Every White House budget is a wishlist. While Congress gets ultimate say, the presidential budget request is valuable, less than a statement of what will come, and more as a possible vision of what could be.
The Navy’s request for fiscal year 2020, part of which was released March 11, is driven by a quest for readiness and lethality, and one that could be executed mostly by continuing to purchase the same ships and weapons as before.
Only now there will be more robots.
“Unmanned” systems are mentioned six times in the White House’s summary of the Pentagon’s request, half of which are references to civil aviation. Now, flashier entry is that the Navy wants to purchase two large experimental unmanned surface ships, especially noteworthy after the early successes of the Sea Hunter. The Navy is so excited by the possibility of uncrewed vessels that it’s included them as an essential part of reaching its long-stated goal of a 355-ship navy.
In addition, the budget request “accelerates acquisition for several key systems, including Unmanned Undersea Vehicles.” Underwater is one of the most promising areas of autonomous machines to operate, both because of the stealth provided by traveling below the surface and because remote control at distance is much harder when communicating through water than over the air.
Autonomous underwater robots can fill a variety of roles, from ambient sensors to coastal scouts, and be produced at a size and scale that makes them far more ‘attritable’ than human-containing vessels. Some could even be deployed from peopled submarines, making robots as much an extension of existing capability as a unique category unto themselves.
There’s a hitch to all enthusiasm for robotics. Underwater machines, by nature of how they communicate, are more dependent on autonomy than surface, land, or aerial vehicles. Acquiring, managing, and safeguarding AI, especially the kind that will make decisions in the Navy’s underwater robots, is exactly the sort of task the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) was built for. Created in June 2018, JAIC’s initial budget of $89 million was set to more than quadruple to $414 million in FY 2020. The White House still plans to scale up JAIC, but requested only $208 million for 2020, barely more than half of what it initially planned.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.