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Geurts: Navy Looking for ‘Balance’ in Developing Future USVs

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.

This post has been updated to include additional information about the HASC’s position on unmanned surface vehicles.

Facing skepticism in Congress over its unmanned surface vehicle program, Navy acquisition chief James Geurts wants to assuage concerns from lawmakers that the service is moving too fast on untested technologies in its USV programs.

“From my perspective, the biggest challenge in the unmanned arena is not the technology, per se. There’s certainly some technology elements to work on,” Geurts said during the United States Navy Memorial’s speaker series.

“It’s really the concept of operations, the command and control, the concept of employment. And so I do think there is a balance we’ve got to strike with getting some prototypes out to the field so that the fleet can understand how to best utilize what’s available,” he added. “We’ve got to balance that with proven discipline, programmatics, and that’s the balance we’re working to put together right now.”

The Navy’s top acquisition official emphasized the importance of early prototypes in learning how unmanned surface vehicles will operate within the fleet and compared the current quest for USV technology to the Pentagon learning how to use unmanned aerial vehicles in the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We always said this combination of get them out there early enough to understand the opportunities they present, but not so early that they’re not trustworthy on the battlefield,” he said. “We’ve got to find that same balance I think on the unmanned surface vehicle side.”

The Navy last week issued L3 Technologies a $35 million contract to build the first Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle prototype, an award that comes as Congress debates the fiscal year 2021 defense policy and spending bills.

Lawmakers have criticized the Navy’s acquisition approach for unmanned vehicles and expressed concern that the service is seeking to buy the vessels too quickly. Both House and Senate authorizers are working to ramp up oversight of the Navy’s pursuit of the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle in the fiscal year 2021 defense policy bills.

The House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee in its mark of the FY-21 defense policy legislation suggested Congress prevent the Navy from purchasing LUSV prototypes before the service provides a “technology maturity” certification to lawmakers. Meanwhile, in the chairman’s mark of the HASC legislation, the panel recommends slashing funds for the two LUSV prototypes the Navy sought.

A committee aide, discussing the seapower subcommittee mark last month, described the Navy’s LUSV strategy as having “no gap in between what they’re calling these prototype ships and when they go into actual serial production.”

Geurts, referencing congressional concern, said the Navy plans to work with lawmakers and provide “full transparency” as to the service’s direction on USV technology.