Unmanned maritime systems are increasingly allowing military and commercial users alike to go farther and deeper than ever before. Initially proven by the military for their dependability and reliability, they are now also disrupting the commercial sector and enabling applications from mapping to surveillance to port security. In recognition of the many benefits UMS stand to offer, the president’s budget for fiscal 2021 requested strong support for the U.S. Navy’s unmanned programs. Now, as Congress considers the National Defense Authorization Act for FY21, it should fully fund UMS research and development efforts to allow innovation to flourish and for military and commercial operators alike to reap the benefits.
As president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, I have witnessed the growth in UMS innovation firsthand. Our membership includes organizations from across the defense industrial base that support the growing integration of unmanned and autonomous systems in the force protecting the United States. Their investments have led to substantive achievements in the development of autonomy, reliability, propulsion and integration of advanced payloads and sensors.
Fielding UMS will ensure continued U.S. naval dominance and support the industrial base. Unfortunately, Congress is currently considering disrupting funding to the research and development of this vital technology.
Both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA drastically cut R&D funding for medium and large unmanned surface vessels, with the Senate eliminating all requested funding for the program entirely. The severe reduction in funding considered in the FY21 NDAA would eliminate jobs, drive many small companies out of business, and cause larger companies to shift their R&D investments to more stable opportunities.
AUVSI is also taking issue with Congress’ misunderstanding of UMS operations, focusing on the reliability of individual components rather than that of the system as a whole, ignoring the operational context in which the UMS will be used. Unmanned systems have well-documented reliability in the commercial sector performing in a range of demanding and complex environments, including deep-water exploration. If Congress attempts to apply unique reliability requirements to UMS use by the U.S. Navy, it will only serve to drive up cost, decrease competition and significantly delay fielding of the systems to the war fighters that need them.
While Congress has previously demonstrated its support for the growth and integration of unmanned systems in the future Navy fleet architecture, its reliability concerns and proposed funding cuts in this instance are misplaced. Industry has determined that the wholeness of autonomy is critical to mission duration and success, and the emphasis on testing reliability should be on that wholeness rather than focusing on individual components. What’s more, the Navy’s R&D effort is already working to field systems that can prove reliability in a realistic operational context.
The utilization of unmanned technology is inevitable and timely, but appropriate levels of R&D funding are needed to field this critical capability. Industry has invested significant resources to support the Navy’s UMS programs thus far and will continue to do so if these programs are adequately funded by Congress.
Conversely, proposed funding cuts will drive industry to move its investments away from UMS to other markets, drive small, developing businesses out of the unmanned maritime business, and cost jobs throughout the developing unmanned industrial base. Congress should therefore adopt the funding levels set out in the president’s FY21 budget request without any cuts to ensure that innovation will flourish, R&D can continue unabated and our nation’s Navy can take full advantage of the potential that UMS stand to offer.
Brian Wynne is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.