NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A greater level of autonomy will be necessary for unmanned systems as the military seeks to expand its operational environment to stay competitive with adversaries, Vice Adm. Scott Conn, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities, N9, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, said during a panel at the Navy League’s 2021 Sea Air Space expo here on Aug. 4. 

“We have to be intellectually honest with ourselves…if we’re going to have so many unmanned systems working more and more in contested space, that’s going to require more and more of a level of autonomy or the ability to communicate,” Conn said. “We are getting after that…It’s got to be clear, it has to be transparent in terms of getting real in terms of the capability, not the things we can do, but those things we must do.”

Conn said the U.S. no longer has a monopoly on critical technologies like range and precision and needs to expand its operational reach using unmanned systems to increase intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.  

“The world is a different place. At the end of the Cold War there was an anomaly in history that the U.S. had a monopoly on a lot of key critical technologies and that’s no longer the case,” Conn said. “If I were to put two points to that its range and precision. We don’t have a monopoly and because of that we need to expand our operational reach, our ability to sense, make sense, and act quickly.” 

As these systems extend their ranges, it is also important the systems and their components are reliable. Conn said he is not satisfied with the reliability of current technologies. 

“When you look at the expanses of the Pacific…any strain we put on unreliable components or parts and logistic supply when the process expands, I’m not satisfied with where we are across the force,” Conn said. “And, again, I think part of that is on us.” 

The Navy is using these unmanned systems to not only prevent conflict before it happens but win in conflicts that do occur. Conn said the challenge is being able to effectively use these systems in the air, on the surface, and under the sea to gain tactical advantages. 

“I think the challenges that we have and what we’re getting at is, look at the most challenging operational problems, how can we use unmanned systems in the air, on the surface, and undersea to create and identify those warfighting advantages that gives the advantage at the tactical level,” Conn said. “Because this is not about in times of crisis competing, this is about winning. We’re not just in it to compete, but I will say upfront, our first job is to prevent crisis and conflict from happening.”