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Congress is trying to block funding for Navy’s drone ships

U.S. Navy Sailors and civil service mariners launch an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) from Military Sealift Command's expeditionary sea base, USNS Hershel Woody Williams (ESB 4), into the Chesapeake Bay, September 14. The USV is a mine counter measure platform and the evolution was the first time a USV has been launched and recovered by a U.S. Navy ship. (U.S. Navy photo by Bill Mesta)
June 26, 2020

Members of Congress are working to block funding from the Navy aimed toward developing an unmanned submarine until it can certify the viability of the project.

The Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee is seeking more details on the Navy’s plans to develop large unmanned surface vessels (LUSVs) before it agrees to fund the project any further, a recent committee mark-up report shows.

The committee primarily focused on the viability of LUSVs, in addition to the Navy’s plans to rapidly acquire them and how to oversee their development.

“The Navy has added significant resources to its budget to rapidly and aggressively acquire a family of over 200 new unmanned and optionally manned surface and undersea vehicles. While unmanned maritime systems offer promise, past efforts, such as the Remote Minehunting Vehicle, have proven costly and unsuccessful,” according to the subcommittee mark.

One committee aid thought Congress should ensure the development of the LUSVs was planned ahead of securing the funding, saying that the Navy has “been trying to go into serial production from the very beginning.”

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“We don’t believe that’s a sound strategy,” the aide told reporters, according to Military.com.

“If you look at their acquisition strategy, there’s really no gap between what they’re calling these prototype ships and when they go into actual serial production,” the aide said.

The program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, challenged the congressional aide’s claims on Tuesday, saying the Navy won’t buy LUSVs until “everything is matured.”

“[That vessel] is going to be quite a bit different from the prototypes,” Moton said. “I think there are folks out there that believe our prototypes are the start of a serial production run. I don’t believe that’s true.”

The Navy announced its plan to develop the autonomous vessel in February as part of its 2021 fiscal year budget request. Their plan signaled interest in a variety of unmanned vessels, including unmanned submarines.

The Navy requested $26.456 million to “develop an autonomous unmanned undersea weapon system” capable of engaging in combat called the CLAWS Innovative Naval Prototype (INP).

The vessel was part of a 2018 contract and the $26.456 million would go towards continuing its development. An additional $23.445 million was requested for the 2022 fiscal year, which would bring the total asking price to $49.901 million.

“CLAWS will demonstrate autonomous missions in denied waters, develop and demonstrate autonomous technologies for survivability of large UUVs, and develop autonomy and launch capabilities for special mission payloads,” the request document adds.

The CLAWS INP was first announced in a Navy research contract in 2018.

“The goals of this effort will be focused on vehicle autonomy for awareness, decision making, and validation of the autonomous behaviors. … The creation of these technologies and UNCLASSIFIED 2 behaviors will fill critical warfighting gaps at both the strategic and tactical levels,” the federal government contracting website GovTribe reported in 2018.