The Navy’s Unmanned Task Force (UTF) has spent its first months developing a sort of venture capital model to choose promising technologies useful for warfighter problems that can be delivered within five years.

The UTF began working last August while in January it officially started an initial “cross-functional pilot” the Navy expects to run for 12-18 months.

In the pilot program, the UTF is working with U.S. Fleet Forces Command and Pacific Fleet to understand what specific operational problems unmanned systems or artificial intelligence and machine learning could help solve. 

UTF executive director Michael Stewart told reporters on May 25 the organization wants to make sure there is a “really tight linkage to, whatever the requirement was, you could trace it right back to the National Defense Strategy, to the Joint Warfighting Concept, the [Chief of Naval Operations’ navigation] Plan, and the [Marine Corps] Commandant’s Planning Guidance.”

“So we wanted to make sure, in the Unmanned Task Force, that we were solving a problem the warfighter actually cared about. What we’re not doing is doing unmanned to do unmanned. There’s a million things we can do with unmanned, we’re doing unmanned to solve operational problems and we’re doing AI to solve operational problems,” he continued.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday announced the service was creating the UTF last September to quicken the pace at which unmanned systems will get integrated into the fleet, comparing it to Task Force Overmatch (Defense Daily, Sept. 9, 2021).

Stewart said the UTF has talked to Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 companies, trying to use their experience to determine the best investments.

“Think of it as kind of a venture capital firm, in terms of we are scanning across a lot of technology, so our going in position is, is there a problem the warfighter actually cares about that we can solve inside five years and bring technology to bear fast.”

The UTF process undergoes sprints to help examine problems it wants to help solve. Each sprint lasts two to three weeks to identify possible technologies across both the commercial and military markets that can apply to warfighter challenges, uses a methodology called limiting factors to examine a broad range of risks from concepts of operations to tactical and payload risks, picks technologies for more experimentation and ultimately chooses a few technologies for small investments. 

If a specific technology or possible solution does not meet the criteria within five years, they note maybe it can be useful for a later time. 

Stewart said they have sifted through “a bunch” of technologies and identified the first few for initial investment, but he would not disclose what they are. 

The UTF’s steering committee chairs are Vice Adm. Francis Morley, the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition, and Vice Adm. Scott Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities.

Stewart said they approved the initial recommendations for the first round investments while a rapid acquisition cell under UTF next looks at the best way to acquire the technology or the data it creates.

At the end of the 12-18 month period, UTF will provide its recommendations for investment and acquisition to Morely and Conn. However, Stewart noted the final recommendations will not be “cookie cutter,” but may cover what kinds of technologies to buy, how to buy it, how to vie for funding within Congress and internal budget deliberations, and what kind of authorities or assistance the Navy should look to get from Congress. The final recommendation may not include specific name-brand technologies.

He noted the UTF is looking at the best acquisition models for these unmanned technologies, including potentially contractor-owned/contractor-operated models. If chosen, that model would have the Navy only pay for the data it specifically needs vs buying the entire hardware to maintain.

“What I don’t do is come in and say look, I’ve got all this amazing technology combined. It’s the why – why do you want it and so what, why does it matter,” Stewart said.

“Because we are very cognizant of things are moving very quickly. So what we don’t want to do is, in five years from now…10 years out, nothing is going to be delivered. So what is that acquisition pathway?”

Stewart said UTF is working with members of Congress and former congressional staff members who helped write middle tier acquisition, Other Transaction Authority and other acquisition authorities to find out the best way to find the useful technologies.

“So we’re looking at what’s the fastest way to get this thing.”