Maritime leadership pushing for unmanned systems, speakers say

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Senior leadership at the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are pushing to get unmanned and autonomous technology into the field quickly, panelists said Wednesday at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference in Maryland.
 
“We have an imperative from our senior leadership to move quickly,” said Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman, the vice chief of naval research and commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.
 
Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, agreed, noting the Navy is flying the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter alongside manned aircraft every day at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
 
“At the upper levels, we have that covered,” he said.
 
Some major programs are feeling the need for speed, including the MQ-25 Stingray UAS tanker, intended to operate from aircraft carriers. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics are competing for the work, which sprang from the now-mothballed UCLASS program.
 
A contractor selection is expected by this summer, with an engineering and manufacturing development contract to follow, as the Chief of Naval Operations wants it to be a “highly accelerated” program, Darrah said.
 
The Coast Guard’s Rear Adm. Michael P. Ryan, the assistant commandant for capability, said the Coast Guard is “late to the table” on unmanned systems, but is hoping to catch up by leveraging the lessons learned by other services.
 
One thing “on my docket this year” is to develop a coherent vision for unmanned systems and present it to industry, he said.
 
“I don’t have an overarching vision right now that I can plop down on the table and help industry understand what my needs are,” he said.
 
Speed isn’t everything, however, said Rear Adm. David J. Hahn, the CNO’s director of innovations, technology requirements and test and evaluation. Hahn said unmanned systems need more autonomy to reduce the number of people needed to deploy them, and they need to be useful to the warfighter, not just unique or interesting.
 
He compared warfighters to pro golfers, who head out onto the course with all the clubs they can use. The Navy is the same way, he said, and the unmanned systems need to be fully integrated to be useful.
 
“Are we ready to put that [unmanned systems] as one of the 14 clubs in the bag?” he said. “…The more we can turn this into a tool that they [warfighters] are comfortable using … the more utility it will have.”

Below: The panelists, from L-R: Rear Adm. John P. Neagley, program executive officer, Littoral Combat Ships, moderator; Darrah; Wortman; Ryan and Hahn. Photo: AUVSI
 

Speakers at a Sea-Air-Space panel on autonomous systems. Photo: AUVSI