RIMPAC Testing Will Inform the Fate of Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle

The manned-unmanned teaming experimentation currently underway at the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise will help the Navy decide the future of the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle, a service official told reporters on Monday. Speaking to reporters virtually, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, noted that the […]

Medium displacement unmanned surface vessels Seahawk, front, and Sea Hunter launch for the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 (UxS IBP 21), April 20, 2021. US Navy Photo

The manned-unmanned teaming experimentation currently underway at the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise will help the Navy decide the future of the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle, a service official told reporters on Monday.

Speaking to reporters virtually, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, noted that the Fiscal Year 2023 budget request did not include plans to buy more MUSV prototypes.

“Whether or not we will buy more MUSVs will be certainly informed by what we’re learning at RIMPAC. When we’ll decide that will be kind of when we’re ready to decide that. And I think even the CNO certainly has even commented on publicly about this discussion about what’s the best path in terms of MUSVs or smaller USVs, or those kinds of things, which I believe is a completely healthy conversation,” Moton said, referring to comments Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday made earlier this year.

While L3 Technologies is currently building a MUSV prototype, Gilday in April said the service is rethinking what it needs, including potentially the number of MUSVs, after seeing the experimentation U.S. 5th Fleet has been performing with smaller unmanned systems under the Combined Task Force 59 effort.

The Navy still plans to purchase the first Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) in FY 2025, Moton said on Monday.

“We are maturing all of the systems engineering pillars to get to the right level of technical maturity and we will achieve certification – which will include the senior technical authority – looking at that and our key technology areas: has the specific requirements for the land-based testing, for the machinery plant in particular, and other technical areas. So at its most fundamental level the program office is using this as [is] sort of a piece of its plan to get to those certification points and that transition to LUSV,” Moton said.

With four USV prototypes under the helm of the recently created Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One, the Navy is pairing the platforms with destroyers at RIMPAC to experiment with and better understand how the four USVs all work in conjunction with manned warships. The New USVDIV command will serve as the bridge between the program office and the fleet for that feedback, USNI News previously reported.

The USVs operating at RIMPAC include Ghost Fleet Overlord test ships Nomad and Ranger, which were originally developed by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. Sea Hunter, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its sister ship, Seahawk, are also taking part in the exercise. Sea Hunter and Seahawk are considered medium-sized USVs.

While it’s not the first time the Navy has paired the USVs with manned warships, it’s the first time all four USVs are participating in the same exercise, USNI News previously reported.

A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) sails in the Gulf of Aqaba off of Jordan’s coast, Dec. 12, 2021.US Army Photo

“It puts a different level of stress on it though because now I don’t just have one USV and a whole dedicated engineering staff just for that and fleet operators … But it puts a level of stress on not just the systems themselves, but the support behind it, right. So it’s not everyone’s focused on one thing. There’s four different things going on at the same time … and it’s a lot of the same people,” said Brian Fitzpatrick, the principal assistant program manager for USV’s at the Naval Sea Systems Command’s unmanned maritime systems program office, or PMS 406.

Moton described the RIMPAC testing as the “initial step in ramping up the scaling” of USV operations with the fleet.

The exercise paired a single USV with a single destroyer that had a crew embarked aboard to manage the unmanned asset. But the plan is to keep scaling up as the Navy develops the concept of operations for the USVs.

“The CONOPS are not one USV with one surface combatant. It’s multiple USVs with a surface combatant,” Fitzpatrick said.

“That’s a scaling point that we didn’t do at RIMPAC. We had one USV assigned to one surface combatant. But those are steps. And then we’re going to continue to grow that and then continue to put in future exercises we’ll have multiple USVs with one surface combatant, and then maybe multiple USVs tied with multiple surface combatants,” he continued. “So two and two or two and three. Those are things that were in the future CONOPs we’ve identified we need to go to. So we’re going to go do those. But again, steps to scale to where we need to get to.”

During RIMPAC, the Navy had the chance to react in real-time to unplanned events, service officials said. At one point before a planned mission in the exercise, a destroyer had to drop out due to an issue officials declined to detail. That meant control of the USV had to switch to the shore-based unmanned operations center in San Diego, Calif.

Officials did not say which USV nor which destroyer experienced the change in plans, but said it provided the fleet with the change to learn how to react to events it can’t control.

“The other thing that I suspect it probably did is it’s just one more thing to help build trust with the fleet. So if there’s an off nominal condition and we show the ability to take control, to move control off that vessel, to have the [unmanned operations center] perform its role, then that just gives the fleet more confidence in how the platforms going to react, how the USVDIV is going to react. It will give more confidence, frankly probably up to the numbered fleet commander,” Moton said.

Fitzpatrick described the process of switching the controls to the shore-based UOC as “seamless.”

“That is the really the longest part – it’s just the coordination and getting the people there. But again in an operational standpoint, using the common control system … it’s a few clicks on a screen,” he said.
“You have to relinquish control and then gather control over it.”

Large unmanned surface vessel Ranger departs Pearl Harbor to begin the at-sea phase of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 11., 2022. US Navy Photo

Capt. Scot Searles, the program manager for unmanned maritime systems, described the process as no different from when a manned ship starts reporting to another task group commander.

“It really is nothing more on the ship than making a report to say, ‘I’ve now left that commander and I’m now reporting to the new commander.’ But there’s a whole lot leading up to that … to make that sure everybody’s ready for that, so it’s the coordination piece of it that takes the longest,” Searles said. “But I think from our perspective what we learned is that’s a normal expected off-nominal operation that all ships of the fleet are expected to be able to do seamlessly. And planned or unplanned, we were able to do it.”

The Navy did multiple planned transfers from a ship-based command of the USVs to a shore-based one, in addition to the one or two unplanned transfers, Searles said.

With four payloads at RIMPAC – including electronic warfare and anti-submarine warfare payloads – Fitzpatrick said feedback from the fleet has focused on getting more advanced and an increased quantity of payloads instead of the autonomy side.

“That’s one of the biggest feedbacks we’re getting initially. They’re talking about payloads. They’re talking about capabilities,” he said. “They’re not worried that it’s going to go run into something.”

“They want to take Sea Hunter and an Overlord – which were developed under two different programs and have two different comms suites – and we’re working to bring them together. But they really want to do that. They want to say, ‘we want Sea Hunter and an Overlord with different payloads onboard, to be controlled from the same platform,” Fitzpatrick added.

The payloads have largely come from existing programs that the Office of Naval Research has altered so they could operate from an autonomous or unmanned platform.

“That’s the angle, right, is really trying to use existing technologies and make them work without people. And that’s the angle that allows us to rapidly get newer capabilities out there, to test them on all of the prototypes to inform the future requirements,” Fitzpatrick said.

Meanwhile, the Navy last week announced that its Unmanned Influence Sweep System, or UISS, reached initial operating capability, making it the first USV to hit that acquisition benchmark.

Sea Hunter, an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle, arrives at Pearl Harbor to participate in the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 on June 29, 2022. US Navy Photo

Moton noted that while the mission for UISS – which would pair with a Littoral Combat Ship or potentially other ships for the mine countermeasures mission – is different from that of the USVs the Navy is experimenting with at RIMPAC, it inches the Navy toward the future fleet of manned and unmanned platforms.

“Clearly it’s got a different mission, it’s under sort of local control of that asset that it’s operating from, whether that’s an LCS or a vessel of opportunity, or from the pier. It’s a different autonomy problem. It’s executing a mine warfare mission. It’s kind of going out and executing a traditional mine warfare sort of sweep of the area,” Moton said.

“It’s still the first time a fleet asset is going to be operating, is going to have to have trust in the autonomy, unmanned system trust in how it’s going to handle if there’s something that happens in the mission, whether it’s a mechanical thing or something else. So there are many reasons that it’s important in the broader push to hybrid man-unmanned,” he added.

After declaring IOC, the Navy will next head into the initial operational test and evaluation phase for the MCM mission package system once FY 2023 ends, according to Moton.

“Having [UISS] IOC – which means it’s through test, which means we have numbers fielded which means we have trained crews, which mean we have logistics set up, all of which makes IOC so important – it’s just a huge milestone to get that done for our first surface MCM platform,” Moton said.

RIMPAC 2022: Navy Teaming Warships with Unmanned Surface Vessels

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII – With its four experimental unmanned surface vehicles in Hawaii, the Navy is testing news manned-unmanned teaming concepts at the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise this month. The service’s two Ghost Fleet Overlord test ships – Nomad and Ranger – are here operating off the coast of Hawaii, along […]

Sea Hunter, an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle, arrives at Pearl Harbor to participate in the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 on June 29, 2022. US Navy Photo

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII – With its four experimental unmanned surface vehicles in Hawaii, the Navy is testing news manned-unmanned teaming concepts at the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise this month.

The service’s two Ghost Fleet Overlord test ships – Nomad and Ranger – are here operating off the coast of Hawaii, along with USV Sea Hunter and USV Sea Hawk, as the Navy continues its research and development efforts to understand how it will employ these unmanned assets. Deploying unmanned systems across the fleet is key to the service’s future force structure.

Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, the commander of the recently established Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One, said RIMPAC is providing his team the chance to see how the USVs operate in conjunction with manned platforms like cruisers and destroyers.

“We are fully integrated with the entire RIMPAC exercise, both from a planning standpoint, the in-port phase with the sort of final planning pieces, and then the two phases in the underway portion – we are fully integrated with the entire command and control network for all of the manned ships here for RIMPAC,” Daley told USNI News this week at the pier, as Seahawk prepared to leave the harbor for the at-sea phase of the exercise.

Sea Hawk, the last of the USVs to leave the pier for RIMPAC’s at-sea phase, is “directly tied” to Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in a task group led by the Republic of Singapore Navy, Daley said. That task group is operating under a two-star Korean admiral for the exercise.

“We’re working directly with a destroyer. We’re using different types of sensor payloads to tactically employ the USV from a manned ship. We get all of that data back and all of that feedback back from fleet operators on [cruiser/destroyer] or non-[cruiser/destroyer] ships, depending on the platform. And we’re getting that feedback back while doing the same type of interactions that we would do with regular U.S. forces, we’re doing more and doing it with our coalition partners that are here for RIMPAC,” Daley said.

After some experimentation and exercises with the USVs, Daley said his team took takeaways from those drills and used them to plan for RIMPAC. For example, there is a detachment aboard Fitzgerald operating the USV from the destroyer.

“I have an embarked detachment onboard Fitzgerald that is primarily responsible for controlling the vessels, but they’re also surface warfare officers that are working directly with the technical and the tactical groups onboard Fitzgerald to learn more lessons, right. And if we do those types of events more frequently we’ll get data back … more direct feedback in a faster way vice doing them separate and trying to combine them after.”

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. US Navy Photo

Sea Hunter, which was originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is teaming up with USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110). Sea Hunter has an electronic warfare payload, while Sea Hawk is operating with a towed array sonar as a sensing payload.

The idea is to use the USVs to augment the sensors aboard the manned destroyers. The USVs are “working directly with the manned platform and their capabilities to bring additional sensing capabilities and distributed sensing capability, which increases lethality from a targeting standpoint, and counter-targeting capability for an adversary if they were trying to find out which ship is doing what – we have four ships out there, as an example, and one of them just happens to be manned,” Daley explained.

Nomad and Ranger will operate with various assets during the exercise, but they are also teaming up with William P. Lawrence. Lawrence is operating under a New Zealand officer at the O-6 level who is the sea combat commander. That officer is embarked on U.S. Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG-53), Daley said.

“We’re connecting our networks in a way that is even one step beyond just manned and unmanned, right. It’s manned and unmanned and collation partners working together,” he told USNI News.

The two Ghost Fleet USVs, which were developed by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office, will have personnel aboard during the exercise. But Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk will operate autonomously without anyone aboard, aside from a small crew that helps the USVs pull away from port. The crew comes off Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk once they head out to sea.

The experimentation at RIMPAC comes as the Navy works to refine both requirements and concept of operations for a future fleet of USVs. Service officials have described the manned-unmanned teaming concept as central to how the service plans to employ the newer technology and integrate it into the fleet.

Sea Hunter delivered to the Navy in early 2021 to attach to the service’s Surface Development Squadron One based in California. Several months later, Nomad reached California after sailing 4,421 nautical miles from the Gulf Coast in a trip the Pentagon described as “98 percent” autonomous.

New Marine Littoral Regiment Will Make Debut in This Year’s RIMPAC Drills

Marines with 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment will join ground forces along with a fleet of ships, submarines and aircraft from 26 countries for this year’s multinational, Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise off Hawaii, officials told USNI News. “As the world’s largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity designed to foster and […]

U.S. Marines with 3d Marine Littoral Regiment, 3d Marine Division, post security during a field training exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii, May 30, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Marines with 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment will join ground forces along with a fleet of ships, submarines and aircraft from 26 countries for this year’s multinational, Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise off Hawaii, officials told USNI News.

“As the world’s largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s interconnected oceans,” 3rd Fleet officials said last week in an announcement. “The theme of RIMPAC 2022 is ‘Capable-Adaptive-Partners.’ Participating nations and forces will exercise a wide range of capabilities and demonstrate the inherent flexibility of maritime forces.”

About 25,000 military personnel will participate in RIMPAC 2022, which kicks off June 29 and runs through Aug. 4, with 38 surface ships, four submarines and more than 170 aircraft taking part in training at sea and ashore.

“It’s a return to a full-scale exercise,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a 3rd fleet spokesman, said Friday.

The biennial exercise, hosted by Pearl Harbor, Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Fleet, was scaled down and shortened in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, 10 countries participated in a force of 5,300 personnel along with 22 surface ships, one submarine and aircraft operating at sea over a two-week period in August 2020 off Hawaii.

Participating with U.S. service members are forces from 25 nations: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga, the U.K. and the U.S.

The forces will exercise a range of capabilities, including disaster relief, maritime security operations, sea control and complex warfighting, according to 3rd Fleet. That includes training in amphibious operations, gunnery, missile, anti-submarine and air defense, counter-piracy operations, mine clearance operations, explosive ordnance disposal, and diving and salvage operations.

While most of the training and exercise events will be held in and around the Hawaiian islands, a portion of the exercise – largely focused on mine warfare – will take place in Southern California, Robertson said.

This year’s international participants include Ecuador, a first for the South American nation, Robertson said.

While the Hawaii-based 3rd Marines have regularly joined in previous RIMPAC exercises, this year marks the first that it, as 3rd MLR, will participate in its recently-designated form. In March, the Marine Corps officially turned the previously infantry-focused regiment into one that would be structured with smaller, maneuverable, expeditionary advanced base detachments and equipped with anti-ship capabilities – changes more aligned with the service’s Force Design 2030 strategy to reshape its forces focused to “outpace a pacing threat,” as officials have said, in the Indo-Pacific.

That “pacing threat” includes China, which first participated in RIMPAC in 2014 and in 2016 but in 2018 the PLA Navy was disinivited due to China’s deployment of anti-ship missiles, electronic jammers in the South China Sea. Tensions in the region have only grown with continued operations and China’s militarization in the region and expanding global influence.

Third Fleet will lead the exercise as the multinational, Combined Task Force commander, with Royal Canadian Navy Rear Adm. Christopher Robinson as the CTF deputy commander, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Rear Adm. Toshiyuki Hirata as the vice commander and U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Joseph Clearfield, who is the Marine Forces Pacific deputy commander, as the Fleet Marine Force commander. Commodore Paul O’Grady of the Royal Australian Navy will command the maritime component and Brig. Gen. Mark Goulden of the Royal Canadian Air Force will command the air component.

This year marks the 28th iteration of RIMPAC, which first began in 1971 as an annual event but shifted to biennial in 1974. It follows on a March planning conference in Hawaii attended by 1,000 members of participating countries and a smaller staff exercise held in San Diego that “allowed its attendees to walk through scenarios in a computer-based format in advance of executing operations at sea off the coast of Hawaii this summer,” according to a Navy news story.

New Navy Unmanned Command Will Send 4 Experimental Large USVs to RIMPAC

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A quartet of experimental unmanned surface vessels will set sail for Hawaii this summer for a test of a new unit focused on ramping up the Navy’s use of drones to bolster the surface fleet’s lethality. RIMPAC 2022 will be a high-profile mission for Unmanned Surface Vessel Division 1, […]

Sea Hunter sits pierside at Naval Base San Diego, Calif., during the Unmanned Surface Vessel Division (USDIV) One Establishment ceremony on May 13, 2022. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A quartet of experimental unmanned surface vessels will set sail for Hawaii this summer for a test of a new unit focused on ramping up the Navy’s use of drones to bolster the surface fleet’s lethality.

RIMPAC 2022 will be a high-profile mission for Unmanned Surface Vessel Division 1, which includes the trimarans USV Sea Hunter and USV Seahawk along with two Ghost Fleet support vessels Nomad and Ranger.

USVDIV-1 was formally established May 13 at Port Hueneme, Calif., under San Diego-based Surface Development Squadron 1, with the primary mission to “accelerate the delivery of credible and reliable unmanned systems in conjunction with increasingly capable manned platforms into the fleet,” Cmdr. Jerry Daley, who took the reins as its first commanding officer, said in a Navy statement.

Members of the new unit have eyes on the biennial RIMPAC – set to run from late June into early August with 27 partner nations, 42 ships, five submarines, more than 170 aircraft and nearly 25,000 participants – as the next fleet activity to help determine and define how the capabilities of the medium-sized surface drones might augment the manned and unmanned fleet.

“All four ships will be dispersed, and we’ll be working with different task force commanders during all three phases of the Rim of the Pacific exercise, both from a command-and-control standpoint and also exercising our capabilities from a payload standpoint,” Daley said Monday during a media roundtable at SURFDEVRON’s headquarters in San Diego to discuss the new unit.Daley said his staff already has integrated with San Diego-based U.S. 3rd Fleet staff, who are in charge of RIMPAC.

“Part of our charter is figuring how we integrate with a manned force,” he said, speaking from his Port Hueneme, Calif., command.

Experimentation conducted during RIMPAC will enable USVDIV-1 to collect data to learn more about the vessels’ requirements, he noted, and ultimately help understand more about “how we integrate with the fleet moving forward for USV,” Daley said.

USVDIV-1 will be focused “exclusively” on working with USVs, said Capt. Jeff Heames, who became SURFDEVRON-1 commodore in March 2021 and last week handed over command to Capt. Shea Thompson. The new unit will advance the work that SURFDEVRON-1 has so far done and ramping up experimentation and testing with the surface fleet and providing input to the Navy’s unmanned program office.

“USVDIV-1 will be a catalyst for innovation as we employ unmanned surface capabilities in the Pacific Fleet,” Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, Naval Surface Force commander, said in a Navy statement about the new unit. “The implementation of unmanned systems will increase decision speed and lethality to enhance our warfighting advantage.”

With its base at Port Hueneme, USVDIV-1 can tap and share testing and evaluation facilities used by the Navy’s unmanned undersea vehicles with Submarine Development Squadron 5, officials said. The Navy has completed and issued the concept of operations for medium and large USVs, and the CONOPS will likely be updated annually as the new unit progresses on experimentation and evaluation, officials said.

Growing the USV fleet 

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Navy envisions a hybrid fleet with unmanned vessels acting as an adjunct “shooter” outfitted with a magazine or providing sensors to augment manned ships with a surface action group (SAG). In such scenarios, the human would provide the command-and-control for a SAG with adjunct sensors and magazines in USVs organized around an amphibious ship or littoral combat ship, for example.

“We’re at the ground floor of discovering what we think we can do and what we think we need,” Heames said.
“If we have more USVs, we can do more experiments and we can operate with more fleet activities and we can gather more data on performance… [By doing so] we can begin to scale our learning and get faster understanding in terms of what payloads we think are most viable, in terms of how much more safe we can be, how much we can sense our environment, in terms of the sensors that we’re using.”

The pace of experimentation and testing will quicken with the recent addition of the two OSVs, obtained in March via the Navy’s Strategic Capabilities Office’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program. Those OSVs went through a retrofit that enable autonomous operations and equipping of experimental payloads.

A Ghost Fleet Overlord test vessel takes part in a capstone demonstration during the conclusion of Phase I of the program in September. Two existing commercial fast supply vessels were converted into unmanned surface vessels (USVs) for Overlord testing, which will play a vital role in informing the Navy’s new classes of USVs. US Navy photo.

“We expect to get three additional USVs in the next couple of years,” Heames said. Two will come from the Ghost Fleet Overlord program “and the third is being purposed-built as a prototype, from the ground up.”

“We’re growing – so that means more opportunities to take these things to sea, more opportunities to learn about how we need to operate with them with our manned Navy,” he said. “And now that we have a USV Division – command entirely focused on USVs – we think that opportunity is going to grow for us to learn more about how USVs are going to fit into the manned fleet.”

“I see some tremendous opportunity to increase the lethality of our surface forces, with some of the payloads… the operating modes that we are exploring,” he added.

By the end of 2022, Daley said he expects to have about 100 people in the unit. The plan is to increase the size of the unit with about 175 sailors by the end of 2023, he added.

Sailors will come from a variety of rates, including operation specialists, quartermasters, hull maintenance technicians, machinist’s mates, enginemen, and information and electronic technicians. The division’s surface warfare officers, he said, “will be controlling and working through both the autonomy and the operationalization of how the unmanned ships will interact with the fleet.”

Testing unique prototypes

Seahawk USV. Leidos Image

Over the past year, SURFDEVRON had been focused on “taking the vessels to sea and understanding the why behind the decisions the vessels make, the autonomy decisions that are being made – from a maneuver perspective[…] especially in the context of operating with our manned fleet,” Heames said.

“The focus was, learning how you can work together, where you would need to control one vessel or have situational awareness of what’s happening in an environment. So that’s been a real focus of effort. We’ve made some progress in that. I think the biggest progress is in understanding the data and having a pipeline to receive the data, a mechanism to store it and some professionals to do the data analytics and understand how we performed, so we can make adjustments on the next activity going out to sea.”

“We’re going to continue to do that, certainly for the next year. The big advantage is we can do more of it, with different vessels,” he said. “We also have different autonomy functions that we’re looking to advance,” so a USV at sea with instruments that sense the environment, such as radar or electro-optic sensors “understands what it’s looking at.”

That information then goes into an algorithm or system “that will make a decision on that information,” he said, but much remains to be learned when the USVs go to sea. How good are those sensors? Are there ways we need to fuse the data to better understand it?”

Each USV will be “unique” prototypes, equipped with different suites of sensors, Heames said. The plan is to put the vessels in different environments, factoring variables like weather or operations with ships or without ships, “and then go back and do the homework on which ones are performing better and make adjustments to it.”

With the capability of vessels operating in autonomous mode, where it can make decisions on its own, Heames noted, “it’s very important for us to understand why it makes certain decisions over others. So the data pipeline and the analytics decisions, either during or[…] very quickly after the fact, are critical so we can understand and make adjustments.”

He added: “We are absolutely oriented toward continuing experiments and working with the program office to better understand what the capabilities are that we need.”

Thompson takes SURFDEVRON-1 command five years after he first began working on Sea Hunter in 2017. “The progress that’s been made… is readily apparent,” he said. When he first landed eyes on the USV, “I was excited. I saw the potential of what an unmanned surface vessel can bring to enhancing the lethality of the fleet.”

Back then, remotely operating the vessel with payloads was a big step, “and “and the concepts have matured,” he said. “That was a big win back in 2017. Now we’re way past that,” with improved autonomous piloting a big advancement.

Thompson said his first exposure to USVs was during a 2017 exercise when he got to operate Sea Hunter remotely while aboard USS Sampson (DDG-102).

“I’m sitting there on the joystick, remotely controlling a surface vessel,” he said. “I may have been the first uniformed guy to actually do it. So as I come back here, I’m even more excited about what the future holds.”

 

Report on Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles

The following is the May 5, 2022 Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress. From the report The Navy wants to develop and procure three types of large unmanned vehicles (UVs) called Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea […]

The following is the May 5, 2022 Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report

The Navy wants to develop and procure three types of large unmanned vehicles (UVs) called Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs). The Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget requests $549.3 million in research and development funding for these large UVs and their enabling technologies.

The Navy wants to acquire these large UVs as part of an effort to shift the Navy to a more distributed fleet architecture, meaning a mix of ships that spreads the Navy’s capabilities over an increased number of platforms and avoids concentrating a large portion of the fleet’s overall capability into a relatively small number of high-value ships (i.e., a mix of ships that avoids “putting too many eggs into one basket”). The Navy and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been working since 2019 to develop a new Navy force-level goal reflecting this new fleet mix. The Navy’s FY2023 30-year (FY2023-FY2052) shipbuilding plan, released on April 20, 2022, includes a table summarizing the results of studies that have been conducted on the new force-level goal. These studies outline potential future fleets with 27 to 153 large USVs and 18 to 51 large UUVs.

The Navy envisions LUSVs as being 200 feet to 300 feet in length and having full load displacements of 1,000 tons to 2,000 tons, which would make them the size of a corvette. (i.e., a ship larger than a patrol craft and smaller than a frigate). The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads—particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles. Each LUSV could be equipped with a vertical launch system (VLS) with 16 to 32 missile-launching tubes. Although referred to as UVs, LUSVs might be more accurately described as optionally or lightly manned ships, because they might sometimes have a few onboard crew members, particularly in the nearer term as the Navy works out LUSV enabling technologies and operational concepts. Under the Navy’s FY2023 five-year (FY2023-FY2027) shipbuilding plan, procurement of LUSVs through the Navy’s shipbuilding account is programmed to begin in FY2025.

The Navy defines MUSVs as being 45 feet to 190 feet long, with displacements of roughly 500 tons, which would make them the size of a patrol craft. The Navy wants MUSVs, like LUSVs, to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships that can accommodate various payloads. Initial payloads for MUSVs are to be intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads and electronic warfare (EW) systems. The Navy’s FY2023 five-year (FY2023-FY2027) shipbuilding plan does not include the procurement of any MUSVs through the Navy’s shipbuilding account during the period FY2023-FY2027.

XLUUVs are roughly the size of a subway car. The first five XLUUVs were funded in FY2019 and are being built by Boeing. The Navy wants to use XLUUVs to, among other things, covertly deploy the Hammerhead mine, a planned mine that would be tethered to the seabed and armed with an antisubmarine torpedo, broadly similar to the Navy’s Cold War-era CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) mine. Under the Navy’s FY2023 five-year (FY2023-FY2027) shipbuilding plan, procurement of additional XLUUVs through the Navy’s shipbuilding account is scheduled to begin in FY2024.

In marking up the Navy’s proposed FY2020-FY2022 budgets, the congressional defense committees expressed concerns over whether the Navy’s acquisition strategies provided enough time to adequately develop concepts of operations and key technologies for these large UVs, particularly the LUSV, and included legislative provisions intended to address these concerns. In response to these markups, the Navy has restructured its acquisition strategy for the LUSV program so as to comply with these legislative provisions and provide more time for developing operational concepts and key technologies before entering into serial production of deployable units.

Download the document here.

Navy Rethinking Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle After Middle East Tests, Says CNO Gilday

The Navy is rethinking its planned portfolio of unmanned surface vehicles following testing of a variety of USVs in the Middle East, the service’s top officer said on Thursday. A year ago, the plan was to build two types of USVs: a large lightly manned or autonomous that would serve as a missile magazine for […]

A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) sails in the Gulf of Aqaba off of Jordan’s coast, Dec. 12, during
exercise Digital Horizon. US Army Photo

The Navy is rethinking its planned portfolio of unmanned surface vehicles following testing of a variety of USVs in the Middle East, the service’s top officer said on Thursday.

A year ago, the plan was to build two types of USVs: a large lightly manned or autonomous that would serve as a missile magazine for the surface fleet and a medium USV that would act as a host for sensors and other payloads smaller than vertical launch cells.

On Thursday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the service might be rethinking buying the MUSV after a series of exercises and experiments in U.S. 5th Fleet with Combined Task Force 59, which stood up in September.

“I don’t know if we’ll have a medium unmanned or not. The stuff that [Vice Adm. Brad] Cooper’s doing right now with CTF 59 – using small unmanned [vehicles] on the scene in the air to sense the environment … in order to yield a common operational picture for allies and partners, as well as 5th Fleet headquarters, has changed my thinking on the direction of unmanned,” Gilday said during a Thursday U.S. Naval Institute-CSIS Maritime Security Dialogue.

“We are learning so fast and fielding these capabilities out to the fleet, or potentially fielding them quickly inside the [Future Years Defense Plan], we may be able to close capability gaps with small expendable unmanned [vehicles] off of any platform,” Gilday said, “rather than thinking that we have to build, you know, a large [USV]. There may be room for that. I’m not saying that we don’t need an MUSV. I’m saying it’ll cause us to consider numbers.”

MUSV was initially imagined as a vessel that could carry a payload with the dimensions of a 40-foot shipping container, according to early requirements reviewed by USNI News in 2019.

In 2020, The Navy awarded L3 Technologies a $35 million contract for MUSVs.

At the time, the Navy was set to acquire the MUSV alongside the corvette-sized LUSV. The bigger ship would be unmanned or minimally manned and serve as an adjunct magazine to guided-missile warships, while the smaller MUSV would help build a distributed sensor network for the fleet. But China’s People’s Liberation Army is developing a growing number of anti-ship weapons that will home in on U.S. sensor networks.

Earlier this year, the Navy laid out a scenario to illustrate how the service intends to fight with the new systems.

Capt. Jason Kipp, with Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems, described a guided-missile destroyer operating with large and medium USVs without transmitting from its sensors or emissions control (EMCON).

“Let’s say you have a DDG CO out there, with Medium USV under close control. That USV has maybe some embarked ISR payloads permanently installed,” Kipp suggested during an American Society of Naval Engineers Technology, Systems and Ships symposium in February.

“Traditionally, a DDG CO alone and unafraid would approach – kind of get the tactical scenario in EMCON, but at some point we’re going to have to bring up sensors, get a positive hostile ID and engage,” he said. “But now, if we’ve got a Medium USV under close control, we can set that out off-axis and do some triangulation with other things… allowing the DDG CEO to remain in complete EMCON throughout the engagement into a time of kinetic action… Now I send my MUSV off-axis, and my Large USV off a different axis. And now I can triangulate that, possibly do simultaneous on top without exposing my position, or just let the LUSV do it if my position remains unknown.”

Chris Valdez conducts pre-underway systems checks aboard the MANTAS T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicle during an operations demonstration April 17, 2022. US Navy Photo

However, the Navy might be able to get the sensor capability it wanted from MUSV through fused data from networked commercial systems to get an accurate maritime awareness picture more affordably. The 5th fleet started experimenting late last year with a 23-foot Saildrone Explorer out of Jordan and MARTAC’s Mantas T12 USV out of Bahrain. Those ongoing deployments are continuing to refine the Navy’s concepts for unmanned systems.

“Unmanned has so much potential, coupled with [artificial intelligence] software integration, that it’s difficult to put a definitive number on [the systems], and I like the way we’re going with the unmanned task force… that’s tied together acquisition specialists, requirements folks, scientists from the Navy research labs, and also the fleet with CTF 59 in terms of real-time exercising, experimenting and developing [concepts of operations],” Gilday said.
“It’s been a powerful, eye-opening, awakening experience for us.”

GAO Report on Navy Unmanned Systems

The following is the April 2022 Government Accountability Office report, Uncrewed Maritime Systems: Navy Should Improve Its Approach to Maximize Early Investments. From the report What GAO Found Other nations are investing in new weapons and technologies designed to disrupt U.S. naval advantages. Consequently, the U.S. Navy is reexamining its maritime strategy to respond to […]

The following is the April 2022 Government Accountability Office report, Uncrewed Maritime Systems: Navy Should Improve Its Approach to Maximize Early Investments.

From the report

What GAO Found

Other nations are investing in new weapons and technologies designed to disrupt
U.S. naval advantages. Consequently, the U.S. Navy is reexamining its maritime
strategy to respond to increased competition at sea. Based on the results of its
analyses, the Navy determined that surface and undersea vehicles without crew
on board—known as uncrewed maritime systems—are necessary to meet future
threats (see figure). While the Navy’s shipbuilding plan outlines spending more
than $4 billion on uncrewed systems over the next 5 years, its plan does not
account for the full costs to develop and operate these systems.

Once conceived, the Navy must build these vehicles with the information
technology and the artificial intelligence capabilities needed to replace crews.
While the Navy has established strategic objectives for these efforts, it has not
established a management approach that orients its individual uncrewed
maritime efforts toward achieving these objectives. As such, the Navy is not
measuring its progress, such as building the robust information technology
needed to operate the vehicles. GAO has previously found that portfolio
management—a disciplined process that ensures new investments are aligned
with an organization’s strategic needs within available resources—enables
agencies to implement strategic objectives and manage investments collectively.
However, if it continues with its current approach, the Navy is less likely to
achieve its objectives. In addition, the Navy has yet to:

GAO Image

  • establish criteria to evaluate prototypes and
  • develop improved schedules for prototype efforts.

With detailed planning, prototyping has the potential to further technology
development and reduce acquisition risk before the Navy makes significant
investments. Since uncrewed systems are key to the Navy’s future, optimizing
the prototyping phase of this effort is necessary to efficiently gaining information
to support future decisions.

Download the document here.

Report on Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles

The following is the Feb. 17, 2022 Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress. From the report The Navy wants to develop and procure three types of large unmanned vehicles (UVs) called Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea […]

The following is the Feb. 17, 2022 Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report

The Navy wants to develop and procure three types of large unmanned vehicles (UVs) called Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs). The Navy’s proposed FY2022 budget requests $434.1 million in research and development funding for these large UVs and their enabling technologies.

The Navy wants to acquire these large UVs as part of an effort to shift the Navy to a more distributed fleet architecture. Compared to the current fleet architecture, this more distributed architecture is to include a smaller proportion of larger ships (such as large-deck aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, large amphibious ships, and large resupply ships), a larger proportion of smaller ships (such as frigates, corvettes, smaller amphibious ships, and smaller resupply ships), and a new third tier of large UVs.

The Navy envisions LUSVs as being 200 feet to 300 feet in length and having full load displacements of 1,000 tons to 2,000 tons, which would make them the size of a corvette. (i.e., a ship larger than a patrol craft and smaller than a frigate). The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads—particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles. Although referred to as UVs, LUSVs might be more accurately described as optionally or lightly manned ships, because they might sometimes have a few onboard crew members, particularly in the nearer term as the Navy works out LUSV enabling technologies and operational concepts.

The Navy defines MUSVs as being 45 feet to 190 feet long, with displacements of roughly 500 tons, which would make them the size of a patrol craft. The Navy wants MUSVs, like LUSVs, to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships that can accommodate various payloads. Initial payloads for MUSVs are to be intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads and electronic warfare (EW) systems.

The first five XLUUVs were funded in FY2019; they are being built by Boeing and are roughly the size of a subway car. The Navy wants procure additional XLUUVs starting in FY2024. The Navy wants to use XLUUVs to, among other things, covertly deploy the Hammerhead mine, a planned mine that would be tethered to the seabed and armed with an antisubmarine torpedo, broadly similar to the Navy’s Cold War-era CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) mine.

The Navy’s large UV programs pose a number of oversight issues for Congress, including issues relating to the analytical basis for the more distributed fleet architecture; the Navy’s acquisition strategies for these programs; technical, schedule, and cost risk in the programs; the proposed annual procurement rates for the programs; the industrial base implications of the programs; potential implications for miscalculation or escalation at sea; the personnel implications of the programs; and whether the Navy has accurately priced the work it is proposing to do on the programs for the fiscal year in question.

In marking up the Navy’s proposed FY2020 and FY2021 budgets, the congressional defense committees expressed concerns over whether the Navy’s acquisition strategies provided enough time to adequately develop concepts of operations and key technologies for these large UVs, particularly the LUSV, and included legislative provisions intended to address these concerns. In response to these markups, the Navy has restructured its acquisition strategy for the LUSV program so as to comply with these legislative provisions and provide more time for developing operational concepts and key technologies before entering into serial production of deployable units.

Download the document here.

CNO Gilday Taking a More ‘Realistic’ Approach to Unmanned  Systems in the Fleet

SAN DIEGO, Cailf., – In the next five years the Navy wants to put smaller unmanned platforms in the fleet now while it waits for larger unmanned ships and aircraft to reach a level of reliability to fight with the crewed fleet in the 2030s, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told a group […]

A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) sails in the Gulf of Aqaba off of Jordan’s coast on Dec. 12, 2021. US Army Photo

SAN DIEGO, Cailf., – In the next five years the Navy wants to put smaller unmanned platforms in the fleet now while it waits for larger unmanned ships and aircraft to reach a level of reliability to fight with the crewed fleet in the 2030s, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told a group of reporters on Wednesday.

China has the largest navy by hull count, 355, and the U.S. wants to blunt Beijing’s advantage by augmenting its manned ships and aircraft with unmanned and lightly crewed platforms that expand the awareness and weapons of the fleet, Gilday said.

“We feel that we have a very good understanding of how conceptually, we’re going to fight in the future, that’s now informing what we’re going to fight with what we believe to be a very large area, coming at an aggressor across many different vectors,” he said. “Capabilities [are] really important, but that capability is going to be a derivative of capacity.”

But how quickly the Navy can develop the platforms is an open question. The fielding for the unmanned systems has been slowed by Congressional requirements that call for the service to complete an extensive testing program before buying a fleet of unmanned ships.

Faced with limited budgets and a growing Chinese threat, Gilday wants to take a “realistic approach and evolutionary approach to finally getting to the point, hopefully, in the 2030s, where we really do have a hybrid fleet, where we can make Distributed Maritime Operations come alive in a way that would be highly effective if we actually had to fight,” he said.

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. US Navy Photo

The service has concept design contracts out for the Medium and Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles that would conceptually deploy with crewed guided-missile warships and amphibious ships. The ships would extend the range of the sensors and provide remote weapons magazines that could fire when cued by a crewed warship. Those ships – some as large as a 2000-ton corvette – are subject to the Congressional testing requirement.

“We’re moving in an evolutionary instead of a revolutionary manner, in order to deliver a platform [that] is going to be reliable and that’s actually going to perform as intended,” Gilday said. “We could actually learn greatly from our land-based engineering test sites … specifically up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where we can take an engineering configuration that we want to use on a specific platform.”

While the Navy is proving those systems to Congress, Gilday wants to get other types of smaller vehicles into the fleet sooner.

He used the ongoing experimentation with U.S. 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59 and International Maritime Exercise 22 as a test case for what can be done with smaller systems that can be employed faster.

U.S. 5th Fleet is using commercial unmanned surface systems that include the wind-powered, 23-foot-long Saildrone Explorer that has operated out of Jordan and MARTAC’s Mantas T12 USV that has operated from Bahrain. Gilday also said the Navy is studying unmanned systems used by other exercise participants including, Israel and India.

The Navy is also experimenting with unmanned ships and aircraft that can be deployed from almost any ship.

“If there are small unmanned aviation assets that can fly a couple of thousand miles and have payloads that extend our range for [information, surveillance and reconnaissance] it makes me less dependent upon programs like a MUSV. Maybe I don’t have to buy as many of those,” Gilday said.
“Maybe I just have to invest in smaller platforms that are also more expendable, but allow me to deploy them off of a variety of platforms, and extend our ISR range, or even our weapons range if they’re if we can weaponize some of those variants.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday addresses the crew of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) during Exercise Malabar on Oct. 14, 2021 in the Bay of Bengal. US Navy Photo

While the mechanical reliability of the platforms is a major point of concern, so are the networks that transmit the targeting data. The service plans to use its existing networks to transmit surveillance data and targeting information the same way a smartphones transitions from lower to different networks as a user moves from Wi-Fi to a cellular data network.

“The software on the phone shifts you to a [cell] network automatically. You don’t care, the phone doesn’t care, you’re just getting, you’re just getting the information you want when you want it. It’s that same type of idea where software would decide,” Gilday said.
“The system would then containerize it in a way that could ride on any one of those lightning bolts. It could move on any one of those systems to get to the endpoint system. It’s leveraging the fact that every shooter doesn’t necessarily have to sense the target that you’re going to that it is going to fire at. That it can be set the target it can be… radio silent.”

The Navy has tested the software-defined system in San Diego and Gilday said there are plans to test a battle group with the concept later this year or in early 2023.

The new tack from the Navy will get new unmanned systems to the fleet faster and inform the larger systems that are developing more slowly.

“We thought that was important, or I thought that was important from a risk-reduction standpoint so that we could begin to mature and then hopefully scale unmanned capabilities at a faster pace,” he said.

Top Stories 2021: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2021. This year began with a level of uncertainty for Navy acquisition, as an administration change left naval observers wondering how the new Biden administration would approach the future fleet. While the Trump administration at the end of 2020 unveiled a […]

Submarine construction continues apace in the latest US Navy budget request, which asks for two more Virginia-class submarines and another installment for the missile sub Columbia. Here, the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Montana (SSN-794) is seen just after launch in March 2021 at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. HII Photo

This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2021.

This year began with a level of uncertainty for Navy acquisition, as an administration change left naval observers wondering how the new Biden administration would approach the future fleet.

While the Trump administration at the end of 2020 unveiled a delayed shipbuilding plan to increase the size of the fleet, it remains unclear what direction the Biden administration – which only submitted a budget request for the current fiscal year as opposed to a five-year outlook – will take.

Still, the Navy has resumed a strategy of seeking to divest legacy programs to pursue new technologies and platforms, an approach that continued to receive both skepticism and criticism from Congress this year.

With several significant new acquisition programs – including a new fighter aircraft, a new attack submarine and a new destroyer – currently in the research and development phases, the Navy has multiple big-ticket items to pay for in the next decade as it recalculates a strategy focused on the Indo-Pacific.

Surface Ships

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Jack H. Lucas (DDG-125) launching at Ingalls Shipbuilding on June 5, 2021. HII Photo

The Navy asked to purchase both large and small surface combatants this year, including a request for one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer despite a multi-year procurement contract already in place that planned for the Navy to buy two in Fiscal Year 2022. The decision to ask for one destroyer angered lawmakers, who added the second destroyer in their marks of the defense policy and spending bills.

The Navy is also in the research and development stages for several of its future surface ship platforms, including DDG(X), which will follow the Arleigh Burke-class. In the meantime, the service plans to execute another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer multi-year procurement contract that would span from Fiscal Year 2023 through FY 2027.

A Fincantieri Marinette Marine model of the proposed USS Constellation (FFG-62). USNI News Photo

The service is also progressing on the Constellation-class frigate program and in May issued Fincantieri Marinette Marine a $554 million contract modification to start building the second frigate in the class. Fincantieri was also slated to begin fabrication of the first frigate – the future USS Constellation (FFG-62) – by the end of the 2021 calendar year. The Navy’s FY 2022 budget request asked to purchase one frigate.

While Congress has pushed the Navy to buy more large amphibious warships, the Navy’s acting acquisition chief told lawmakers in June that the Pentagon would likely hold off on executing a preliminary agreement to buy four amphibs until it completes a new force structure assessment.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps remains committed to the need for a Light Amphibious Warship that could shuttle Marines around the Indo-Pacific as they set up expeditionary bases on islands and archipelagos, where they could fire anti-ship missiles. In June, the Navy awarded five companies – Fincantieri, Austal USA, VT Halter Marine, Bollinger and TAI Engineers – “concept design” contracts for LAW, which would come out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

Submarines

Attack boat New Jersey on Nov. 12, 2021, at Newport News Shipbuilding. USNI News Photo

The Navy’s submarine acquisition efforts have remained steady, with the first Columbia-class ballistic missile boat under construction and the service continuing to pursue the Virginia-class attack boats.

In the Fiscal Year 2022 budget request, the Navy asked to buy two Virginia-class submarines and lawmakers signaled they want the service to work up to buying three per year.

The service is also in the early research and development phase for SSN(X), the next nuclear attack submarine class that will follow the Virginia-class boats, and asked for nearly $30 million in research and development funding to pursue the new program.

The current head of the undersea warfare division on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N97) recently said the future submarine will focus on blue water operations, unlike its predecessor that was designed for operations closer to shore, and need to be quiet and have more torpedoes.

Artist’s rendering of the Columbia-class SSBN submarine. US Navy Image

“We don’t know the specific characteristics that will be in SSNs. But we do believe that the next submarine will have a large horizontal payload capacity. You can read that as it’s going to carry a lot of torpedoes. And we know how to do that. It’ll be fast. And it’ll have acoustic superiority. That’s both sensors to hear the other ships out there as well as stealth – staying quiet,” Rear Adm. Doug Perry said at a conference last month.
“We know how to do all of these things, but we have to integrate them into one platform. Speed and large payload? We did that on Seawolf, and we need to pull that forward to a modular construction submarine.”

On the organizational side, the Navy this year also restructured its program offices for submarines by making the admiral leading the Columbia program the new program executive officer of strategic submarines, or PEO SSBN, which will cover the Ohio-class guided-missile and nuclear ballistic missile submarines. The service also created a program executive officer for attack submarines, or PEO SSN, which will manage the Seawolf class, the Los Angeles class, the Virginia class and the future SSN(X). Part of the restructuring also created a program executive officer for undersea warfare systems to manage undersea weapons and how the Navy’s Project Overmatch initiative – which seeks to create a battle network to connect platforms across domains – will fit into the undersea warfare.

Carrier Aviation

Carriers USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Newport News Shipbuilding on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

The lead ship in the Navy’s Ford-class aircraft carrier program hit several milestones this year and is scheduled to deploy in 2022 after a series of delays and some reliability issues with key new technologies, including the Advanced Weapons Elevators.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) wrapped up its post-delivery test and trials phase in the spring before heading into full-ship shock trials over the summer. Officials described the carrier’s shock trial testing – when the Navy detonates 40,000 pounds of ordnance in the water near the hull to test the ship and its systems – as having no major flooding, injuries, or fires aboard.

The carrier is currently in the midst of a planned incremental availability that will span six months before it begins preparing for the 2022 deployment, which comes four years after the original planned 2018 deployment date.

Despite the carrier’s progress this year, the Navy has still had to take parts from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the second carrier in the class that is currently under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding, to ensure Ford is ready to deploy this year, USNI News previously reported. The Navy has said the cannibalization of parts won’t affect Kennedy‘s schedule.

Aircraft

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to the ‘Bounty Hunters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 2, prepares to launch from the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Aug. 25, 2021. US Navy Photo

For nearly two years the Navy has argued it must end the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet production line, saying the divestment will allow the service to pursue future technologies and assets like the Next Generation Air Dominance program.

But lawmakers have been skeptical of the Navy’s proposal to end a mature production line and the tension between the service and Congress played out in an open forum over the summer when officials questioned the viability of the Super Hornets against future threats. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday also criticized defense lobbyists at the time for pushing lawmakers to purchase aircraft the Navy does not want.

“It’s not the 90s anymore. If you go to the tri-service strategy, we really try to punctuate the sense of urgency that we feel everyday against China to move, to move the needle in a bureaucracy that’s really not designed to move very fast,” Gilday said in August. “And so although it’s in industry’s best interest . . . building the ships that you want to build, lagging on repairs to ships and submarines, lobbying Congress to buy aircraft that we don’t need that are excess to need, it’s not helpful. It really isn’t in a budget-constrained environment.”

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Gladiators’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, approaches USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) flight deck during flight operations on March 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Despite the service not asking to purchase any Super Hornets in FY 2022, congressional authorizers approved funding for 12 F/A 18 E/F Super Hornets in their final version of the defense policy bill. While the House Appropriations Committee added funding for 12 Super Hornets in its draft of the defense spending bill, it’s unclear where the final appropriations bill will fall on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Navy continues to pursue its Next Generation Air Dominance program, but kept the research and development dollars it asked for in FY 2022 for the program classified. The former air warfare director on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N98) in March said NGAD is expected to be a family of manned and unmanned systems, with a fighter known as F/A-XX functioning as the nucleus. That fighter, the admiral said at the time, is likely to be manned.

The Navy also expects both manned and unmanned platforms to replace its rotary wing fleet. Future Vertical Lift – the term the Navy uses for the platform that will ultimately replace the MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters – is also in the development phase. Requirements include the ability for the platform to operate off the fleet’s frigates and destroyers.

Unmanned Systems

Medium displacement unmanned surface vessels Seahawk, front, and Sea Hunter launch for the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 (UxS IBP 21), April 20, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Navy is continuing its pursuit of unmanned systems across domains, including for surface platforms.

This year the Navy took possession of a second medium unmanned surface vessel prototype, known as Sea Hawk, for experimentation out on the West Coast. Sea Hawk is the sister ship to Sea Hunter, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Navy’s Surface Development Squadron One out in California has been tasked with experimenting with unmanned surface vehicles to get a better understanding of the concept of operations.

While lawmakers have expressed concerns that the Navy is moving out too quickly on untested technologies it does not yet fully understand, the service has signaled its looking for ways to assuage congressional apprehension. For example, Capt. Pete Small, the Navy’s program manager for unmanned maritime systems, earlier this year said the Navy was looking to increase the use of land-based testing of prototypes for unmanned vessels.

Despite the Navy’s push to develop unmanned vessels, the service is still working out how it will man the platforms. Small this year also acknowledged that the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV), for now, would likely need a small crew detachment to perform tasks like refueling.

Shipbuilding Outlook

Pre-commissioning unit (PCU) Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-795) seen prior to a christening ceremony at General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard facility in Groton, Conn., on July 31, 2021. US Navy Photo

While the Navy continued to ask for submarines and surface combatants this year, and pursue its research and development efforts for major new programs on the horizon, the service lacks a recent publicly available five-year budget outlook and 30-year shipbuilding plan that could fill in some gaps in naval strategy.

The Biden administration’s FY 2022 budget submission for the Pentagon did not include the typical Future Years Defense Plan that provides a five-year budget outlook. Its shipbuilding plan, provided to Congress in June, only showed FY 2022 construction and potential ranges for programs, unlike the detailed 30-year outlook that typically shows the number and types of ships the Navy projects buying in each year.

Rendering of Block V Virginia-class submarine with Virginia Payload Module. General Dynamics Electric Boat Image

“The Navy, working closely with the OSD Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), continues to develop comparative assessments of naval force structure options consistent with Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and designed to maximize the maritime contribution to the joint force,” the shipbuilding report read.
“The results of these efforts and ongoing experimentation and prototyping will be reflected in the FY2023 shipbuilding plan.”

While some ship acquisition approaches and planned quantities are firm – like that of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program – the future fleet architecture is likely to become clearer after the Navy submits its FY 2023 budget and a long-range shipbuilding blueprint to Congress next year.