Unmanned Systems

Navy's plans include drones that can operate for months at a time

The leader of the Navy’s new unmanned systems directorate is looking to better integrate unmanned operations with those of the service’s other directorates and eventually work with unmanned systems that can functions for months at a time without a break.

“No joke” Rear Adm. Robert Girrier said of platforms that would have endurance limits measured in months. “This technology is already out there.” But that’s a long-term plan, he said during a recent appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In the short- and mid-term, the Navy wants to extend the endurance level from days to weeks, while tightly integrating the new directorate with the directorates for surface, air and undersea warfare.

“A Triton teaming with a P-8 is a pretty powerful thing,” Girrier said, describing a scenario in which the unmanned MQ-4 Triton UAS scans areas that the manned P-8 Poseidon ISR aircraft might need additional awareness in. This type of teaming going forward will provide “big gains” for the force, he said.   

Girrier last June was named director of Unmanned Warfare Systems, or N-99, within the Chief of Naval Operations Office. While creating the directorate, the Navy also announced that a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems would be installed to help streamline unmanned efforts. Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems, has previously praised the move for placing all things unmanned “under one hat” for better synergy.

The N-99, Girrier said, helps deliver prototypes to the fleet, either through acquisition or developing existing technologies to go directly to the fleet. He said one of his missions is to help take technologies that are not ready for full-rate production through the acquisition process and help them reach full operations. 

Girrier noted that unmanned systems will play a large role in shaping and connecting existing directorates within naval operations, such as undersea dominance, air wing of the future, ship-to-objective maneuvers and distribute lethality, to name a few. All of these directorates, Girrier said, are part of a larger purpose that unmanned will play a big part in. 

Part of the thinking by top Naval leaders in standing up the N-99 is was to change the way the Navy thinks about warfighting, technology and innovation, and see how they can be used to amplify existing structures the Navy has invested in, he said.  

A key to success is ensuring that unmanned systems complement, rather than supplant, other operations. One example is how unmanned underwater vehicles and be used to supplement expensive submarine operations. Extending the endurance of unmanned systems is another way for the Navy to reap serious cost benefits, he said.

About the Author

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

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