Navy to Focus on 'Affordable' Technology

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The Navy is pouring money into new programs that it  believes will give sailors a competitive advantage against potential adversaries, said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, head of the Office of Naval Research. But he cautioned that new programs must balance effectiveness with cost.

"You're never going to be good enough with lethality, survivability and readiness unless you have a big old umbrella on top that says 'affordability,'" Klunder said April 8 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Conference in National Harbor, Md.

The Navy has been investing in new weapon programs that use directed energy and electromagnetic forces to cut costs, Klunder said. One promising program is the Laser Weapon Systems, or LaWS, he said.

LaWS — which was tested last year to much fanfare — uses directed energy to shoot laser beams at targets. This weapon is a bargain at only 59 cents a shot, Klunder said.

"It is a very affordable weapon system and it's going to give us lethality, it's going to protect our ships and protect our nation," Klunder said.

A 30-kilowatt LaWS will be installed on the USNS Ponce this summer to begin a year of trials. In the next two years, there could be a LaWS that is five times as powerful, he said.

Klunder also touted the Navy's new electromagnetic rail gun. The system works by using electromagnetic force to launch and accelerate a 23-pound projectile between two conductive rails. When launched, the projectile can reach Mach 7, he said.

It would cost about $25,000 per round. Compared with traditional ballistic missiles, it can save the Navy millions of dollars, Klunder said. The rail gun is also a safer alternative, as it does not require gunpowder.

ONR has also been working on the autonomous aerial cargo/utility system, which can make any helicopter with a digital flight control system autonomous, Klunder said. Using just a tablet to control the helicopter, operators have successfully tested out the software in a variety of conditions including snow.

The system weighs about 100 pounds and can be used for combat, humanitarian and first-responder missions, Klunder said.

Modularity is also important when it comes to affordable innovation, said Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command.

Kelley pointed to the littoral combat ship as one example. The LCS was designed to perform a variety of missions including mine sweeping and anti-submarine warfare.

"The beautiful thing about modularity is … that modularity scales not only in size but also in technology and complexity," Kelley said.

Kelley also cited a new commercial smartphone concept called Phonebloks. It would allow users, developers and companies to construct their own smartphone to their specific needs using a series of blocks and components that attach to a base piece. Each block would contain its own functionality, such as a camera, for example. Users would be able to swap out individual blocks if they were defective or if they wanted to upgrade them, all while keeping parts of the phone that they liked.

"It's much like building a phone with Legos," Kelley said. Military procurement officials may be averse to a modular approach such as Phonebloks, but it is one that should be considered, he said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Procurement, Defense Department, Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology

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