The Navy has seen the future and it's filled with drones

Naval officials have recently described how unmanned technologies will “fundamentally change the way the Department of the Navy operates in the future.”

U.S. Naval forces are going all in on unmanned technologies. As evidence, look no further than two recent appointments: retired Marine Gen. Frank Kelley as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems and Rear Adm. Robert Girrier as Director of Unmanned Warfare Systems in the newly established N99 directorate, which will oversee development of the Navy’s unmanned air, surface and undersea vehicles.

The term unmanned system or drone typically conjures images of flying robots, but Kelley is looking far beyond just the air domain. “We’re going to open up our eyes and think about new ways, new missions,” he said during a panel discussion at the annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition this week. Drones might allow Marines and sailors to “fight in areas where we may not have fought in the past. Underground, maybe on the surface, as part of the surface,” Kelley said, noting that swarming concepts involving thousands of devices could be included in these new mission sets.  “The biggest thing that we like to emphasize is that unmanned systems are going to fundamentally change the way the Department of the Navy operates in the future.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has talked at length about spurring greater man-machine teaming as part of the department’s Third Offset strategy. Unmanned systems fit very neatly within this novel concept. From a ground perspective, this could mean tasking an unmanned system to traverse an environment for something in particular and report back when it finds what it was tasked to look for.

“Our ultimate goal is something like this: a multi-unmanned system platform that allows us to give the machines mission” orders, Marine Col. James Jenkins, director of the Science and Technology Division in the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, said May 17 in a panel discussion at Sea-Air-Space. “‘Hey, screen this area of interest and tell me when you see person X or vehicle Y and then report back to me.’  These systems will conduct their processing autonomously and so they’re really only interfacing with a human just like a subordinate fire team would be going back to the squad leader when they have something to report or need new orders.”

Essentially, the key to the Third Offset and man-machine teaming is to allow machines to aid human decision-making Work said. “Think about it not so much as a replacement for our sailors and our Marines, but how you can get the most out of our sailors and Marines,” Ensign Marc Rockwellpate, U.S. Navy spokesman, told Defense Systems in an email.  This notion transcends all domains, an approach the Navy is taking to heart. The force is essentially looking at taking a system-of-systems approach; it’s not all about just the one domain anymore, it’s about the general connectedness, Girrier said at the same panel.

“One aspect of our manned/unmanned teaming warfare analysis requires command and control of an unmanned air system in the mission area, an aircraft carrier,” Rockwellpate continued.  “The Navy's Common Control System [CCS] is expected to perform that function by using the Navy's Advanced Command and Control Protocol, which is built from the Air Force's Unmanned Aerospace Systems Command and Control Standard Initiative. This inter-service collaboration allows an Air Force UAS and a Naval UAS to receive and execute commands from the Navy's CCS.”

“The whole idea of being able to control unmanned vehicles in all three domains is something we think is going to be a key leveraging technology,” Mike Novak, deputy director of Unmanned Warfare Systems (N99B), said at an AFCEA event May 12. “We already do a lot of work in the unmanned air vehicle area and we’re now working on our first one in the undersea domain with the Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea Vehicle [LDUUV] and then we’ll also move into the USV – unmanned surface vehicle – area as well.”

The Navy recently christened the first unmanned surface vehicle, the Sea Hunter, which was developed under DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel program.

Novak said the LDUUV is being designed as a truck that has a payload capacity with an open architecture “because we see lots of areas where you could put a payload into this vehicle and do a lot of unique, interesting things and we want industry and whoever else to bring those payload ideas to us so that we can experiment with them and see if we really like them.” 

This man-machine teaming can also be considered a network that must be honed better than those of potential adversaries. With hundreds of unmanned systems in the fleet operating in combat, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability in theater right now, “what we lack is the ability to tie that all together in a seamless way with other systems that are in theater on ground or in the air with them,” Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons at NAVAIR, said in a briefing May 17 at Sea-Air-Space.  

Darrah said he is working with Kelley and Girrier to overcome these challenges. The N99 directorate fits into the innovation mold the Third Offset and tries to embody what it is essentially a rapid prototyping office to help test and field emerging capabilities. “Part of our portfolio in the N99 office is rapid prototyping and experimentation and working with these systems in an operational context with technologies that are ripe,” Girrier said. Novak described three scenarios that can come of this relationship with Navy’s science and technology and industry. First, they might take a concept or platform and put it in the fleet in an early operational capability to see what the fleet likes about it and maybe go to a program of record at a later date. Second, if the platform is not ready to be fielded, it goes back to the S&T community. Third, if the fleet likes it, it will move on to a program of record. 

One of the innovative ways the Navy is examining capabilities is through payloads, which take less time to mature than platforms – ships, aircraft, etc. – and can, to a degree, be mixed and matched to various platforms, depending on the mission. “Where we can move even faster is the payload side. If we truly build the vehicles as modular open architecture payload space, let industry know what that is, what missions we’d like to go after, we can turn payloads on these vehicles much faster,” Novak said. “We can let the fleet come up with unique and interesting [concept of operations] and [tactics, techniques and procedures]…if it worked, we’ll buy more. If it didn’t work, we turn to S&T, limited operation capability, all those things are available when we make the system go faster, get the warfighter something he can play with on a very compressed time scale.”   In terms of priority payloads, Novak said he wants this to be warfighter driven.

The Navy is not ready to follow its sister services in arming is UAS’s, however. “There are no plans for an unmanned strike capability,” Rockwellpate, the Navy spokesperson, said.  The Navy’s MQ-25A – the official designation from “MQ-XX” – has replaced the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike and  Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System programs to “fill the gap of organic, sea based, recovery mission tanker and persistent sea-based ISR,” Rockwellpate said.

Overarching technology needs for Darrah’s Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons office include cyber security, data management/data fusion, open architecture, assured navigation and communication in A2/AD environments, non-GPS precision navigation and geolocation for maritime domain and operational dynamic resource management. Darrah’s office is interested in UAS technologies involving autonomy, high bandwidth/low profile/drag through rotor beyond-line-of-sight communications for rotary-wing aircraft, multi-vehicle, multi-sensor planning and control, reducing bandwidth and/or operator workload by converting sensor data into actionable information and sensors for small UAS to detect and avoid non-cooperative airborne. Additionally, in terms of new weapons technologies, a slide in Darrah’s presentation noted that his office is interested in alternative weapons such as directed energy for airborne applications. 

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