The Navy today awarded six companies contracts to take the first steps in determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like.
After adjusting its acquisition approach to adhere to congressional code, the Navy today announced $42 million in contracts for LUSV studies, with Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each winning about $7 million to kick off work on the program.
The Navy anticipates the companies finishing the work by August 2021, but options could extend the work to May 2022. The contracts’ total value with options is $59.48 million.
“These contracts were established in order to refine specifications and requirements for a Large Unmanned Surface Vessel and conduct reliability studies informed by industry partners with potential solutions prior to release of a Detail Design and Construction contract,” Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez told USNI News in a statement.
“The studies effort is designed to provide robust collaboration with government and industry to assist in maturation of platform specifications, and ensure achievable technical requirements are in place for a separate LUSV DD&C competition.”
The contract announcement comes after the Navy had to alter its acquisition approach for LUSV due to lawmakers’ concern over the untested technology being rolled out too quickly.
“The LUSV studies will support efforts that facilitate requirements refinement, development of an affordable and effective platform; provide opportunities to continue maturing the performance specifications and conduct analysis of alternative design approaches; facilitate reliability improvements and plans for government-furnished equipment and mechanical and electrical systems; and support development of cost reduction and other affordability initiatives,” Hernandez said.
The Navy had planned to use a similar acquisition approach for LUSV as it did with the new guided-missile frigates, where it issued concept design awards to several vendors to help the Navy finalize its requirements, and then issued a detailed design and construction contract to a single bidder, USNI News understands.
An Updated Development Plan
In response to congressional provisions restricting the Navy’s path forward on LUSV, the service in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request reconfigured its LUSV acquisition approach by postponing the LUSV concept design awards to the final quarter of this fiscal year. The delay, according to the Navy’s FY 2021 budget documents, was so the service could change the LUSV request for proposals to maintain compliance with recent legislation preventing the service from seeking a design with a Vertical Launch System.
“The program will award Conceptual Design (CD) contracts to multiple vendors in FY20. The CD effort will support refinement of a LUSV Performance Specification that does not include the Vertical Launch System (VLS),” the FY 2021 budget documents read. “The final Performance Specification will define a LUSV with reservations in the design to support integration of a variety of capabilities and payloads.”
Instead of issuing the detail design and construction awards in FY 2021 as originally planned, the Navy’s recent budget request shows the service planning to award the contracts in FY 2022.
“The DD&C award will deliver a non-VLS LUSV prototype based on the Performance Specification developed during the CD effort,” the FY 2021 documents read.
The FY 2021 plan also shows the service seeking to buy two LUSV prototypes based on the Strategic Capabilities Office’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program. Two SCO vessels are already in the water and are supposed to be transferred to the Navy next year so the service can begin experimenting to learn more about the autonomous technology.
For the LUSV, the Navy wants a vehicle approximately 200 to 300 feet long that can function either partially or completely autonomously.
Congress and defense analysts in the last year have voiced concerns that the Navy was trying to move too quickly on its unmanned systems family, arguing the service still needs to test the technology associated with the platforms and determine the concept of operations. The Navy has argued it needs to buy prototypes in order to perform testing and develop a better understanding of the technology and how it will fit into the future fleet architecture.
The Navy’s plans for LUSV in its FY 2020 budget submission ignited the initial criticism. FY 2020’s request showed the Navy seeking to buy two LUSV prototypes that year based on the SCO’s Overlord program, as well as issuing several concept design awards for the LUSV program. The blueprint then called for purchasing two LUSVs each year between FY 2021 and FY 2024. According to the FY 2020 budget documents, the service at the time was still determining when to move from using research and development funding to procurement funding.
But lawmakers criticized the approach and saw the acquisition plans as risky.
“The committee is concerned that the budget request’s concurrent approach to LUSV design, technology development, and integration as well as a limited understanding of the LUSV concept of employment, requirements, and reliability for envisioned missions pose excessive acquisition risk for additional LUSV procurement in fiscal year 2020,” the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in the report supplementing its draft of the FY 2020 defense policy bill.
“The committee is also concerned by the unclear policy implications of LUSVs, including ill-defined international unmanned surface vessel standards and the legal status of armed or potentially armed LUSVs,” the report continued.
The explanatory statement accompanying the FY 2020 defense spending bill permitted the Navy to purchase two prototypes but directed the service to award concept designs that would not feature a VLS. Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, last November said the service had planned to begin buying LUSVs with a VLS in FY 2021.
Under the new strategy unveiled in the FY 2021 budget submission, the Navy would buy its first LUSVs as a program-of-record in FY 2023.
But lawmakers remain concerned about the Navy’s pursuit of unmanned technology.
While Congress has yet to unveil the conference version of the FY 2021 defense policy legislation, both House and Senate authorizers in their respective drafts sought to increase oversight of the LUSV program. The House Armed Services Committee’s chairman’s mark of the bill cut funding for the Overlord prototypes the Navy sought, while the seapower and projection forces subcommittee in its mark included a measure that would prevent the Navy from buying LUSVs before the service gives lawmakers a “technology maturity” certification.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s version of the policy bill would mandate the Navy achieve specific technical certifications, including the ability for generators and engines to operate for a minimum of 30 days, before the LUSV could reach its Milestone B decision.
“The committee remains concerned that the budget request’s concurrent approach to LUSV design, technology development, and integration, as well as a limited understanding of the LUSV concept of employment, requirements, and reliability for envisioned missions, pose excessive acquisition risk for additional LUSV procurement in fiscal year 2021,” the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in its report accompanying the policy legislation. “The committee is also concerned by the unclear policy implications of LUSVs, including ill-defined international unmanned surface vessel standards and the legal status of armed or potentially armed LUSVs.”
Service officials have repeatedly referenced an ongoing dialogue with Congress on the subject of unmanned systems and maintained the importance of the platforms.
Navy acquisition chief James Geurts during a virtual event in July acknowledged congressional concern and said the Navy must find a “balance” as it pursues the new platforms and needs to test unmanned technology.
“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 told attendees at 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 continued. “We’ve got to balance that with proven discipline, programmatics, and that’s the balance we’re working to put together right now.”