Lawmakers Say It’s Time For Navy To Field New Unmanned Systems, Energy Weapons

May 3, 2017 1:26 PM
Tom Boucher, second from right, program manager for the Electromagnetic Railgun at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), talks to Rear Adm. David Hahn, chief of naval research, during a visit to the railgun facility onboard Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division on Jan. 12, 2017. US Navy photo.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lawmakers are happy with the Navy’s progress developing unmanned systems and directed energy weapons but would like to see more effort operationalizing and fielding these technologies, the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee said this week.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said Tuesday morning that the Navy has done a good job getting test versions of the laser weapon system and electromagnetic railgun out to sea ahead of full development: in the case of railgun, the Navy is still pursuing a pulsed power system to allow for continuous firings, and in the case of the laser weapon system the Navy is at 150 kilowatts of power compared to the 300 KW goal, Wittman said.

The Navy has developed a lot of energy weapons and unmanned systems, at times awarding multiple prototyping contracts for the same project, and therefore has a lot of systems to do early testing with, Wittman said. But he told USNI News on Tuesday – after speaking at an event cohosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute – that the seapower subcommittee would ask the Navy for more of a focus on fielding these technologies and a strategy for employing them effectively around the world.

“What we have to do in Congress is, we have to be able to give some emphasis to the Navy to say, you’ve got a bunch of these programs going on, lots of great technology is being developed, but the whole key is operationalizing it,” Wittman told USNI News.
“So how do we now get the Navy to say, okay, we have all these great things, let’s start consolidating that where we take what we’ve learned there and get that down to a point where we, in a fairly short time frame, go from that concept to operation; to at least say, here’s the track we’re going to be developing these systems, here’s where the [initial operational capability] is going to occur to get those systems fielded. You can have the best technology in the world, but if we can’t get it fielded and we can’t do it in a timely way, the adversaries have an advantage.”

During the event, Wittman said he thought the Navy had reached the point where it should be able to articulate concepts of operations for its new technologies and begin to field them.

Seapower subcommittee ranking member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said at the same event that changes in Navy management structure as it relates to unmanned systems had complicated development and fielding efforts – the Navy named its first director of unmanned weapon systems in June 2015 but then eliminated that position in February 2017.

Courtney said lawmakers need a better understanding from the Navy “what they want and where they want to go. There’s been a little bit of a stop and start in terms of some of the organizational systems within the Pentagon in terms of developing that kind of technology.”

He told USNI News afterwards that despite uncertainty about “who is the voice” advocating for unmanned systems, “the appetite is there” from operators and “the need is so strong, I think we’re going to figure it out.”

A surrogate Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV) is submerged in the water in preparation for a test to demonstrate the capability of the Navy’s Common Control System (CCS) at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport in Puget Sound, Wash. in December 2015. US Navy Photo.

Specifically on underwater systems, Courtney said during the event that it will take years before the Navy can build up its attack submarine fleet, which is shrinking in size and has prompted Navy efforts to accelerate its SSN production rate. As the need for attack subs increases, especially in the North Atlantic to counter increased Russian submarine presence, “undersea technology could be a real big help in terms of the Greenland/Iceland/UK gap, as far as trying to have some coverage there.”

“I don’t think anyone relishes the fact that we’re in just a different environment right now, but we are, and that’s where again I think given the fact that we’re somewhat shorthanded in terms of the fleet size, having that additional technology I think would be a huge help,” he said.

Wittman agreed that the undersea domain needed help from new technologies. He added that surface warfare and anti-missile systems would benefit from the laser weapon and railgun under development, if the Navy could get those fielded.

Given that adversaries’ technological advancements give them a greater standoff distance, “we have to have technology where we can make sure we can get inside there. So if there is an engagement we can make sure we can not only protect but also engage. So these elements, the new technologies, whether it’s new radars that reach out further, whether it’s new weapon systems that now have additional distance and greater lethality – you look at something like the railgun, it reaches out a tremendous distance. It is also operable against missile technologies, so some pretty amazing technologies,” Wittman said.

He added that the Navy needed to develop these technologies and their concepts of operations with a contested environment in mind.

“We are always now, from this point on, going to operate in highly contested environments, so our weapons systems need to ensure that we can engage and survive in those environments, because if we can’t this is going to be a big issue,” he said. Talking about operating in a cyber warfare environment, where radars or communications could be jammed, “we might be blinded, we might not have proper comms; what can we do with those weapons systems where they can operate as effectively there? That’s where we can, I think, really apply technology to make sure that we have that advantage in the environments we expect to face not only today but in the future.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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