USN’s CNO sets out timeframes and headmarks for delivering uncrewed capability

A Saildrone Explorer USV
A Saildrone Explorer USV operates in the Gulf during the Task Force 59 exercise ‘Digital Horizon’ in November 2022. Within US 5th Fleet, Task Force 59 works to build uncrewed vehicle capability. (US Navy)

London – The US Navy (USN) is progressing along the paths of delivering uncrewed capability for air, surface, and sub-surface operations, the USN’s Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) told the annual Surface Navy Association symposium on 10 January.

Speaking at the event in Arlington, Virginia, Admiral Michael Gilday said “We’re moving in those three dimensions – under, on, and above the sea. We’re moving out as quickly as we can, but in a deliberate manner informed by experimentation.” “What we want to do is make sure that, before we scale, we feel very good about what we’re putting money against,” CNO explained.

He overlaid this intent with broad development timeframes.

In the air, primary focus falls on the aircraft carrier-based Boeing MQ-25 Stingray uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV), which will provide re-fuelling capability. “We are on a path right now with MQ-25 on our carriers to reach initial operating capability in 2025,” said Adm Gilday. “That is a significant capability, in terms of extending the lethality for the airwing.”

On the surface, the USN is looking to build on US 5th Fleet’s progress, whose Task Force 59 is integrating uncrewed vehicles and artificial intelligence to enhance maritime operational capability. “We’re learning a lot from what we’re doing in US 5th Fleet,” said Adm Gilday. “The next step would be to scale that to another fleet …. We’re working in that direction.”

Task Force 59 has delivered 30,000 hours of uncrewed surface vessel (USV) operations around the Arabian Peninsula, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper – Commander US 5th Fleet – told the symposium.

Underwater, the USN is investing in extra-large uncrewed underwater vehicle (XLUUV) capability, with the Boeing Orca XLUUV. “The first one will go in the water this year: [the programme] is on a path to lead to another four in 2024,” said Adm Gilday. While the initial intent is to deliver covert minelaying capability, CNO noted that other capabilities can be considered for Orca.

Adm Gilday addressed broader issues the USN must consider. First is the need for robust command-and-control (C2) capability across uncrewed vehicles, including to enable their effective contribution to distributed maritime operations. Second is building USN focus on medium and large uncrewed systems: here, the USN is aiming to deploy such vessels with a carrier strike group by 2027. Third is ensuring reliability in uncrewed vehicle engineering. Given the requirement for such vehicles to operate autonomously for several months, the USN is investing in land-based prototyping capacity to help reduce risk.

“We don’t want any surprises,” said Adm Gilday. “We want to be able to go to Congress with a high degree of confidence that these vessels work in a reliable manner.”

by Dr. Lee Willett