While the U.S. Navy is steaming full speed ahead in developing unmanned surface and undersea drones to augment the fleet of the future, the information technology and artificial intelligence that will drive these platforms remains a work in progress. The sea service needs to better map out its efforts, according to a government watchdog report released this week.

Navy shipbuilding plans call for spending more than $4 billion on such drones over the next five years, but that plan “does not account for the full costs to develop and operate these systems,” a Government Accountability Office report found.

Replacing crews requires IT and AI capabilities that the Navy has only begun to assess, according to GAO.

“While the Navy has established strategic objectives for these efforts, it has not established a management approach that orients its individual uncrewed maritime efforts toward achieving those objectives,” the report states. “As such, the Navy is not measuring its progress, such as building the robust information technology needed to operate the vehicles.”

GAO’s audit began in October 2020 and concluded this month.

It found that the Navy is “only beginning to assess (unmanned systems’) effects on existing shipbuilding plans.”

“While the Navy has outlined a plan to spend $4.3 billion on uncrewed maritime systems in its shipbuilding plan, we found that this understates the costs associated with these systems because it does not account for all costs — specifically operations and sustainment, and the digital infrastructure necessary to enable them,” the report states.

Funding unmanned development could also come under pressure from competing shipbuilding demands, according to the GAO.

It found that the Navy has yet to stand up criteria for evaluating prototypes or developing better schedules for such prototype efforts.

“With detailed planning, prototyping has the potential to further technology development and reduce acquisition risk before the Navy makes significant investments,” the report states. “Since uncrewed systems are key to the Navy’s future, optimizing the prototyping phase of this effort is necessary to efficiently gaining information to support future decisions.”

The Navy is looking to introduce several unmanned systems into the fleet in the coming decades, according to GAO, and while some software will be unique to each platform, the Navy also wants to have a lot of common digital infrastructure among these vehicles.

This digital infrastructure would involve AI capabilities built over time to better help the platforms communicate, sense their surroundings and manage reams of data, the report states.

Navy officials told GAO that the sea service needs a host of technologies, including simulation software, software for autonomy and mission planning, large datasets for machine learning, as well as commercial tech and software that can be quickly bought and melded into Navy systems.

Among its recommendations, the report states that the Navy should provide Congress with a cost estimate for the full scope of work that will be required to make unmanned systems part of the fleet, while developing an approach to refine this estimate in the next shipbuilding plan.

The sea service should also establish an “uncrewed maritime systems portfolio” and assign an entity to oversee that portfolio, while offering more detail about how it intends to reach its unmanned objectives.

Evaluation criteria should be developed for assessing prototype readiness before moving to an acquisition program, and a master planning schedule should be built that folds in each unmanned system, laying out when the Navy plans to prototype and purchase each platform, according to GAO.

“The Navy generally concurred with all seven recommendations, but some of the actions that it plans to take in response to three recommendations would not fully address the issues that we discuss in this report,” the watchdog report states. “GAO maintains that fully implementing all recommendations is warranted.”

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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