Although unmanned programs are developing quickly, the Navy is not close to fully automated systems like a single stride counter-mine vessel, according to a service official. 

Howard Berkof, deputy program manager of PMS-406, within program Executive Office (PEO) Unmanned and Small Combatants (USC), told Defense Daily in an interview last month that the systems being developed and deployed by the Navy now are meant to be force multipliers that augment the current fleet, but not outright replace existing vessels.

The Navy is looking to eventually build up to fully automated vessels that could perform missions like mine countermeasures (MCM) in one stride at once. Berkof said this kind of system “is the holy grail” of this kind of work. That would entail a system hunting for mines, identify and confirm them, then send out a neutralization device.

Textron's Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle. Photo: Textron
Textron’s Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle. Photo: Textron

“Unfortunately, we’re not there yet,” he said. “And there’s critical technologies that need to be developed and proven before we can get there.”

He noted the Navy needs to develop more processing capabilities to identify means, process the data, and send it back to the sailors who work on mine countermeasures to confirm and allow neutralization to proceed. The Navy also needs further developments on algorithm processing, communications, and bandwidth, Berkof added.

For now, the Navy has to keep to its current process of sending a vessel to hunt for mines, get the data, come back and look at the data, then neutralize confirmed mines.

The current legacy MCM process sends the legacy Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships made of wood and coated in fiberglass to search for mines while MH-53 helicopters tow sonars and conduct a mine sweep mission. The ships are made of wood with favorable flexibility, strength and weight to withstand nearby mine detonations while also having little magnetic signature.

Berkoff said the current process is effective but slow and costly using ships commissioned in the late 1980s and early 1990s that require a lot of maintenance. “It is a burdensome process today and the future is to streamline that as much as possible,” he said.

“I will say this. First, we need to deliver and deploy, field the first generation of LCS mission packages. That is our laser focus in the near future. Once, we get that first generation out, then we’ll focus on the next step, which is improving those technologies and getting to that holy grail,” he added.

The LCS MCM mission package is the next step in MCM missions for the Navy. It aims to keep sailors out of the minefield entirely by deploying unmanned systems like the Unmanned Influence Sweet System (UISS).

LCS MCM Updates

Berkof noted the recent change of the PEO LCS to PEO USC “is really reflective of the growth of unmanned systems and the importance unmanned maritime systems are playing with the fleet today and in the future and where they see them going into the future.”

The LCS MCM will be focused on systems like the UISS unmanned surface vessel (USV). Berkoff gave an update of the program at a June American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE) conference. The Navy will start developmental testing (DT) and operational assessments on the UISS this summer and the program is set to achieve Milestone C in the fourth quarter of FY ’18. The Navy expects to start producing the UISS by the end of August.

The UISS consists of the Textron [TXT] Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) towing a minesweeping unit. The system is currently integrating the Raytheon [RTN] AQS-20 and Northrop Grumman [NOC] AQS-24 mine hunting sonars on the same unmanned vessel.

Berkoff highlighted the UISS has a modular payload ability, allowing it to integrate multiple payloads. In FY ’19 the Navy plans to start integrating the Raytheon Barracuda mine neutralization payload as well, he said.

In April, Raytheon won an $83 million contract to design, test, and deploy the Barracuda, which features an expendable autonomous unmanned underwater vehicle intended to identify and neutralize various sea mines (Defense Daily, April 20).

He said this new integration is a “significant accomplishment” and UISS may have limitless payloads beyond MCM like surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare. The Navy is working toward integrating four total payload options on to the UISS.

The Navy plans for the AQS-20 and AQS-24 on UISS to form the backbone of the LCS MCM mission package.

A rendering of the Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle which will be deployed from the littoral combat ship to sweep mines. Illustration: General Dynamics.
A rendering of the Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle which will be deployed from the littoral combat ship to sweep mines. Illustration: General Dynamics.

The LCS MCM will also use the in-development General Dynamics [GD] medium-sized 21-inch diameter Knifefish unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV). The Knifefish will replace dolphins and sea lions the Navy currently uses to detect bottom buried mines and conduct volume minehunting.

Berkoff said the Knifefish had a “banner year of testing” and recently transitioned to developmental testing in Boston and South Florida. General Dynamics completed contractor trials last October (Defense Daily, Oct. 27, 2017). The next step after developmental testing will be operational assessment with a Milestone C decision planned for the fourth quarter of FY ’18.

Berkof underscored through these programs the Navy is working on gaining sailor trust in unmanned systems, before more advanced systems like single stride devices are developed and ready. He said the service needs to gain the confidence of sailors to prove the systems work correctly and will find mines without false calls.

Beyond developing the UISS, Knifefish, and other unmanned MCM vessels, Berkof confirmed the Navy is starting to consider what other kinds of missions unmanned vessels can do.

Future Unmanned Missions

While the Office of Naval Research (ONR) continues work on programs like the Sea Hunter to test autonomous missions and technologies, including potentially surface warfare missions (Defense Daily, Feb. 2), and the Navy is working with Textron to test the CUSV with other payloads like offensive weapons (Defense Daily, Jan. 17), the service has started examining unmanned logistics ships.

Berkof said the logistics community started talks on possibly developing unmanned tankers to refuel systems or logistics ships to deliver goods and services.

He said the Navy is looking closely at this and said they also see what the commercial shipping industry is moving toward.

Maersk and those big folks are, they’re investing a lot of money and taking people off of their ships. Those huge Maersk ships have very few people manning it. It’s mostly automated,” Berkof said

“And we’ve noted that and say, well, you know, maybe look at what they’re doing and think about that and potentially in the future. So that’s the type of stuff we’re looking at,” he added.

However, Berkoff is not sure if future unmanned ships will go into the ship count, saying the policy concerns of what that entails, how to manage those systems, how to treat them with international law, are above his pay grade.

“I know that’s going to come up because the bigger the vessels, right? Do you end up painting them gray and putting a number on them? I think those types of questions are definitely being considered.”