Battlespace Tech

Navy leaders: Future rides on unmanned systems

Navy X-47B carrier based drone

The X-47B prototype was the Navy's first carrier-based UAS.


The Navy plans to lean heavily on science and technology development as it builds its future force, which will feature unmanned systems working in concert with manned aircraft and an underwater network comparable to the interstate highways system, Navy leaders said today.

The emphasis on effective new technologies is becoming critically important as “our adversaries are doing pretty well with adapting to the new technologies – in some cases, faster than we are,” Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For Aucoin and Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, who also spoke at CSIS, science and technology development are key to minimizing critical gaps for future naval operations, specifically in the unmanned domain.

Aucoin lauded the Navy’s recent creation of a deputy assistant secretary for unmanned systems, as well as the new N-99 directorate, for placing all things unmanned “under one hat” for better synergy. 

Along with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Aucoin described as “absolutely essential,” unmanned systems are integral to the future of the air wing.  

But the path there isn’t always easy. Aucoin said one of the Navy’s major unmanned initiatives, that the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program (UCLASS), is still under review. “I am a firm believer that we need that unmanned aircraft in our fleet and it will make the air wing that much better. I think the discussion needs to be not just looking at UCLASS individually, but what does that do to the air wing of the future – what are those capabilities it can bring, not just strike, but command and control, refueling, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] – there is definitely a need for that aircraft,” he said. “I hope the study or the review of that concludes in a good manor that we can continue on with that program.”

There is current frustration among members of the military and industry over the delays in the UCLASS program, resulting from a debate with Congress over what should be its primary mission – strike or ISR.   

Winter also talked about the Navy’s rather robust vision for the use of unmanned systems undersea, in the way unmanned systems have come to dominate the skies. “Undersea dominance – that is an inherently Department of Navy domain. And we are just scratching the surface in some of the capabilities to be able to give Adm. Aucoin and forward fleet commanders the emerging capabilities and technologies to build the Eisenhower highway network undersea across the entire sea,” he said, comparing the Navy’s plans to the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system. 

“Thousands of miles of logistical networks to allow large scale deployment of UUVs, [undersea unmanned vehicles] allowing them to communicate, engage, resupply…those technologies are focused around the same technologies that support our directed energy, our unmanned systems and our electric weapons,”  Winter said. The Defense Department is already working on aerial unmanned systems that will communicate and hunt like wolf packs and the Navy has demonstrated unmanned surface boats that can work together to “swarm” and adversary.   

Winter also touched upon the types of technologies he desires for unmanned systems, both above and below the surface.

“Looking across the unmanned systems, sense-and-avoid technology is needed for our UUVs as much as our UAVs. Remember, the ‘V’ is just a USB stick,” he said. “So all-domain access and the technologies, the algorithms and the strategies to maneuver an unmanned surface vessel is applicable to our unmanned air vehicle and undersea. And so our science and technologists are working to help that all-domain capability and we’ve got some very good successes with our LDUUV.” LDUUV, or Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, is an underwater unmanned system whose mission will include ISR, acoustic surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, mine counter-measures, and offensive operations. Winter said the Navy next year will demonstrate the LDUUV on a trip from San Francisco to San Diego, navigating with algorithms and sense-and-avoid technologies. 

Aside from an advanced network of unmanned systems that communicate, Aucoin noted that there must be some level of interoperability with humans. “We need to have the right balance between manned and unmanned,” he said. Other service branches have begun to perform exercises teaming unmanned systems with manned systems, including the Navy, which recently completed tests with the X-47B prototype, a precursor to UCLASS, but manned aircraft such as the F-35 and the new EA 18 Growler have a significant role to play in their own right.

But research and development should not stop at unmanned systems. “That’s only a start – we need to go beyond unmanned,” Aucoin said. “We need to use emerging technology better and so that [through] N-99, we want them…[to determine] how can we harness better emerging technology, get demonstrators and get it out to the fleet and have a willingness to occasionally fail.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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