ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Navy Wants $12 Billion for Unmanned Platforms
The Navy already plans to spend big on robotics platforms in the coming years. As operation and maintenance costs grow and defense budgets tighten, that trend could accelerate, analysts say.
The sea service’s future years defense program calls for about $12 billion for unmanned aircraft, surface vessels and underwater systems in fiscal years 2021 through 2025, according to Bloomberg Government.
Senior officials have a stated goal of pursuing a 355-plus-ship fleet of manned vessels, but unmanned systems are “probably the future of the Navy,” Robert Levinson, senior defense analyst at Bloomberg Government, said during a recent webinar.
About $7.9 billion in the future years defense program would go toward drones, including nearly $4.3 billion for the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance aircraft and nearly $1 billion for the MQ-25 Stingray aircraft carrier-launched tanker, according to his presentation slides.
An additional $2.2 billion would be allocated toward unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, and $1.9 billion for unmanned underwater vessels, or UUVs. Navy plans call for spending $941 million on USVs and UUVs in 2021 alone, a 129 percent increase relative to 2019, according to the slides.
Operations, maintenance and personnel costs could squeeze modernization accounts in the coming years, Levinson noted. The 2021 Navy budget request included $125.8 billion total for those categories. In comparison, the request included $57.2 billion for procurement and $21.5 billion for research, development, test and evaluation.
“With this budget being especially flat, you’re really seeing the tension particularly in the Navy of, … ‘Do we spend money on buying new stuff? Or do we need to spend the money on maintaining the stuff we have?’” he said. “You can buy more ships and put more money [into that], but then you need more sailors and you need more training of the sailors,” he noted.
The COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate funding constraints and further incentivize investments in unmanned platforms, Levinson said.
“The Navy is really in a tough spot” trying to achieve its force level goals, he added.
However, unmanned vessels are generally expected to be less expensive to procure, operate and maintain than manned platforms, which make them attractive as the sea service invests in new capabilities, Levinson noted.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps plans to restructure its forces to take on advanced adversaries, with a heavier emphasis on robotic platforms.
“That has huge implications going out into the future” for acquisitions, Levinson said. “The Marine Corps’ restructuring that’s been announced is probably the biggest in a generation.”