Reduced defense spending will force the Navy to focus more clearly on unmanned systems in the future and do a better job of integrating them into overall operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, the outgoing chief of naval operations, said.

“Warfighting and fiscal realities I believe are going to drive us more rapidly and in a much more focused way beyond our traditional platforms to the inclusion of unmanned systems,” Roughead told an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington Friday.

While recent operations have shown the Navy is able to operate freely at sea, it will face access denial challenges in the future. Unmanned systems will be needed to counter those measures in offshore missions, said Roughead, who is to retire around the end of September and be replaced by Adm. Jonathan Greenert.

“There will be systems that will be arrayed against military forces that want to be able to come into an area that will challenge the command and control; that will challenge our ability to gain access,” he said. “And, for that reason, I believe unmanned systems will play an even larger, more critical and more crucial role in the years ahead– particularly in those contested environments.”

Roughead touted some of the Navy’s systems, including Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS) aircraft and the same firm’s MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter as successes at enhancing situational awareness. He said BAMS was sent to the Middle East two years ago and has proven to be a critical tool.

“It has yet to come back,” he said. “It’s not broken. It’s just that no one wants to let it go because of the value it provides in sensing the battlespace there.”

Fire Scout deployed two years ahead of its initial operation capability date. Although intended to fly from ships, the system is being used in landlocked Afghanistan and there is additional demand, Roughead said. He added unmanned sea systems have been effective in helping clear mines off Iraq’s shores.

But the Navy, like other large organizations, “is often slow to adapt” and is not adequately bringing the systems into the overall operational concept, Roughead said.

“I would say all of the unmanned systems operate on the periphery of all the operations we conduct,” he said. The military has become too “risk averse” in the acquisition process and at quickly fielding systems, which has left the Navy short of having them “optimally integrated,” he said.

With the Navy having to confront growing anti-access area denial capabilities in the future, and the importance of operating in the undersea domain, the service must “put more energy and more purpose into bringing these systems to bear.”

Fully integrating unmanned systems could fundamentally alter naval operations, he said. “If we can blend the unmanned on an aircraft carrier and the manned on an aircraft carrier, we’d change the dimension of carrier naval aviation in a way that has not happened in decades,” Roughead said.