The Navy is hoping to decrease the number of personnel required to operate unmanned aircraft and submarines to a point where one operator could control multiple unmanned vehicles, according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughhead.
Speaking at an Office of Naval Research conference last week, Roughead said talk of unmanned systems leads directly to talk of the costs of manpower. "We can take a pilot out of an airplane, but if we put 50 people in the back of a room, it really hasn't helped," he said. "So when we put our operational concept together, as we look at the type of technology that we want to deliver, manpower will figure more and more into that equation."
Roughead called personnel costs the area that "compresses most of our budgets over time" throughout government, predicting that the ratio between unmanned vehicles and sailors would increase. "What I believe unmanned systems would allow us to do is to minimize that risk and to increase the probability of success because we'll be able to potentially move into much more contested environments."
The Navy chief went on to highlight the importance of avoiding what he called stove-piped and proprietary control systems.
"Ideally, I would like from one location on a ship -- let's say it's an LCS because of its large mission capacity that it has -- for someone to be on a console operating an unmanned air vehicle and at the same time be swimming an unmanned underwater vehicle."
The Navy is developing underwater vehicles that would enable this type of setup. But Rear Adm. Nevin P. Carr Jr., the chief of naval research, explained that it's going to be "some time" before the service is at that point.
"This is going to be something that's so new and so game-changing for us," said Carr. "So it'll be a while before we have a whole system or systems approach."
Carr pointed to a program called the Persistent Littoral Undersea Surveillance program (PLUS) as one early example of the Navy's efforts. That program, he said, "is focused on a small number -- like three-to-five -- [unmanned underwater vehicles] to get them to communicate with each other [and] maneuver [and engage in] collaboration to track submarines."
More important than integrated controls systems for Roughead, however, was power. "If there was one thing that someone could deliver to me today that would make the greatest difference, it would be in long-duration, shipboard-safe power that we could use to power underwater vehicles," he said in his speech -- a point Roughead clarified while speaking to reporters afterward.
"If I have a wonderful sonar system that I can keep at sea for a day, that's not really useful to me. I need something that I can keep out for weeks, and that can move in strong ocean currents, [that] can close distances quickly," he said. "And so we've redirected ourselves. We're looking at every potential suggestion to see where we can take this."