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Navy Wants Unmanned Systems to be Ubiquitous in Future Warfare

An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35 performs ground turns aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) in May 2015. US Navy photo.

The Navy’s acquisition chief disbanded his unmanned systems office, not as a sign of decreased focus on its mission, but to nudge unmanned systems into becoming part of everything the Navy does.

“I don’t want it to be misconstrued that we don’t think unmanned is important; it’s actually exactly the opposite, I think unmanned is so important we need to have it integrated with all of our other teams,” Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts said in a May 24 interview.
“I was actually worried about the fact that treating unmanned too much separately would hamper it. And part of the real challenge is, how do we integrate it into the way we do warfare and into all these platforms, so my sense was it was time to deploy those (unmanned) assets back next to the platforms they would be integrating with, both in the air, on the water and underwater.”

Geurts announced in an April 30 memo that the office of the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems – about half a dozen people total – would be disestablished, with the personnel and the remaining mission work transitioned to other offices. Geurts and the now-former DASN Unmanned Systems, retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley, told USNI News that personnel were transitioned to other DASNs based on their expertise – those with experience in unmanned air systems were sent to DASN Air, those with experience in standards and policy went to DASN Research, Development, Test and Evaluation.

US Marines with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division test unmanned vehicle at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. on March 21, 2018. US Marine Corps

DASN RDT&E will play a particularly important role for unmanned systems going forward, overseeing any remaining policy, legal and ethics issues, as well as standards, commonality and integration efforts. Geurts said much progress has been made in these areas but that work remains, and since DASN RDT&E already works those types of issues for other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and directed energy weapons it should also handle them for unmanned systems.

Geurts said he took a look at the secretariat after being sworn in in December, and he felt comfortable that DASN Unmanned had met all of its original missions.

“When I looked at mission success from where I think the intent of the guidance was – to really get unmanned to be a part of everything the Navy does, have a little special emphasis to get it up on par with the traditional ways we’ve done warfare – and when I look at the accomplishments I think not only have they met the intent of the tasking but actually taken it quite further to the point where on the [Chief of Naval Operations’ staff] side of the staff you can’t distinguish anymore the manned from the unmanned, it’s part of everything,” Geurts said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency tests its Sea Hunter unmanned vehicle — the technology demonstration vessel it designed, developed and built through its anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel program, or ACTUV — in Portland, Ore., prior to an April 7 commissioning ceremony. DARPA photo

A primary mission was the development of an unmanned systems roadmap, which Kelley and his staff began work on in 2016 and was finally signed by Geurts in the second week of March.

Geurts said the roadmap looked at several facets of unmanned systems operations. One, where can unmanned systems help the Navy and Marine Corps conduct missions they have not done before – for example, with an unmanned system that can swim to deeper depths of the oceans than a manned submarine. Two, where can unmanned systems help the Navy and Marine Corps do today’s missions in a better or more cost-effective manner? And three, where does unmanned give sailors and Marines another tool to tackle an operational scenario, making them a more agile force?

The Navy has not made the roadmap publicly available – USNI News understands the document is not classified but includes sensitive information the service does not want in the open. However, the service last week gave USNI News a short version of the document that outlines unmanned systems vision, employment concepts and objectives.

Lance Cpl. David Bobbie with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, replaces the battery for an InstanEye quadcopter during a Quads for Squads training event on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Feb. 28, 2018. US Marine Corps Photo

Geurts said the roadmap does not consider current technological or policy boundaries or barriers because “the fact that they’re boundaries today doesn’t mean they’re going to be boundaries all the time in the future.” He added that there are still debates to be had about the role of unmanned systems in warfare, but that unmanned systems can provide great benefits to warfighters today and therefore should be leveraged where possible.

Kelley said the roadmap considers the entire DOTMLPF: doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities. By including all these communities in the discussion, he said the Navy as an enterprise learned a lot about how it can incorporate unmanned systems, but it also learned how to continue the conversation into the future. For example, he said, the legal community was heavily involved in the roadmap development, to include many lieutenants and lieutenant commanders in the legal field. Kelley said that years from now those officers will know the whole range of issues that were discussed while developing the roadmap, that way the next big conversation about unmanned doesn’t repeat past efforts and can instead propel the conversation forward.

Sailors attached to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two in Little Creek, Va., prepare to insert an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) into the Baltic Sea to search for underwater mines during BALTOPS 2016. US Navy photo.

Kelley also praised the roadmap for offering some specifics – such as focus areas like seabed warfare – without promising dates or technical specifications of systems the Navy might not be able to hold itself to. He said the roadmap offers the right amount of specificity to give industry and warfare centers an idea of Navy priorities to pursue in their work.

Geurts said the roadmap is meant to be a living document that can be added to or changed as needed, but he said he’s comfortable having those future efforts overseen by the Navy’s operators, researchers and acquisition professionals without the supervision of a dedicated DASN Unmanned Systems office.

“There’s always opportunities to continue to push the boundaries on accelerated acquisition; on, are we really challenging new ways of thinking about old problems, new ways of thinking about new problems. We always need to be challenging ourselves with that,” Geurts said.
“I’m a positively discontent person, I’m always worried we’re not doing enough. But I was comfortable – it’s a fairly bold move to make not too long into the job, I wouldn’t have made that move if I was not comfortable with the progress [Kelley’s office had made], both from where the team had gotten technically and then where we had gotten organizationally.”

  • Duane

    Integrating unmanned systems throughout the fleet without someone to provide technical leadership and Navy-wide resources sounds grand as an operating theory, but in execution it is highly likely to fail. Unmanned systems require a lot of careful evaluation and design with experts in the design and integration of such systems working hand in hand with field forces. People in the field are trained and tasked with using the tried and true and do not have the bandwidth or the technical resources to self analyze and conclude that unmanned would be better than “how we’ve always done stuff.”

    I distinctly remember 11 years ago when Apple introduced the iPhone. The general reaction of most people was “Why the heck do I need a smart phone?”

    It took someone with the creative vision to package a smart phone along with a convenient and cheap means of developing and delivering a brand new term, “apps”, that showed us all how a smart phone, or more generally a “mobile device” could literally revolutionize how we do lots of things in everyday life (like socializing, or getting a ride, or handling money) before billions of people finally stopped asking “why would I ever need a smart phone?”

    If we just presume as this new bureaucrat does that unmanned systems are self-licking ice cream cones that do not need institutional level support, then we are going to tremendously slow the advances in this critical field that our adversaries in Russia and China are assuredly investing heavily in. Long after this bureaucrat leaves his cushy Pentagon job to peddle simple yet wrong answers to complicated problems to other fools, we will be scratching our heads and wondering how and why we let the bad guys steal a jump on us in an area in which we dominate today.

    Our current American domination in unmanned systems is no accident, nor was it inevitable, nor is it a self licking ice cream cone.

  • Centaurus

    Lets just switch on SKYNET

  • Just Bill

    I can tell the Navy cannot have it both ways. I watched 20 million dollar drones taking of from CVN. The US Taxpayer will not bite on both. These fighters are your last manned fighters. Drones are tolerable but they do not require carriers. Hopefully the Navy will not buy two carriers for the price of three as NN is trying to sell. They need to move on and start building submarines so the Navy is unseen. The missiles that China, Russia, and maybe Pakistan have presently are impossible to stop.

  • redeemed626

    Over a week late to mention that the comments to this article are extraordinary in their range and depth.

    The importance of autonomous weaponry cannot be underestimated.

    That does not mean that a tactical advantage in a particular situation won’t create political or strategic problems.

    Enemies rub their hands together when they imagine opposing forces pursuing an obvious technical advantage.