The Navy is making arrangements for land-based testing of its Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel prototype and eyeing similar plans for its Large USV, as the sea service tries to get Congress on board with its plans to rapidly field unmanned vehicles in all domains to create a hybrid manned-unmanned force.
Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, said today at an event hosted by AUVSI that the Navy and Pentagon already have four medium and large USV prototypes in the water today and will have three more delivered in the next few years.
“The testing we’re doing at sea on those systems is very important for [hull, mechanical and electrical systems], and we’re going to continue that. Where we have definitely expanded our plans is on the land-based side,” he said.
The Navy’s pitch was to begin buying prototype vessels in numbers so the service could learn a lot about both HM&E component reliability and USV concepts of operations before beginning a program of record to buy new vessels in bulk. Lawmakers had concerns that the Navy wouldn’t be able to collect enough data before beginning the programs of record and have insisted the Navy invest in land-based testing to wring out components that will have to be able to operate for weeks or months at sea without sailors around to perform routine maintenance or to take corrective action if something fails.
Moton said during the event that he appreciates that leadership, including House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (Va.), have expressed support for the idea of an unmanned fleet in general, and Moton promised that they’d see the Navy showing engineering rigor in every step along the way – including HM&E reliability testing, command and control testing, adjusting combat systems to operate on unmanned vehicles, developing common control stations, maturing autonomy software and more.
On land-based testing, Moton said, “on the Medium USV, we are right now in the process of executing funding that we received from Congress to go do our work on Medium USV. We are going to have representative equipment that we are buying” that can be tested ashore, where the gear can be run without human preventative or corrective maintenance to see how reliable it would be on an unmanned vehicle operating independently.
“We are buying equipment, and some of the plans specifically about where it’s going to go and the testing are still in the work, so I won’t say too much, but we are working on Medium USV land-based testing.”
LUSV land-based testing is a little farther down the road, he said, but some of the lessons from MUSV will apply directly to LUSV.
“It is true that propulsion plants are not all the same, but a lot of the things that we’re doing – the ability to control machinery plants autonomously, the ability to improve the timeline between [planned maintenance], to do things that are relatively straightforward like shift a lube oil strainer without a human having to do it – those things scale between medium and large, so a lot of what we’re doing in Medium is going to scale directly to Large,” he said.
“Where we are now going to add to our plan for Large is kind of at the big pieces of equipment, and some of this was in the [National Defense Authorization Act] for last year: the propulsion equipment, the electrical equipment. We’re still kind of working plans out, but our plan is to take representative pieces of equipment and to test them. I don’t want to get quite yet into specifics on where that’s going to happen or how that’s going to happen, because we’re kind of working that out right now, but we are going to go down that path.”
Among the challenges is that neither the MUSV nor the LUSV has been designed yet – L3Harris was selected last year to build an MUSV prototype, and six companies are working on LUSV design trade studies – so there isn’t a specific propulsion system or electrical distribution system yet that needs to be tested for reliability.
Moton said that the “representative pieces of equipment” that prove themselves in land-based testing will create a pool of “equipment that’s essentially been through our qualification process to go on an LUSV, but we are also trying to come up with a way that’s flexible” for industry to prove that their components meet Navy systems engineering standards and congressional intent. He said the Navy is working with the American Bureau of Shipping to develop a framework for qualifying HM&E components as reliable enough for use in USVs.
Moton said much still remains to be determined on MUSV and LUSV – and that’s by design. Neither program has a formal capability development document (CDD) yet and are instead working off a less specific top-level requirement (TLR) document for now. Moton said that was done on purpose, to give industry more space to look at cost and capability tradeoffs between potential designs and potential Defense Department requirements. All the at-sea testing happening with the prototypes today, as well as the six LUSV industry studies, will inform the path forward from today’s top-level requirements to more specific requirements that will shape what the vessels look like and what capabilities they have.
To keep cost down and to open up opportunities to more shipyards, “we are working our best not to take just a typically manned combatant [specifications] and dial it back down; we are trying to start where we can the other way, kind of a clean sheet and only add requirements back in if they are necessary for the support of the functions of the ship,” Moton said.
Though much is still up in the air about MUSV and LUSV, Moton said a recent Unmanned Campaign Framework document signed by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has helped ensure that everyone working on different components of these programs and the overall plans for a hybrid manned-unmanned fleet is working with the same goal in mind.
“It gets everybody pulling in the same direction. We have our piece in PEO USC. PEO [Unmanned and Weapons at Naval Air Systems Command] doing their piece. Really almost all of the naval warfare centers, each one of them is working on something that’s probably relevant to unmanned. We’ve got Philadelphia that’s working on HM&E equipment and machinery control. You’ve got Carderock working on a lot of our mission autonomy things. [Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific] working on our controls. I could keep going on. And they’re all doing an important piece. And then feeding all of that as well is the great work that [the Office of Naval Research] is doing, [U.S. Naval Research Laboratory], others,” he said.
“To have this strategy document that lays down these tenets – that we’re not going to go off and do this in a stovepiped manner, that we’re going to solve each problem once and scale it up – and to have those things laid down really kind of gets the whole Navy moving in a single direction.”