WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Task Force spent its first nine months developing a venture capital model for selecting promising technologies and is now beginning to identify candidates that could solve warfighter problems within the next five years.

The task force officially began work in August and in January kicked off an initial cross-functional pilot program that will run for 12 to 18 months.

As part of this pilot program, the Unmanned Task Force is partnering with U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet to understand specific operational problems that could be solved by unmanned systems or enablers like artificial intelligence and machine learning. A top operator need that has emerged is AI-enabled maritime domain awareness, Michael Stewart, the task force’s executive director, told reporters May 25.

With operational needs in mind, Stewart said, the task force uses a venture capital-like method to identify investments that could pay off: the process scans technology across the military and commercial markets; identifies which could be applied to warfighter challenges; hunts for potential barriers to implementation; picks technologies for further experimentation; and, in the end, selects a handful of items to receive small investments.

“I wanted to make sure that ... whatever the requirement was, you could trace it right back to the National Defense Strategy, the Joint Warfighting Concept, the CNO [Navigation] Plan and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” Stewart said. “We wanted to make sure ... we were solving a problem the warfighter actually cared about.”

Since the task force’s formation, he said, the group has identified the first few technologies for initial investment — though he would not say what they are — and validated that the cross-functional team can make quick decisions through this venture capital methodology.

The task force gathers input from the fleets, the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s warfighting centers, resource sponsors, systems commands and more. The idea is that, though some technologies may not prove to be worth their cost in fleet experiments, it won’t be because the task force didn’t consider its compatibility with other Navy systems or other considerations often missed in a siloed acquisition process. Having all the stakeholders represented in the selection process should help avoid mistakes, Stewart said.

“There’s been a lot of unmanned stuff going on, highly fragmented, and we’re pulling it together and scaling, learning, and accelerating what’s going on,” he said.

Vice Adm. Francis Morley, the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition, and Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, lead the task force’s steering committee.

Stewart said they greenlighted the early recommendations for first-round investments. A rapid acquisition cell under the task force then looks at the best way to acquire the technology itself or the data it generates.

He noted Task Force 59 in U.S. 5th Fleet — a separate but related effort — has generated lessons for the Unmanned Task Force. That group has taken commercial off-the-shelf technologies and applied them to operational problems, specifically maritime domain awareness. To move as rapidly as possible, including conducting a massive unmanned fleet experiment just months after the task force was formed, 5th Fleet has leased, rather than bought, most of the unmanned craft.

Stewart said the Unmanned Task Force is weighing the best acquisition models for future unmanned technologies, including a contractor-owned/contractor-operated model. In that scenario, the Navy only pays for the data it needs, rather than buying hardware to operate and maintain.

In Task Force 59, as well as these early sprints from the Unmanned Task Force, “they’re going to the limits of what commercial technology is; then, working in concert with [the Office of Naval Research], they may say, ‘geez, if we had this other sensor on this thing’ or something, then that’s a demand signal to [ONR] to go do this other thing,” Stewart said. “They’re trying to get to the bleeding edge of what does commercial technology have, and then where are the gaps from a military perspective.”

The Unmanned Task Force has been mostly quiet since Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday announced its creation in September, but Stewart said he wants to talk more about its work and make the case for more funding.

Stewart said the task force had early meetings with the staff of some congressional committees to explain how the work was incorporating congressional concerns about moving too quickly and ending up with an unsuccessful or unreliable product. He said those conversations also included the idea of an innovation fund, which he says the task force needs to be able to field new tech within the next five years.

At the end of the 12-18 months, the task force is set to provide Morley and Conn with a list of recommendations for investment and acquisition. However, Stewart cautioned the list may not be of specific name-brand technology, but could instead share lessons on the character of a worthwhile investment or the merits of different acquisition strategies for different types of technology.

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.

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