The Pentagon wants to forge ahead with robot warships, but Congress wants to slow the train

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WASHINGTON – Unmanned surface vessels are all the rage in the office of the Secretary of Defense, and the U.S. Navy has lined up behind the effort. But Congress remains skeptical until it sees the Navy make progress on the basics.

In the latest sign of Congressional ambivalence on unmanned surface warships, the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee called for restricting funding for procurement of any large unmanned surface vessels – LUSVs – until he Navy can certify it has worked out an appropriate hull, mechanical and electrical system and that it can operate autonomously for 30 days consecutively.

Furthermore, the Navy must demonstrate a reliable operating system and that any systems integrated into the platform – sonars, radars, ect. – are likewise functioning and reliable, according the text of the Seapower subcommittee’s mark of the FY21 National Defense Authorization act, Congress’s annual defense policy bill, obtained by Defense News.

In short, the language would mean the Navy could not spend procurement dollars on a large unmanned surface vessel until they have a working model and not try to develop those technologies on the fly.

It’s the same kind of subsystem development language that was championed in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mark of the FY21 NDAA, that “requires the Navy to qualify the main engines and generators for certain unmanned surface vessels prior to vessel procurement,” according to a summary of the mark.

The Defense Department, led by Defense Secretary Mark Esper in line with his in-house think tank the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, have been championing a major shift away from large surface combatants. Instead they want to focus on fielding more unmanned platforms with missile cells that can be more expendable in a fight and act as an external missile magazine for larger manned combatants with more exquisite sensors.

But Congress has repeatedly balked at the idea because the Navy has yet to produce a concept of operations or even a coherent public strategy to back up the investments they want to make. Further, Congress is wary of appropriating money for platforms that rely on technologies that haven’t been fully developed yet, a practice that has caused countless delays to the Littoral Combat Ship’s mission modules and held up the construction of the new carrier Ford.

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One of the two prototypes purchased by the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office for its Ghost Fleet Overlord program, aimed at fielding an autonomous surface ship capable of launching missiles. (Photo: DoD)

No Weapons, New Bureaucrats

The language in the mark also restricts the Navy from putting weapons on the LUSV until “Secretary of the Defense certifies to the congressional defense committees that any large unmanned surface vessel that employs offensive weapons will comply with the law of armed conflict,” the language states. “Such certification 20 shall include a detailed explanation of how such compliance will be achieved.”

This is the second such restriction put on weapons systems being integrated into unmanned surface vessels in as many years.

Last year, after a fight with Congress over procuring large unmanned surface vessels, Congress blocked the Navy from integrating the vertical launch system on the LUSV.

At the time, Congress said it would address the VLS system at a future date. In total, lawmakers appropriated $209.2 million for the two LUSVs, with another $50 million for designing the ship without a vertical launching system, in FY2020.

But in yet another sign that Congress is uncomfortable with the pace of autonomous system development, the Seapower mark directs the Navy to set up an office to oversee autonomous systems.

Today, many of the unmanned and autonomous systems fall under the leadership of Rear Admiral Casey Moton Program Executive Officer, Unmanned and Small Combatants. But the HASC Seapower mark directs the Navy to set up a new program executive officer for autonomy.

“Not later than February 1, 2022, the Secretary of the Navy shall designate a program executive officer for autonomy who shall be the official within the Department of the Navy with primary responsibility for the development and integration of autonomous technology into weapon systems,” the mark reads.

The details of what role that office would play in unmanned surface vessels is not made clear in the language.

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