The U.S. Navy’s welcome surge in experimentation during the past year is at risk of running aground due to a lack of focus and equipment.

Originally envisioned as a campaign of learning to develop new operational concepts for its emerging generation of ships, unmanned vehicles, sensors and weapons, events such as the Large Scale Exercise and Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem could end up being expensive photo ops unless the Navy sustains a rapid pace of experimentation that addresses its most important operational challenges.

In addition to overcoming organizational inertia, this will require fielding more unmanned system prototypes central to the fleet’s new warfighting approaches.

The Navy has come under fire for failing to articulate a long-term strategy and force structure plan. Although plans are essential to inform industry and Congress, the fleet’s more urgent need is to exploit new technologies by assessing and incorporating promising systems.

Even at their current levels of endurance, automation and survivability, unmanned vehicles like the Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel, Mk-18 medium unmanned undersea vehicle, and MQ-9 unmanned air system could enable more scalable and sustainable operational concepts better able to increase uncertainty and costs for opponents.

A small number of fundamental operational challenges stand between the Navy and its dissuasion of Chinese or Russian aggression; these should guide the fleet’s unmanned concept development.

For example, countering both adversaries’ precision weapons will require distributing manned and unmanned units at sea and ashore to dilute attacks, coupled with higher-capacity — and therefore shorter range — air defenses. Suppressing operations by quiet Russian or numerous Chinese submarines demands scalable approaches to anti-submarine warfare using unmanned systems that do not take manned ships and aircraft away from offensive operations. And threatening enemy forces in highly contested electromagnetic environments requires attritable or expendable unmanned systems from space to undersea for sensing, communication and attacks.

The Navy’s initial unmanned programs and recent Unmanned Campaign Framework failed to align its proposed unmanned vehicles with the challenges they would address or the tactics they could enable. By proposing unmanned systems without clearly articulated use cases, the Navy slowed its transformation. The service reduced the urgency to solve operational problems and left Congress and industry in the dark.

The Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem exercise could help fill this gap between problems and solutions, but instead pursued basic tasks like assessing unmanned systems as communication relays or surveillance and targeting platforms. These long-established use cases for unmanned vehicles are table stakes in the military competition against China.

The Navy should lean in to develop and practice operational concepts combining manned and unmanned systems to close effects chains that attack, suppress or disrupt the enemy. And if years pass between each edition of the Integrated Battle Problem or Large Scale Exercise, learning will be lost and operators and program managers will be unable to refine their tactics or system requirements.

Congress could help the Navy avoid an innovation cul-de-sac by pushing service leaders to sustain the fleet’s pace of experimentation. Congress has already provided the naval services some of the tools needed for their transformation to a distributed, more agile force. For example, the fiscal 2019 appropriations legislation included five Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle prototypes to enable tactics development, requirements refinement and engineering evaluations. Congress also funded the Marine Corps to buy two MQ-9A Reaper unmanned aircraft for experimentation and concept development.

Congress should complement these efforts by funding two Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle prototypes in FY22. The first Navy MUSV prototype was funded in FY19 and will be delivered by the end of FY23. It follows two experimental unmanned surface ships, Sea Hunter and Seahawk, built by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research.

Seahawk and Sea Hunter are helping the Navy work through manned-unmanned teaming, but are not able to carry the larger and more varied payloads the MUSV will need to employ for missions like over-the-horizon targeting or electromagnetic warfare, deception, communications or anti-submarine warfare. With only one MUSV prototype, the fleet will lack the flexibility to test new payloads while also evaluating the vehicle itself. Additionally, waiting more than a year between the first prototype and follow-on MUSVs will idle the workforce and supply chain, delaying the transition to a production program.

In return for its support of Navy’s unmanned transformation, Congress should demand its leaders identify how the current generation of unmanned systems can help address the fleet’s most pressing operational problems and how further technology maturation could increase their utility in the future. This is a different approach than the methodical process of acquiring large, multi-mission manned warships with decades-long service lives. If the Navy and Congress cannot partner in embracing an evolutionary path to revolutionary results, the United States risks fielding a fleet that is reliable in peacetime, but irrelevant to preventing war.

Bryan Clark is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Hudson Center for Defense Concepts and Technology. Timothy A. Walton is a fellow at the Hudson Center for Defense Concepts and Technology.

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