Navy official calls for rapid deployment of unmanned vessels

Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead said he expects to take unmanned underwater vehicles from experimentation to routine deployments by the end of the decade, boosting the Navy's ability to detect mines, survey coastlines and conduct other sea missions.

Roughead's comments dovetail with findings in the Pentagon's recently released Quadrennial Defense Review of military capabilities and requirements, which urges the Navy to pursue crewless subsurface ships as the military continues to procure and use unmanned aerial vehicles in record numbers.

"I think that unmanned underwater vehicles have potentially greater value than maybe even ... the aerial vehicles; I submit that the underwater is more stressing, it's harder" on people than flight, Roughead said in an interview at the Pentagon this week. "And therefore I think the ability to use underwater vehicles can give you, I think, more of a payback than an aerial vehicle can."

The Navy, which has been experimenting with UUV technologies, would likely deploy the vessels for the same types of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance missions that have made UAVs so successful in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The sensors, Roughead said, can be integrated into a network, dormant for long periods of time and operate at greater depths than manned systems -- all major pluses for the fleet. "I think there's huge value," the chief said.

But the Navy's biggest challenge is how to power the underwater systems, which would be deployed at sea for weeks or months. Navy researchers are exploring new technologies, including various types of fuel cells, to power the systems.

"The challenge that we have is not so much on the sensor packages, but how do you build a vehicle that stays out there for weeks because you have to put power in a very compact space?" Roughead said.

He signaled that he wants the Navy to be aggressive in fielding the new technologies by continuing to test them during their first missions at sea rather than waiting to field the systems after they are thoroughly vetted.

"If there's something that I think is ready to go, that we can push it out there and learn from and that we have the reliability so that we're not going to incur a significant loss, I'm willing to do that," Roughead said.

As the Navy looks to unmanned possibilities in the future, it is managing an fiscal 2011 budget portfolio that includes a request for nine new hulls, including two Virginia-class submarines, two DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, two Littoral Combat Ships, one Landing Helicopter Assault Replacement, one Mobile Landing Platform, and one Joint High Speed Vessel.

Roughead said the request "puts us on the path" to the Navy's goal of fielding a fleet of at least 313 modern ships. The Navy now has 285 ships.

Key to hitting that goal is the Littoral Combat Ship, a program that was restructured last year after costs on two shallow-water vessels being developed separately by Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. more than doubled. The Navy plans to buy 55 of the ships.

Under the restructured program, the Navy is expected to pick one of the firms this summer to build two ships a year between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2014. The winning contractor would have an exclusive contract until fiscal 2012, when the Navy would solicit bids for a new contract to build five more ships of the same design by fiscal 2014.

Roughead signaled that price will be a prevailing factor in selecting the contractor. Congress has set a cost cap of $480 million per ship for the LCSs, which were initially expected to cost $220 million apiece.

"Both designs fit what we wanted that ship to be able to do," he said. "They're dramatically different in appearance, but they both fit the bill. It's a question of cost."

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