The Navy's operational test and evaluation process is too complicated and takes too long for the fleet to keep pace with the rapid changes in the era of unmanned systems, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead warned on Friday. Speaking to an audience at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade show, he said a hidebound, "risk averse culture" threatens to bog down new vehicles and systems in gestation before they can get to sailors in the fleet, where they're most needed.
"I don't for a moment get cavalier about safety," said Roughead, "but we've bureaucratized this process almost to a fare-the-well."
Roughead did not give an example of a weapon or system he believes has taken too long to get to the fleet, although he did praise what he called the "early" deployments of the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, one of which was shot down in Libya. He did not call for specific changes to today's process. He did contrast President Kennedy's challenge of putting a man on the moon with a onetime Navy challenge to field a fleet of UAVs by 2018. Although Americans viewed Kennedy's goal as a target to beat, skeptics said fielding an unmanned squadron that soon was "too fast."
"We need to get out of that mindset," Roughead said. "We need to mobilize."
Why Roughead so frustrated? Because unmanned systems are the key to the Navy's future, he said, telling a rare personal anecdote: Roughead said the first flight of Northrop Grumman's X-47B Combat Air System was one of his most apprehensive moments as chief of naval operations; he was on "pins and needles;" he compared himself to "an expectant father," waiting for the bird to take wing. The success of the flight, and the larger prospect of being able to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft on tomorrow's aircraft carriers, portends one of the biggest changes in the history of naval aviation, he said.
The Navy has some of the toughest challenges of all the military services in fielding unmanned systems, even above Roughead's complaints about sluggish bureaucracy. Teaching a UAV to take off and land on a carrer will be a major technical hurdle, and the maritime environment in which the Navy operates means it's especially difficult to communicate with unmanned boats and submarines. Beyond that, engineers need to figure out a way to give autonomous unmanned submarines enough power to stay at sea for the lengths of time that commanders eventually hope they can.