WASHINGTON ― America’s largest military shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, is known for aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious ships, but its corporate strategy is sighted in on much smaller platforms.
On the Newport News, Virginia-based firm’s quarterly earnings call Thursday, executives highlighted that HII has been on a spending spree to boost its unmanned business, which is part of its Technical Solutions unit. The comments come even as the U.S. Navy’s still-evolving unmanned plans have seen pushback on Capitol Hill.
“In the Technical Solutions space, we’ve made a big investment in unmanned. An expansion of the unmanned business, I think, is something that — now that we’ve made that investment and we have a portfolio — it’s up to us to make sure that we capture that expansion,” said HII Chief Financial Officer Tom Stiehle. “Of all the budget items that I see out there, the unmanned budget item is probably going to have the largest percentage growth over the next five years, in my view.”
HII’s purchase of Spatial Integrated Systems in April follows last year’s acquisition of Hydroid, its strategic alliance with Kongsberg Maritime and its equity investment in Sea Machines Robotics.
In January, HII completed the first phase of its Unmanned Systems Center of Excellence with the construction of a 22,000-square-foot facility in Hampton, Virginia. The center will host the assembly of hull structures for Boeing’s Orca for the Navy’s Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle program. A second building for unmanned systems prototyping, production and testing is scheduled to be built by year’s end.
The company disclosed Thursday that about 75 percent of all the Orca’s structural components have been fabricated and that final delivery to Boeing is set for later this year.
What sort of returns HII is seeing for its unmanned systems in the near term is not entirely clear. The company said its Technical Solutions business unit, which oversees unmanned systems, saw an 18 percent decline in revenue (after divesting its oil and gas business and the San Diego shipyard). But when asked on the call, executives declined to provide details about its unmanned systems alone.
The Navy signaled with its long-discussed Unmanned Campaign Plan last month that it wants to shift its focus from building large, expensive platforms toward meeting naval requirements with unmanned systems. However, sea power advocates in Congress were critical of the document and have been emphasizing crewed ships until the Navy successfully demonstrates the technical foundations of unmanned systems.
The Navy, in fiscal 2021 and beyond, wants to develop and procure large, medium and extra-large unmanned vehicles. However, amid skepticism in Congress over the Navy’s ability to quickly develop new technologies, lawmakers provided $238.9 million of the $579.9 million in research and development funding the Navy requested.
Defense News previously reported that the Navy is likely to delay its Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle program by a year amid resistance from Congress. The most recent annual defense policy law barred the Navy from fielding the MK 41 Vertical Launching System on LUSVs and ordered it to explore a range of vessel types as alternatives.
The Navy last week kicked off its first multidomain manned and unmanned capabilities exercise, Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21. The exercise was set to feature operational unmanned systems such as the MQ-9 Sea Guardian UAV, the medium-displacement unmanned surface vessels Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk, and small and medium unmanned undersea vehicles with modular payloads, the Navy said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.