That’s unrealistic. This is a very deliberate approach with respect to [increasing] capacity and new platforms. I am more interested in getting it right in a deliberate fashion than I am getting it fast.”

The service enters 2021 chastened by a bruising fight with Congress that revealed a breakdown in trust in the Navy’s ability to field new technology, a biproduct of nearly 20 years of high-profile misfires. Now, instead of rushing into acquisition of robot ships to augment the manned ones, the Navy will focus on proving out critical underlying technologies first.

But slowing down does not mean an open-ended timeline, Gilday told reporters: Once technologies such as highly reliable propulsion systems, secure communications networks and a common control system for unmanned platforms are in place, the Navy wants to begin rapidly expanding its fleet of robot ships in the late 2020s, a plan the Navy still believes will include the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV)to boost its diminishing inventory of vertical launch system missile tubes aflaot.

How will the Navy get there?

Using lessons from the submarine Navy’s approach to the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, Gilday said he wants to see the Navy to test more key technologies on land and focus more on developing a whole suite of unmanned systems with as many common pieces as possible.

“If you take a look at how the military builds things, you have different program managers at different programs, and each of them come up with their own … systems to support [that ship or aircraft],” Gliday explained.

“So left to their own devices, I would end up with eight-to-10 different unmanned surface vessels, with eight-to-10 different networks to control them. That’s not what I want. I can’t afford it. I can’t protect all those networks.”

That’s why he is working on a comprehensive “campaign plan” as a roadmap for unmanned systems development, first reported by Defense News in July.

In early 2019, the Navy and the Department of Defense rolled out its 2020 budget with a plan to spend around $2.7 billion over five years to procure 10 Large Unmanned Surface Vessel prototypes, a decision that dovetailed with attempting to retire the Carrier Harry S. Truman 25 years early, along with its associated carrier air wing.

The Navy expected the LUSV to be the service’s answer to a troubling problem: How does the service quickly and cheaply field a series of new missile tubes to make up for dozens of large-capacity ships such as the 122-missile-cell Ticonderoga-class cruisers due to retire over the coming years.

The approach was to rapidly build up prototypes of a platform that could serve as an external missile magazine for a manned ship, developing new technologies in concert, and get to an acquisition program as fast as possible to forestall the dip in missile tube inventory in the fleet. And retiring the Truman was part of how it would pay for the investment in unmanned.

Congress balked immediately.

The idea that the Navy would trade in a capital ship and air wing for unproven technologies sent lawmakers into a tizzy, and President Donald Trump was even forced to publicly walk back the proposal to decommission Truman.

The LUSV program has received an extraordinary amount of scrutiny since, which culminated last month with Congress stripping out most of the funding for LUSV and the Navy delaying buying any new prototypes by at least a year.

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