The Navy's $2.7 Billion Plan to Build Drone Ships Faces Hurdles in Congress

Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned ocean-going vessel gets underway on the Williammette River following a christening ceremony in Portland, Ore., Apr. 7, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/John F. Williams)
Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned ocean-going vessel gets underway on the Williammette River following a christening ceremony in Portland, Ore., Apr. 7, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/John F. Williams)

Budget hawks on Capitol Hill say the Navy hasn't presented enough proof that its plans for a fleet of new unmanned ships is worth billions of taxpayer dollars.

The service wants $400 million for two large unmanned-surface vessels in 2020, and a total of $2.7 billion to build eight more over the next five years. But the request could be significantly set back, staffers with the House Armed Services Committee indicated Monday.

"When the systems become mature and are ready for big-level funding ... we're all ears," one staffer told reporters as the committee finalized plans for the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Bill. "But I just don't think we've seen enough of that to necessitate not refueling an aircraft carrier."

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The Navy's 2020 budget request called for sending the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman into retirement decades early to avoid spending money to refuel the ship's nuclear reactor. The money would instead be used on new technology, such as unmanned surface and aerial vessels, officials wrote in the budget request.

But staffers say members of Congress aren't convinced the Navy should be buying multiple unmanned ships when the technology is still in such early stages of research and development.

"We've got just generally some concerns of jumping right into serial production before they really understand what their requirements are," a staffer said.

Buying too many vessels before problems were fixed was what plagued the service's littoral combat ship program, which has suffered a slew of construction and performance problems, the staffer added.

"What we're leaning toward would be go figure out the [concept of operations] on the ships you already either bought or are about to buy, and then we can talk about going into serial production," the staffer said. "We're trying to avoid the mistakes that were made on LCS when the original plan was to build four prototypes to test them, figure them out -- and the Navy made the mistake of just continuing to build them."

At this point, there's not enough to show that funding unmanned surface vessels should come at the expense of shipping an aircraft carrier into retirement, the staffer added. But that doesn't mean there's not support on Capitol Hill for building new unmanned capabilities.

"I think, generally, the chair and ranking [member] are all for new high-end technologies," a staffer said. "We just want to know what those are."

James Geurts, the Navy's assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, defended the service's plans during an April hearing.

"Doing [research and development] and figuring out exactly the capabilities that we need, it's critical," he said. "... The real R&D is in a lot of the guts: the autonomy, the decision-making, how are we going to control it, how are we going to do those things?"

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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