Roughead: As Budgets Shrink, Navy Unmanned Systems Could Grow

8/19/2011
By Stew Magnuson
The Navy has not fully embraced the use of unmanned systems, but the coming fiscal crisis could change all that, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said.
 
“Fiscal realities are going to drive us more rapidly and in a much more focused way beyond our traditional platforms and to the inclusion of unmanned systems,” Roughead said Aug. 19 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.
 
The demand to see beyond the range of current sensors is one example of where unmanned systems can save the Navy money, he said. Their longer endurance, and lower operating costs compared to manned systems is where the savings come, he added.
 
Unmanned systems is a misnomer, Roughead said. There are always humans present. However, the fiscal environment demands that fewer personnel be involved in their operations. “We cannot afford to simply take an operator out of a vehicle [and] declare victory when we put an additional 50 people in the backroom,” he said.
Roughead echoed the thoughts of other senior military leaders who spoke at the conference: if unmanned systems are to proliferate, proponents will have to make a business case that they can save money.
 
Personnel costs will continue to rise and the Navy has to ensure that the systems reduce the number of sailors operating them, he said.
 
He credited the Office of Naval Research for pushing the technology and “keeping the pot stirred” for years before the service began to embrace robotics.
 
Still, the technology has not been fully accepted, he said. Many of the robotic systems the service uses are still “on the periphery” of operations, he added.
 
“They clearly are not optimally integrated into our ships, into squadrons and into our concepts of operation,” he said.
 
They will also be needed in areas where the Navy does not have easy access, or in contested waters.
 
“The growing anti-access area denial capabilities that we see coming on [and] the importance of the undersea domain will cause us to have to focus and put more energy and more purpose into bringing these systems to bear,” he said.
 
He criticized the test and evaluation community for not speeding the systems into ships sooner. “Because quite frankly, we don’t have time to let things languish along and find their way into our operations at a comfortable pace,” Roughead said.
 
The Navy has used unmanned systems for aerial surveillance, underwater search and recovery and to search for mines in shallow waters.
 
Roughead said the recent successful landing of the X-47B unmanned combat air system on a carrier in July was one of the more exciting moments of his time as chief of naval operations. He was as nervous as an expectant father, he added.
 
“Probably because in my mind it truly does portend a significant change in the advantages, and the power and the versatility of naval carrier aviation.” If the program is successful, “we have changed the dimension of naval carrier aviation in a way that has not happened in decades,” he said.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

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