Dan Parsons, Defense Daily
28 October 2015
The Navy plans to operate alongside unmanned robotic systems on land, at sea and in the air by 2020, and has established a specific command position to lead rapid innovation and fielding of unmanned systems in pursuit of that goal.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said Oct. 27 that within five years Marines will fight alongside an entire integrated family of robotic systems and that a squadron outfitted exclusively with undersea unmanned vehicles (UUVs) would deploy on an independent mission.
Mabus also reiterated a his assertion that the F-35 would be the last manned fighter the Navy would buy and predicted that the F/A-XX next-generation air superiority family of aircraft that will enter service in the 2030s also will have "unmanned components, heavily networked platforms, sensors and weapons."
"Unmanned systems are the platforms of the future. What was once the stuff of science fiction movies is now infiltrating the world around us," Mabus said Oct. 27, speaking to a meeting of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International outside Washington, D.C. "This technology is being developed swiftly in the commercial world around us, both for good and of course, with more nefarious intentions, by our adversaries. We absolutely cannot afford to lose in this realm."
To that end, Mabus laid out a series of milestones the service is striving to reach by 2020, including the deployment of large-displacement UUVs from an exclusively UUV squadron on an independent mission, and fielding "an entire integrated family of robotics systems to augment" Marine air-ground task forces.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said unmanned systems would be seamlessly integrated into Marine operations in the future, but humans would always fight alongside robots.
"I envision a manned-unmanned balance," he said during an Oct. 28 forum hosted by the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "It will be a teamed approach where you will be using both, but in different ways than you have in the past."
UAV technology is outpacing military acquisitions as other commercial advancements are, which means that affordable, capable systems are readily available to adversaries. The Navy and Marine Corps need to speed the pace at which they field unmanned systems, Walsh said.
"The challenge with UAVs is a lot like technology growth," he said. "We've got to continue to move fast with them, but have to be integrated with the mesh of capabilities we have. The demand from ground forces is huge. There is more and more demand for group one, low-level UASs."
Mabus recently announced the creation of two high-echelon Navy positions specific to the development and fielding of unmanned systems. He has appointed retired Marine Brig. Gen Frank Kelley to be deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems and assigned Rear Adm. Robert Girrier to head up the new N99 office as the director for unmanned warfare systems.
"The change to the organization is a reflection of the priority we're placing on this emerging capability, and how critical it is that there is centralized leadership for our unmanned programs," Mabus said.
Both the Navy and Marine Corps already have extensive experience operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy's Scan Eagle and Firescout UAVs were deployed in both theaters. UUVs have been launched from surface ships to perform searches of the seafloor, as during the hunt for the remains of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean. In May, the Virginia-class submarine USS North Dakota (SSN-784) conducted the first real-world operations deploying and operating with unmanned undersea vehicles.
The Marine Corps deployed the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter on an experimental basis to Afghanistan and ended up keeping it in service for years, during which time it transported about 6,000 pounds of cargo a day to forward operating bases without a pilot.
The Blackjack UAV will deploy for the first time with an amphibious ready group (ARG) or Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) aboard San Antonio-class ships beginning in FY '16.
The Navy also is in the process of testing the Triton high-altitude, long-endurance UAV for broad-area maritime surveillance and has successfully tested the X-47B as part of the unmanned combat air system (UCAS) experiment.
Congress has recognized the importance of the follow-on unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) program by including guidance in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to develop a penetrating air-refuel-able unmanned carrier-launched aircraft capable of performing a broad range of missions in a non-permissive environment.
With so many ongoing and planned efforts to identify and field unmanned systems, Mabus and Walsh both called for a push toward open architecture systems and common standards for command and control of UASs.
"Whatever we get it has to focused on both platforms and payloads," Walsh said. "It needs to be a truck, open architecture, plug-and-play."
Mabus said the various platforms the Navy adopts must be interoperable not only with other naval unmanned systems, but with manned platforms, shipboard computer networks and other services.
"Our unmanned systems will only be truly successful if they are developed with interoperability, modularity and open architecture, to address the complexities of autonomy and the advancement of systems that can operate together across multiple domains," Mabus said. "Open architecture development with systems that are platform agnostic is a critical piece of ensuring unmanned systems are integrated into all of our platforms, across all domains, as well as our ability to partner with our sister services in support of joint operations."