WASHINGTON — Despite significant progress on unmanned systems and manned-unmanned integration in the past year, the U.S. Navy needs to move faster and is establishing a new task force to help, according to the chief of naval operations.
Adm. Mike Gilday has already dubbed Project Overmatch — the Navy’s effort to develop a network to tie together unmanned and manned systems — his No. 2 priority for the fleet, just behind building the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine.
Speaking at the Defense News Conference on Wednesday, he said he’s in the early stages of standing up a new task force that will complement Project Overmatch and focus on the unmanned systems themselves.
This group, which will be formed in the coming months, will be similar to Project Overmatch in its scope and purpose, “where I have a group of technical experts along with operators who put meat on this problem set to move forward in all domains at speed, to make unmanned a reality by the end of this decade, so that we can begin to put ourselves in a position where we can scale these assets and really make them an important part of the fleet — make distributed maritime operations come alive in a way that it’s real.”
Gilday said he will be able to share more details in early fiscal 2022, but told Defense News the task force will include sailors and civilians at the Navy’s labs and systems commands who want to help innovate and bring to life his vision of a hybrid manned-unmanned fleet.
This move comes nearly a year after Gilday kicked off Project Overmatch in search of a tactical network to tie together manned and unmanned platforms in all domains, enabling the distributed maritime operations concept the Navy has been working on for several years.
Gilday said that if the goal was to have a third of the fleet unmanned or minimally manned by the mid-2030s, the Navy wouldn’t be able to command and control 100 to 200 unmanned systems without fundamentally rethinking the networks.
“This past year, in the first year of Project Overmatch, we’ve done three spirals where we bring together increasing amounts of networks and data sources and see … what we can package and move on what networks at speed. We’ve been very optimistic about what we’ve seen so far with respect to performance,” Gilday said, adding that the Navy would test this network at sea with a carrier strike group in late FY22 or early FY23 and then subsequently at the fleet level.
Even ahead of these formal demonstrations, the Navy has gotten early peeks at how an unmanned fleet might look.
The Navy and the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office recently launched a Standard Missile-6 from a modular launcher off the back of a large unmanned surface vessel, one of two built under the Ghost Fleet Overlord program.
Gilday described the test event as “taking a weapon system that already exists, containerizing it, putting it in the back of an unmanned vessel, pushing it out to sea, and then essentially pushing target data, a target solution set, to that vessel, and then remote launching. So all of that really has to do with command and control,” he said.
The Navy previously described a large USV concept for the future fleet that could serve as an adjunct magazine, much in the way the Ghost Fleet Overlord USV did in the recent test. Lawmakers pushed back, detailing significant concerns about the reliability of the USVs and the ability to command and control them — and their lethal payloads. They limited the Navy’s ability to move forward in designing, building and testing this kind of unmanned magazine ship.
Gilday said the Navy has made progress on USV reliability “to put us in a position in probably a few years where we can go to the Hill, and have discussions inside the Pentagon, about finally slapping a table and making a decision to move at scale in terms of producing these vessels.”
In the meantime, he said the test with the Ghost Fleet Overlord USV launching a Standard Missile proved the concept was technically feasible but also showed that the Navy would need to keep the man in the loop during these kinds of operations.
When it comes to autonomy and artificial intelligence, he said, it’s one thing to have USVs that can navigate the oceans and follow the maritime rules of the road, but another to have USVs that can understand a commander’s intent for the mission.
“We’re probably initially going to be minimally manned on most of these platforms, and I think in terms of manned-unmanned teaming the man in the loop is going to be an important piece of this for a while before we get to a point where, you know, it’s hands off, so to speak, with a high degree of autonomy,” Gilday said.
Though LUSVs may begin their service as minimally manned platforms rather than fully unmanned platforms, Gilday said the recent Large Scale Exercise 21 and the Unmanned Systems Integrated Fleet Battle Problem showed the power of distributed maritime operations supported by manned-unmanned teaming.
“As we begin to take a look at how you use a distributed network of platforms, and thinking ahead to [Joint All-Domain Command and Control] and how we tie everything together — not limiting a shooter to the sensors that are on that particular platform but leveraging organic and non-organic sensors in order to fuse that data can not only put us in a position to get a round out faster than the adversary, but actually put us in a position ... to decide faster than the adversary, how we’re going to act and to stay one or two steps ahead to take advantage of the fog and friction of war, particularly early in a conflict, to put our forces … in a position of advantage before the enemy is able to understand what we’re doing,” he said. “So it’s really about information superiority. It’s about decision superiority.”
Though the Navy will spend months looking through lessons learned from these two events, Gilday said the service is already planning for future deployed carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups to conduct Fleet Battle Problems — routine events conducted on the way to or from a deployment that help work through a specific aspect of a concept like distributed maritime operations — that focus on manned-unmanned teaming.
“One of the things that I’ll be looking for is how we integrate unmanned at scale into the fleet because we know that in the future they’re going to be a significant part of a distributed maritime operations,” he said. “We know in order to give us volume, in order to give us firepower, in order to give us sensing power, we need that distributed fleet.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.