Large amounts of new drones are being added to the fleet so quickly that some members of Congress are asking the services to expand the duration and scope of testing and combat preparation for many new platforms. This is a concern looked at by many officials, including the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Rob Whitman (R-VA) is the ranking member on the HASC Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
In an interview, he told The National Interest, “So the question is, you know, what’s the concept of operations and is it realistic to expect these levels of completely autonomous operation? Or would it be better for them to start off as lightly manned vessels? Figure out what they do well, or what they don’t do, what are the shortcomings, and then go through the operational concepts with the fleet, with the combatant commanders and figure out, how do they work?”
For example, the Navy is making rapid progress with a range of unmanned maritime warfare systems, including the now well underway Medium and Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles. These large drone ships are expected to conduct command and control of large groups of smaller drones, hunt submarines, conduct ballistic missile defense missions and even fire weapons when directed by a human.
“What’s, what’s our operational plan? Are we going to use warships as unmanned vessels?” Wittman asked.
Wittman discussed drone development and autonomy in the context of suggesting that the Navy return to the concept of engineering a carrier-launched strike drone, such as the previously cancelled Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone. In order to favor the chances for innovations such as this, which are truly ground-breaking, Wittman and other members of Congress are calling for extensive training and assessment procedures for emerging systems, to ensure they are aligned with the right operational concepts and in position to add tremendous value to the force.
“But what we want to avoid is what we went through with some other platforms where we rushed out and said … ‘okay, this is everything’ and then find out ‘No, no, that doesn’t quite get it.’ So I think I think service branches are starting to see that, and are starting to go down a different path and how they develop, test and deploy these platforms,” Wittman said.
In order to reduce the likelihood that drone programs may fail, Wittman and Navy leaders routinely suggest that emerging platforms need to be put to the test with operational forces.
“We have lots of great concepts about unmanned platforms, but we really haven’t put them to the true test. You want to take real platforms, and put them in the hands of our sailors and Marines. They will know what works, probably better than the folks up the chain at the Pentagon,” Wittman said.
For example, it is perhaps only through extensive testing and operational analysis that developers might discover some of the significant limitations of any given system, Wittman said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.