The Navy wants to spend $4.3 billion on unmanned ships and other systems over the next five years. This will be a historic investment toward the Navy’s fleet of the future.
But according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Navy still hasn’t made public what its future family of drone ships will cost to operate or how it will evaluate prototypes for effectiveness and impact. The 54-page report, released on April 7, raises significant questions about the digital infrastructure expected to link these unmanned ships and equip them with autonomy and – particularly on the heels of the cost overruns and design failures of the littoral combat ship – asks whether the Navy is adequately prepared to pull off this new technological feat.
Over the next several decades, the Navy wants to buy up to 150 unmanned and lightly manned vessels – a veritable drone ship fleet. But exactly how they will operate and what kind of support they’ll require remain open questions.
“Without metrics and milestones to evaluate the prototypes, the Navy will not know when it has achieved its objective of lowering the risk of acquiring these systems before committing to significant investments,” the 54-page report states. “As a result, the Navy may transition these programs into the acquisition process before they are ready, potentially leading to concurrency between the technology maturation, design, and building stages of the program. As we have previously reported on multiple Navy shipbuilding programs over the last 10 years, concurrency often results in cost growth, schedule delays, and performance issues,” it adds.
Stated more simply, buying a ship before you’re sure what it will do and what it will look like is rarely a good idea.
While the Navy generally agreed with seven GAO recommendations calling for comprehensive cost estimates, clear prototype metrics and milestones, and better oversight with a designated “uncrewed maritime system” portfolio, the service pushed back on a recommendation that it start including unmanned ships and their maintenance costs in its battle force count. While this objection is not fully explained, it suggests continued uncertainty as to how the uncrewed family of ships will compare to their manned counterparts in the fleet, and some unwillingness to grapple with full programmatic costs until required to do so.
“Regardless of whether uncrewed ships are a part of the battle force inventory, the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is required to have an estimate of the operations and sustainment costs, among other costs, for the ships that will be delivered under the plan,” the report states. “Given that operations and sustainment costs are such a large portion of a shipbuilding program’s total cost, the Navy cannot fully assess the affordability of uncrewed maritime systems without an estimate of these costs.”
That’s an unknown that could well sink the drone fleet before it really gets underway, and perhaps scuttle other fleet-building plans as well, the report warns.
“By highlighting the affordability of these systems without analysis that accounts for all estimated costs, the Navy could potentially communicate unrealistic cost estimates and expectations for its uncrewed maritime systems,” it states. “If uncrewed maritime systems turn out to be more expensive than anticipated, the Navy may not be able to buy as many ships — whether crewed or uncrewed — as currently planned, which could jeopardize its future force plans.”
It is also unclear how many Sailors will be required to operate these unmanned systems. While “uncrewed” gives the impression a system operates with little or no human input, that’s far from the case. The unmanned surface and undersea vessels that the Navy is working to field would at minimum require a small crew aboard to help them navigate in and out of port, and a cadre of operators or monitors to supervise their missions. Maintenance and repairs increase the manpower requirement.
Previously, GAO pointed out, the Navy had attempted to shrink down the crews deploying on surface ships ranging from guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to aircraft carriers. While manpower costs on some platforms had been reduced, those savings had been dwarfed by substantial increases in maintenance costs across the board. Reduced crews were overworked and less able to keep up with the needs of the ship.
“Given this trend,” GAO wrote, “the Navy cannot fully assess the affordability of uncrewed maritime systems without understanding the extent to which the replacement of a crew on board with automated systems affects operations and sustainment costs.”
The drone ships
Included in the Navy’s shipbuilding efforts are a half-dozen drone surface ships and submarines ranging from a large unmanned surface vessel, or LUSV, planned to be about the size of a traditional frigate, to much smaller platforms closer to the size of a large speedboat. Some of these unmanned vessels have been delivered to the Navy in small quantities and used in experimentation efforts; others have yet to be built. The systems include:
Originally bought by DARPA in 2016, this 40-meter surface vessel has a narrow hull supported by two outriggers and has been the subject of much of the Navy’s experimentation to date. Sea Hunter is able to cruise 10,000 nautical miles on a single tank of diesel fuel and remain at sea up to 90 days without resupply. Designed for anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures, Sea Hunter and the later acquired Seahawk participated in the Navy’s “Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21” exercise last year in the Pacific, giving Sailors the chance to operate with it. It’s not clear if the Navy wants to buy any more of the systems, or just use them to develop other platforms.
Overlord Unmanned Surface Vessel
Part of a Navy test effort known as Ghost Fleet Overlord, this category includes two test ships: Nomad and Ranger. Purchased by the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office, the two vessels were formally transferred to the Navy in March. Previously small commercial supply ships, these vessels were retrofitted to make them autonomous. In June 2011, Nomad traveled nearly 4,500 nautical miles from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast in what the Navy called a “98 percent” autonomous trip. USNI News reported that the Navy wants to acquire two more of these vessels for further testing and experimentation.
Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV)
The biggest of the bunch and the most like a traditional Navy ship, LUSV will be anywhere from 200 to 300 feet long and displace up to 2,000 tons. They could be designed for modular, interchangeable payloads, a concept the Navy tried out on the LCS, with limited success.
“Although referred to as UVs, LUSVs might be more accurately described as optionally or lightly manned ships, because they might sometimes have a few onboard crew members, particularly in the nearer term as the Navy works out LUSV enabling technologies and operational concepts,” Congressional Research Service said in a March report. This is also intended to be an armed ship, equipped with between 16 and 32 vertical launch system (VLS) tubs for anti-surface warfare and strike payloads.
Several companies are vying to build LUSVs, which are set to become a major acquisition program for the Navy. The service in 2020 gave contracts to six companies to start development work on a possible LUSV; these companies included Austal, Huntington Ingalls, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin Corp., and Gibbs & Cox. Austal, which just got a contract to build an autonomous version of the Navy’s Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship, is pitching a version of that for the LUSV. Lockheed Martin has also built a prototype.
Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV)
The Navy picked L3 Technologies in 2020 to develop a MUSV prototype. While two of the multi-mission ships are planned, with delivery of the first expected early next year, the Navy could buy up to seven. They could be used for surveillance and electronic warfare. The Navy’s fiscal 2023 budget request, with $338.7 million requested for MUSV and LUSV, supports “continued development and resting … and continues research and development of payload systems” as well as core autonomy, command and control, and sensor capabilities, according to documents.
Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle
These submarine-launched drone subs were intended to conduct surveillance and electronic warfare. However, the Navy announced in its fiscal 2023 budget request, that it was eliminating the program due to delays and cost issues that GAO warned about in its new report.
“Misalignment of Snakehead LDUUV design and procurement efforts with submarine hosting interfaces resulted in limited availability of host platforms to conduct Snakehead operations,” Navy officials wrote to explain the divestment. “Cost and schedule delays associated with LDUUV development and Virginia Class [submarine] integration prohibited further investment.”
The Navy expects to save $516.8 million over the next five years through divestment.
Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle
By contrast, the Navy is making significant investments in its Orca XLUUV. The 2024 budget proposal includes $117 million to build these standalone drone subs, which are set to become a major acquisition program for the Navy, and another $60.7 million to support the core UUV technologies that will help them to operate. Boeing and Lockheed Martin both received contracts in 2017 to begin development on the 51-foot subs; Boeing was subsequently awarded a 2019 contract to build the first four systems. Pier-launched, these subs could operate independently and undertake a range of mission sets. The Navy has said it will take delivery of the first Orcas before the end of this year, with additional procurement of up to 76 subs expected starting in 2024.
“The Navy wants to use XLUUVs to, among other things, covertly deploy the Hammerhead mine, a planned mine that would be tethered to the seabed and armed with an antisubmarine torpedo, broadly similar to the Navy’s Cold War-era CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) mine,” CRS stated.
The scope and scale of these planned acquisition efforts raises significant concerns for Congress, CRS noted, especially as it’s not clear that the Navy has – or will develop – the infrastructure needed to oversee a major drone fleet and effectively protect it from attackers.
“The Navy can sustain small numbers of unmanned systems today. If that is the future that the Navy envisions, with only small quantities of systems that may be superb in quality and capability, it should say so,” the report stated. “But the illusion created by the Navy’s strategy, whether intentional or not, is that the number of offboard unmanned systems in use will not be small. Furthermore, unless the offboard systems have exceedingly long range and endurance, launching and recovering them must be done with some proximity to their operational locations, presumably at risk of attack from the adversary,” it added.
Capt. Scott Searles, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems office, told reporters at the Sea Air Space Symposium earlier this month that Sailors in the fleet were asking for unmanned prototypes to incorporate into wargames so they can get more comfortable and familiar with the platforms.
“It’s absolutely imperative that we get prototypes out there and get them involved, that we get the fleet the opportunity not just to … talk their way through how are they going to use unmanned vessels in [concept of operations], but actually get them in exercises, operate with them understand the ins and outs of, OK, I need to board that thing to get it in and out of port,” Searles said. “So there’s a whole bunch of things that are just simple blocking and tackling that we have to get after. The fleet’s excited about it.”