11 January 2018
The Navy is steaming ahead on a number of unmanned undersea vehicles and unmanned surface vehicle projects, as program officials face pressure to accelerate the acquisition of new capabilities.
Pentagon leaders are gung-ho on the technology, which is seen as a way for the United States to maintain its military edge over advanced adversaries.
The past 12 months have been “a banner year” for unmanned undersea vehicles, Capt. Jon Rucker, Navy program manager for unmanned maritime systems, told reporters Jan. 11 at the Surface Navy Association’s national symposium in Arlington, Virginia. Rucker oversees the service’s USV and UUV projects.
The Navy recently established the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island, where many of the military’s UUVs will be housed, maintained and operate from, he noted.
“We are working with them to determine the next facilities we need to be able to support the larger vehicles” that will be developed in the coming years, he added.
The Navy also stood up the first unmanned undersea vehicle squadron in Keyport, Washington, Rucker noted.
In 2017, the service and its industry partners worked through the kinks that had plagued the Knifefish system, a medium-sized unmanned minehunting vessel, he said.
“Technical challenges were resolved,” he said. The Navy is hoping to complete sea acceptance trials in February.
Preliminary design of the Snakehead large displacement UUV was completed in September. The vessel is intended to conduct long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Detailed design work has begun and initial long-lead hull materials have been ordered, Rucker said.
The Orca extra-large UUV mine warfare system program also kicked off last year. As with the Snakehead program, it is an accelerated acquisition project.
“We have been given special authorities to do accelerated acquisitions,” Rucker said. It only took about four months to establish requirements after the program was established, he noted.
“From the time we got signed requirements to the time we competitively awarded two design contracts was 238 days,” he said. “That’s the fastest it has ever been done.”
Boeing and Lockheed Martin are currently on contract for the program’s design phase. In early 2019 the service aims to make a source selection and then go into production, he added.
Two “innovative naval prototypes” from the Office of Naval Research recently transitioned to Rucker’s office. Operators will use them to test various UUV capabilities during 2018.
“We will then in ’19 open it up to industry if they want to come out and bring their sensors or payloads … [to test them] on a vehicle that the fleet operates so we inform the programs of record with the technologies we need,” Rucker said.
The Navy is also working on a variety of unmanned surface vessels.
The Garc — a small, optionally-manned armed coastal patrol platform — is slated to be tested later this year. Navy special operators will also test the Adaro, a 20-pound man-portable ISR platform.
USVs come in a variety of sizes. The very small are less than 7 meters in length, while the largest ones typically range from 12 meters to 50 meters, he said. But the Navy is looking to acquire larger ones.
“We’ll be pushing that envelope … as we move forward in the next year or two pushing beyond 50 meters,” Rucker said.
Service leaders recently established an executive steering council to determine how best to test technologies to inform the analysis of alternatives for the future surface combatant USV, he noted.
Meanwhile, program officials are under pressure to speed up the acquisition of unmanned maritime capabilities.
James Geurts, the new assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, visited Naval Sea Systems Command about a week ago, Rucker said. Geurts is famous within the acquisition community for his efforts to fast-track procurement at U.S. Special Operations Command when he was SOCOM’s acquisition chief.
“One of the things he really challenged us on is how do we do things differently [and] how do we go faster,” Rucker said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson suggested that the service should “accelerate the entire family of UUVs,” Rucker said. “That was something we looked at.” An assessment was recently completed and Richardson will be briefed on the results next week, he added.
To stay on track with unmanned systems, the Navy must avoid trying to do too much at once, Rucker said.
“We’re following the proven philosophy of incrementally delivering capability,” he said. “The Navy initially was working to try to deliver a Cadillac right off the bat … [but] if the system doesn’t work it doesn’t do much good to the user.”
Key to taking an incremental approach is having modular and open systems architectures, he said.
“As the technology is ready we will insert it into the systems we’re developing,” he said. “Every system I show you, whether it’s an unmanned surface vessel or unmanned undersea vessel, we are ensuring that we develop that modularity and have the interfaces, so as technology is ready we can insert it into the production line — not break the production line — and ensure we stay on track to deliver that capability.”