Congress questions Navy's plan to build large drone ships before full testing

The Navy wants to increase production of unmanned surface vessels, but Congress remains wary of long-term success.

DARPA's Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) Sea Hunter

DARPA's unmanned anti-submarine vessel "Sea Hunter"

The Navy wants to push production of unmanned surface vessels but Congress remains wary of long-term success.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) questioned the Navy's budget request to begin serial production for two large unmanned surface vehicles that haven't been fully prototyped and tested yet, especially after having "developed multiple programs of record on [unmanned] systems that never fielded," in a Feb. 27 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Navy's 2021 budget.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said that production was needed so the Navy can figure out how the tech will work with the future force structure.

"Without having the platforms, it's very difficult to do that type of integrated testing we would need to do," Modly testified. "So we are proceeding, we think, at a somewhat cautious pace to do this. But it's absolutely going to be a part of whatever future force structure we might have and so we need to start experimenting with concepts, understanding how the technology will work."

The Navy has said it wants to have 355 ships in the next 10 years, but unmanned vessels aren't included and would be extra.

A Feb. 21 Congressional Research Service report said that with new categories of large unmanned vessels may significantly change how the Navy buys ships.

"Statements from DON officials suggest that the [integrated Navy force structure] could shift the fleet to a more distributed architecture that includes a reduced proportion of larger ships, an increased proportion of smaller ships, and a newly created category of large unmanned surface vehicles and large unmanned underwater vehicles," the report states.

"Such a change in fleet architecture could alter, perhaps substantially, the mix of ships to be procured for the Navy and the distribution of Navy shipbuilding work among the nation's shipyards."

Modly also said scaling the unmanned surface fleet program is the biggest challenge and that the Navy will need time to get there.

Congress remains skeptical and apprehensive the Navy is embarking on a familiar and wasteful route.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), HASC chairman, said in opening remarks he was concerned the Navy's strategy for unmanned surface vehicles was too vague, and as it stood, seemed primed to repeat mistakes of other acquisitions.

"Unclear requirements and unproven technologies are being overlooked in an effort to prioritize speed of acquisition," Smith said in his opening remarks, adding that the Navy's unmanned approach was similar to the acquisition of the Littoral Combat Ship.

"The Navy needs to decide what it actually wants and how it will operate these ships before moving into serial production," Smith said. "Basic questions remain unanswered and I highly encourage the Navy to ensure requirements have been set before committing substantial shipbuilding resources."

Questions continued unanswered on the Marines side too. When asked how many lethal unmanned aerial systems the service would seek, Commandant Gen. David Berger testified that he was unsure of the ratio of manned to unmanned aerial systems.

"We can cover a lot more ground with a mix of manned and unmanned, it's also more survivable," Berger testified. "We're making it too simple when we're all manned...Our processes don't reward going out on the edge and replacing with something we have today."