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.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.

Submarines

Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.

Aircraft

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.