US Navy aims to field manned-unmanned fleet within 10 years

US Navy aims to field manned-unmanned fleet within 10 years Main Photo

18 Apr 2023

Defense, Navy, Autonomous Vehicle Cluster, WAV-C


Defense News by Megan Eckstein

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Navy plans to operate a fleet of crewed and unmanned platforms within the next 10 years — an ambitious timeline that will require the service to quickly develop and mature autonomous systems, while ensuring confidence in the technology.

In the air, for example, the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems set to replace the Super Hornet fighter fleet will include a combination of the piloted F/A-XX fighter with drones dubbed loyal wingmen. This is something the Navy already budgeted for, even as it’s only barely scratched the surface of testing how a large UAV can interact with the air wing.

Still, the Navy is confident unmanned technology will be central to nearly everything it does in the future, according to Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities. Indeed, the chief of naval operations has called for six D’s — more distance, deception, defense, distribution, delivery and decision advantage — and unmanned can play a role in most or all of those.

Also see: KEDA accelerating maritime autonomy industry via innovation program grant 

Conn told Defense News in an April 4 interview that early operations of large unmanned aircraft, surface systems and underwater vessels will likely be tethered to a manned platform as the Navy learns to trust the technology. A fighter pilot by trade, Conn likened unmanned systems to the smart weapons affixed to fighter jets.

“I’ve carried a lot of them, and I’ve employed a few of them. Not one of them was very smart; they were obedient. They did what they were told,” Conn said at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference.

Similarly with unmanned systems, he added, “how do we assure that those — whether it’s in the air, on the surface or in the subsurface — are going to be obedient in terms of what they’re programmed to do in a complex environment? And until we have a full understanding of that level of obedience, then they’re probably going to be tethered to a ship [or] another aircraft.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday made similar remarks to reporters later that day, discussing the potential use of unmanned vessels for resupplying Marines in the Pacific.

“We do see great potential in leveraging unmanned in a lead/follow-like manner … to sustain a force forward. If you think about what we’re doing in the air with Next Generation [Air Dominance], where you would have a quarterback that would be a manned [tactical aircraft] with unmanned as his or her wingmen, same kind of approach,” Gilday said.

Conn said the Navy views its modernization efforts as a three-FYDP process, referring to the Future Years Defense Program that lays out budget plans five years in advance. In this first FYDP, from fiscal 2024 through fiscal 2028, the Navy is investing in buying and testing unmanned prototypes. In the second FYDP, from FY29 through FY33, the manned-unmanned fleet will become reality.

That means the service needs to modify aircraft carriers now so they can accommodate the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial tanker, which Conn called this decade’s “pathfinder” for the Next Generation Air Dominance drones that will join the air wing.

On the ocean surface, that schedule means the Navy must stress the hull, mechanical and electrical systems on unmanned surface vessel prototypes to ensure they can operate for weeks and months without human intervention. The service must also gain confidence in the sensing and autonomy technology of the USVs through operations in complex environments. And the Navy needs to develop networks, combat systems and payloads to make these USVs operationally effective.

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This artists rendering released by Boeing, shows Ocra, a new large autonomous submarine, The aerospace giant Boeing has enlisted the help of Huntington Ingalls Industries to build it. (Boeing via AP)


An artist's rendering shows Ocra, a large autonomous submarine. The aerospace giant Boeing has enlisted the help of HII to build it. (Boeing via AP)