SNA NEWS: Navy Prioritizing Hybrid Manned-Unmanned Fleet

By Laura Heckmann
Operation Windward Stack

Navy photo

ARLINGTON, Virginia — In what is frequently being referred to as a “decisive decade,” the Navy is prioritizing innovation and strategic thinking among its sailors, which in part envisions a future where sailors and unmanned systems work side by side. The Navy’s secretary said it’s already happening.

Speaking at the Surface Navy Association’s 36th National Symposium Jan. 10, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said a hybrid fleet, while talked about “for too long,” is “not a distant vision anymore.”

It is a tangible reality, “actively preparing to help us dominate the battlespace in every way,” he said. Looking to the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and the Caribbean, Del Toro said unmanned systems are already “seamlessly integrated into our operations.”

Del Toro summarized the Navy’s current progress towards a hybrid fleet, pointing to initiatives like Task Force 59 and Operation Windward Stack.

U.S. Fifth Fleet, through Task Force 59, has accumulated over 60,000 hours of operational experience with unmanned surface, air and subsurface vehicles, he said.

UNITAS, a multinational maritime exercise conducted in South America last summer, “showcased our ability to seamlessly integrate seven distinct robotic systems into the exercise command-and-control structure,” he added.

Operation Windward Stack — a long-term operation and joint effort aimed at integrating unmanned and manned forces — is part of Fourth Fleet’s unmanned integration campaign, and is “expanding missions alongside traditional forces,” Del Toro said.

“Right now, 10 unmanned Saildrones are operating in the Caribbean Sea, using a range of sensors to dramatically improve our visibility and awareness of the region,” he said. He also noted that last summer, the Navy made history by deploying four unmanned ships to Japan “for the very first time.”

Del Toro said there is “much more to come when it comes to unmanned in terms of our investment.”

Another initiative geared at integrating hybrid fleets is the Disruptive Capabilities Office, which Del Toro described as the “Unmanned Task Force on steroids.” Announced last fall, the office is the Navy’s contribution to the Defense Department’s Replicator initiative — an effort to build thousands of attritable, autonomous systems at scale within 18-24 months — he said.

“And so when you look at the Disruptive Capabilities Office, it also turns out to be, by default, our contribution to the Replicator program,” he said. “Because it's the same concepts of operations that we've been thinking about since I became secretary, and even well before I was secretary.”

The concepts put forth for manned and unmanned integration within the Navy’s initiatives have been brought to fruition “in terms of all the advances that we’ve made,” Del Toro said. “And unmanned, whether it be on the surface, whether it be in the air, whether it be underneath the surface — these are direct contributions that are now being made to the Replicator program.”

Del Toro said he could not talk openly about Replicator but expressed “that I am very excited in our Navy-Marine Corps team. The concepts that we put forward for Replicator have been very well embraced by the Replicator program. I hope to see a tremendous return on our Navy investment.”

Del Toro’s comments echoed those of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti, delivered the previous day during a keynote speech. She stated that “it’s the unmanned, hybrid, disruptive kind of technology players that are going to get into that space and … help us round out that warfighting ecosystem that is going to be what helps us deter, defeat, integrate with the joint force and our allies and partners to really get after the challenges that we see.”

Franchetti said experimenting and looking at unmanned technology concepts, and how they will be employed, is “what we really need to look at,” as well as how to train on them.

Prioritizing the integration of a hybrid fleet was part of Del Toro’s broader emphasis on innovation and embracing new technologies, which he said will need to be a partnership between the services and industry.

“Because we stand at the crossroads of strategic competition, innovation is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity,” he said. “Innovation is key to unlocking our potential and maintaining a competitive edge. It's indeed the driving force behind progress and prosperity, and our Navy and Marine Corps is today at the forefront of that innovation. From the depths of the seas to the vast expanse of space, our sailors and Marines are at the forefront of technological advancements.”


Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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