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Bridging The ‘Valley Of Death’ For Navy Drones

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The Navy's UCAS demonstrator made history as the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. Its proposed successor is called UCLASS.

The Navy’s UCAS demonstrator made history as the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. Its proposed successor is called UCLASS.

PENTAGON: The Navy’s new offices for unmanned systems — that’s drones or robots to you and me — are a long-overdue reform, two top experts tell us. But, as emphasized by both our outside sources and the new Navy officials themselves, it’s equally important to understand the initiative’s limits. This is not an overhaul of the existing structure. It is a patch. The Navy wants to bring promising technologies out of the lab, through the funding “valley of death” into the regular acquisition system, and ultimately to the fleet.

So Skynet it ain’t. “We are not going to replace Marines. We are not going to go out there and replace sailors,” Frank Kelley, the retired Marine one-star who is now the first deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems, said at a recent AUVSI robotics conference. Nor does the reorganization signal the start of some big new unmanned weapons program or a new infusion of funding.

It doesn’t even put all the myriad existing programs under one roof. Most drones will remain under current management. Of the four that actually do fall under the new structure, two — the UCLASS drone and LDUUV mini-sub — will eventually outgrow it and transfer to the traditional aircraft and submarine bureaucracies when they’re ready to begin engineering work (Milestone B). A new Common Control System for use on multiple types of unmanned vehicles and general research on autonomy (artificial intelligence) will remain under Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, who as head of Navy staff section N99 is Kelley’s uniformed counterpart.

“I only own programs, by the way, that are pre-milestone B,” Girrier told a reporters Friday. “Right now I’ve got a total of four.”

In Girrier’s job, running programs is secondary to bridging gaps. “N95 [expeditionary warfare], 96 [surface warfare], 97 [undersea], 98 [air] — my role applies across all the other traditional resource sponsors… I cross all of them,” he said at the roundtable. “I don’t work at their expense. Quite the contrary, I work as a complement to them. What are areas where they wish they had an unmanned solution to help ’em out?”

That way, Girrier continued, technologies come out of the lab with a potential patron already lined up. “I’m going to have an ally [at] home plate, so…when the technology is ripe enough for Milestone B…they’re there with a catcher’s mitt saying, ‘yeah, we’re going to POM [budget] for it,'” Girrier said. “That’s new by the way. That didn’t always happen in the past.”

In the past, promising technologies often had successful demonstrations and then fell between stools when no one in the acquisition system wanted to pick them up, said retired Navy commander Bryan Clark, a former aide to the former Chief of Naval Operations, who knows many of the people and ideas behind the creation of N99. “The Navy stood it up mainly to provide a home for unmanned systems (vehicles, unattended systems, infrastructure, etc.) that are coming out of S&T [science and technology] projects but have not yet transitioned to be acquisition programs,” Clark told me.

“For the last decade unmanned system programs have languished in other resource sponsors, such as N97 or N2/N6, where they form a very small part of the overall budget,” Clark said. “These unmanned systems didn’t get much attention…. With N99, much more management attention can be paid to this relatively small (in budget terms) portfolio.”

The civilian counterpart, deputy assistant secretary Kelley’s office, has a similar but wider function, Clark continued, overseeing basic science and technology at the Office of Naval Research, as well as programs in that “valley of death” between ONR and the regular acquisition system.

Equally important is bridging the gap between warrior tribes. Arguably this is a bigger problem for the Navy than for any other service. The Air Force has to get unmanned systems to work in the air, the Army in the air and on the land, but only the Navy has to figure out air, land (for Marines and EOD), the surface of the water, and the undersea domain. With different physics to contend with, not just different cultures, it’s hard to be coherent. As a result, said Clark, the Navy “has pursued wide variety of systems, all with different control systems and maintenance constructs.”

“In the three main naval communities” — aircraft, submarines, and surface ships — “they’re each approaching unmanned systems in accordance with their own lens,” agreed Paul Scharre, head of the Project 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.

Submariners are arguably out front, said Scharre, but even they are limited by traditional concepts. Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are “still seen as something that’s going to be carried or launched from a [manned] submarine, which imposes design constraints,” he said. Launching UUVs from surface ships or shore bases to operate independently of the traditional submarine fleet is a much less well-developed idea.

“You see some of the biggest tensions in the aviation community,” Scharre continued. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain, and House seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes have all pushed for more capable combat drones. Admirals who grew up as pilots are less enthused.

The center of this clash is the UCLASS drone — Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike — which one side wants to make a long-range bomber while traditionalists emphasize the reconnaissance role. UCLASS is officially one of Rear Adm. Girrier’s four programs, but its fate is completely locked up in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he repeatedly declined to answer reporters’ questions about it.

Finally, there’s the surface fleet, in many ways the most traditionalist branch of the Navy: After all, there were surface ships millennia before the first aircraft or submarine. Surface sailors have embraced automation as a way to reduce crew sizes, as on the Littoral Combat Ship and DDG-1000 destroyer, but replacing the crew altogether is another question. There have been some intriguing experiments with “swarming” unmanned boats, said Scharre, but on the whole, “they haven’t woken up to the potential.”

It’s worth noting that Girrier is a Surface Warfare Officer by trade. In fact, he has an exemplary background, having command a destroyer squadron and not one but two different carrier strike groups, Reagan and Nimitz. His most recent jobs were senior positions at Pacific Fleet and Pacific Command. So if anyone has the street cred to reassure traditionalist admirals, it’s this guy — and Girrier plays it up, a lot.

“I’m coming from the Pacific with a strong dose of operational perspective,” Girrier told the roundtable. “That’s part of why I was hired.”

In the past, Girrier told the AUVSI conference, “you had good ideas erupting in various areas and being pushed out to the fleet, shiny objects if you will — and it often vexes the fleet. I’ll tell you I can speak to that with authority, because that’s where I’ve lived and spent the last 16 years almost exclusively.”

“They’re good ideas but they pop up in an undisciplined fashion,” Girrier continued. What you need instead, he said, is “fleet buy in from the beginning, [to say] ‘yes, this is a validated requirement from the fleet.'”

Translation: Don’t worry that some bunch of robot-loving mad scientists has taken charge. I’ll make sure you get what you actually need and that it actually works.

By contrast, while Kelley has street cred too — he’s a retired Marine one-star, after all — he much more plays the visionary enthusiast of the pair. It’s worth noting that Kelley’s a jarhead egghead: He’s a career electronic warrior, a veteran of operations in the EA-6B Prowler. This is a particularly nerdy breed of hero, the kind that detects an enemy anti-aircraft radar and, instead of bugging out, stays to figure out the frequency. It’s not a field for the technophobic or the timid.

“We’re going to try to fundamentally change the way we do business in the Navy and Marine Corps. We’re going to change the way we fight,” Kelley declared in the first few minutes of the Pentagon roundtable.

“We’re going to transcend our human limitations to exploit human potential,” Kelley declared to the AUVSI conference shortly after his appointment. “We’re going to let machines and autonomous systems do the things that they do best so we make human beings do what they do best.”

That’s a concept embraced by Deputy of Defense Bob Work, known as human-machine teaming or the “centaur.” By embracing it, Kelley aligns the Navy with the highest levels of the Department of Defense — and one of the few areas likely to get more funding in the coming years rather than less.

What do you think?