ARLINGTON, Va. – Even as Textron is awaiting a decision to move from development of its Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MCM USV) into production, the company also has its eye on using the vessel for missions such as surface warfare and amphibious operations.
Wayne Prender, the senior vice president for applied technologies and advanced programs at Textron, told USNI News last week that 2019 was a productive year for what the company had called the Common USV (CUSV), which the Navy now calls MCM USV.
Textron moved from one test vehicle to four, to accommodate testing not only the original minesweeping system the Navy had planned but also minehunting with the Raytheon AN/AQS-20 and the Northrop Grumman AN/AQS-24 sonars. The company established a second test facility in Panama City, Fla., in addition to the work already being done at the South Florida Test Facility. The MCM USV with the Unmanned Influence Sweeping System (UISS) conducted two integration events with USS Independence (LCS-2) in California, and the craft conducted vessel-of-opportunity integration tests with both the American expeditionary sea base Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4) and the British RFA Mounts Bay (L3008)
“We are on the precipice of getting Milestone C” acquisition decision to move into low-rate initial production, Prender said, after “a very busy 2019 that saw us go from one craft to four craft operating at times in up to three simultaneous test locations. And now we’re ready to move into production, get these systems out into the fleet, let the sailors continue to use and experiment, get it into the warfight.”
The Navy’s acquisition strategy for the MCM USV separates the common USV hull from its payloads, so once the USV moves past the test phase and into production, it will be easier for the Navy or Marine Corps to field new payloads on it.
One of the early ideas that has emerged is to put a lethal surface warfare package on the spacious back of the hull. Prender said that, through agreements with Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division and NSWC Dahlgren Division, the Navy and Textron integrated an FN Herstal Sea deFNder remote weapon station, two vertical-launch Hellfire missiles and a battle management system – along with additional autonomy capabilities the company has worked on with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – onto the CUSV and demonstrated the capability during an advanced naval technologies exercise (ANTX) at Camp Lejeune last year.
“Clearly there are those who are interested in having a lethal capability set, so (we’re) working with Dahlgren,” Prender said.
“The point of that exercise was, they were very interested in marrying the direct and indirect fire and the battle management system, so that was their scope. Our scope was, how do you integrate that onto the CUSV, how do you add additional autonomy to optimize the location of the craft, minimize the human interaction to be able to command and control that sort of system? We also worked in collaboration with a [unmanned aerial vehicle] system to identify a target, pass that target onto the control station, and then pass that and have that prosecuted by the CUSV. So there was more than just putting a gun on a boat; it was additional autonomy, command and control, and how the ecosystem works together. We thought that was well worth the time.”
Additionally, the Marine Corps is interested in pursuing a long-range USV in support of its Expeditionary Advance Base Operations and focus on naval integrated warfighting, and Textron believes it’s in a good position to contribute to that dialogue and eventual program of record.
Prender said he’s already had conversations with the Marines on their possible LR-USV requirements, which could include missions such as electronic warfare, signals intelligence, logistics, surveillance and more.
The Marine Corps hasn’t said much about its LR-USV plans other than it wants something that can travel about 500 nautical miles and conduct missions, contribute to situational awareness and potentially serve as a decoy to confuse the adversary.
Asked if CUSV had the endurance the Marines are looking for – given that CUSV was built to come and go from a Littoral Combat Ship on many short missions, rather than conduct a single lengthy mission in the open ocean – Prender said endurance is a tricky thing based on a lot of factors. But he noted that communications is often a limiting factor, and if the Marines’ LR-USV could make use of data relays or beyond-line-of-sight communications then it could have a much greater operational range than a CUSV operating off an LCS. Additionally, the CUSV design about to go into production was built to meet very stringent size and weight requirements, so it would be compatible with both the Freedom- and Independence-class LCSs, but a Marine Corps LR-USV could take the CUSV design and scale it up or down “significantly” as needed.
“I believe we’re going to be in a good position to help them,” Prender said, adding he hoped to offer “a matrix of solutions” that the Navy and Marine Corps could consider going forward.
Prender also noted that endurance could be affected by how the vessels are employed – and specifically, if the Navy or Marine Corps intend on operating them as individual USVs or as a fleet of them.
“There’s going to be a time in terms of endurance where, if you’re less than that, having additional health usage and monitoring for real-time action may not have the benefit. But certainly if you’re out for 30 or 90 days, you need that. An area that we are certainly looking at is conditions-based maintenance,” he said of efforts related to endurance and long-range operations.
“And then beyond that, the CUSV is of a size and capability set that there is definitely potential for multi-system collaboration, where one may find itself in a limited capacity and the other craft identifies that and overtakes the primary mission. So those are areas we are definitely spending some research and development dollars on: how do you move into a multi-system collaboration environment?”