NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. –The Navy is increasing the number of experiments with autonomous platforms, as the service looks to invest over $1 billion in unmanned technologies, to better understand the capability for surviving in contested environments and withstanding attacks on communication links.

Rear Adm. Casey Moton, program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, told attendees Wednesday at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference here officials plan to stand up a new operational squadron construct for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) experimentation before the end of May to join its ongoing series of tests for its Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV).

The DARPA Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program full-scale Sea Hunter demonstration vehicle. (Photo: DARPA)

“We have a UUV squadron already stood up for development and testing. Later this month, we’ll be standing up a service development squadron out in San Diego which will include our USVs,” Moton said. “We’re talking about bringing Large USV, which you can call optionally manned, into the fight. It’s going to be in the network. To the extent that we need to determine how it’s going to operate, we need to do that and we’re getting the prototypes out there soon so that we can do that experimentation.”

The Navy’s recently released FY ’20 budget request detailed plans to invest over $1 billion in unmanned systems, including development of a Large-USV (LUSV) and Medium-USV (MUSV).

The budget request specifically included $447 million in research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funds for two  LUSVs, and in March the Navy issued an RFI for the program (Defense Daily, March 14).

Experimentation is required to answer questions on how these new platforms will survive in contested environments, including adversaries’ attempts to take out communication links with user’s remote controllers, and ensure that the unmanned systems can fully operate within the Navy’s network, according to Moton.

“We’re in the early stages of this still, there are a lot of questions here that are still unanswered,” Moton said. “We are, from the beginning, wanting to have them networked with the rest of our platforms. They’ll have the ability to operate independently, certainly that’s the plan, but in the Navy today our platforms are networked together, sharing tactical information and intelligence.”

Moton, who assumed his new role only 11 days ago, said he’s bringing his experience working on the Aegis combat system’s advanced capabilities to inform the direction of autonomy and combat engagement for future USVs.

“We’ve been working for a long time on how the human is a part of that, who get the fire order, and all of those types of things that we we’re thinking through when first fielding Aegis. I see the USVs in the same light, and I think just because there are questions we have to answer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go there,” Moton said.

Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman, commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, joined Moton on the autonomy panel and added that future autonomy experimentation will have to include consideration for countering peer competitor’s own AI-driven attacks.

“There’s a lot of work that’s going on in order to be able to generate and apply counters to threats, and to create opportunities and options for operational damage in some type of escalation or heightened period of tensions,” Wortman said. “If you make an assumption that AI is going to enable higher tempo or faster operations, it has implications for how you posture your force, how you apply your force, where you might accept risk and where you might look for options for mitigating risk.”