Industry responding to Navy’s interest in small unmanned systems

Industry responding to Navy’s interest in small unmanned systems

The U.S. Navy’s message to industry is coming through: the service is committed to buying and operating small unmanned systems on and under the water.

What’s less clear is how the Navy will procure them and with what funding — but one company says it’s moving ahead in developing disruptive systems now and will figure out the business model later.

Jon Rambeau, L3Harris’ president for Integrated Missions Systems, told Defense News the company had a couple of one-off efforts with the Navy already — two of its Arabian Fox autonomous surface vessels are operating out of Bahrain as part of U.S. 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59, and L3Harris successfully demonstrated the ability to launch and recover an unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, from a submarine’s torpedo tube.

In neither of these cases, though, did the company actually sell its unmanned system to the Navy.

Rambeau said he views these opportunities — through fee-for-service contracts or urgent operational needs statements — as beginning to pave a path for future small unmanned systems acquisition.

The Pentagon’s Replicator program will also help, he said. But, of course, “we’d always like it to go faster.”

Rambeau said his company is set up to go fast. L3Harris integrates commercial sensors onto commercial unmanned underwater and surface vessels whose procurement lead times are “weeks or months, versus years” for large warships.

In addition to looking for ways to sell a small quantity of UUVs to the submarine fleet to begin operations this year, Rambeau said L3Harris is pitching the Navy on a passive sensing and targeting capability that could be installed on a unmanned surface vessel, or USV, and sent out ahead of a manned ship, allowing it to keep emissions low and avoid becoming a target itself.

Rambeau said the cost of this payload and USV is a budgetary “rounding error, as compared to a ship or a combat system or a large active radar array. These are very affordable technologies that can really augment what’s existing today. So we see it as complementary, we see it as a bit disruptive, and it’s exciting.”

But, in a way, the small cost makes it hard to get anyone’s attention, he acknowledged.

“The cost of these capabilities is minimal. The budgeting discussions tend to focus more on the larger, bigger-ticket items, and so making sure at least we pay a little bit of attention to these things and there’s an opportunity to tack on that incremental funding year by year to start to get past proof of concept into low-rate production quantities,” is something he’s been talking to the sea service about.

Rambeau said these discussions at the flag officer level have gone well, with agreement on both sides for the usefulness of small unmanned systems and the desire to buy them. They just haven’t gotten to the point of the Navy getting past various hurdles and actually buying them.

U.S. Undersecretary of the Navy Erik Raven told Defense News the week the service released its fiscal year 2025 budget request in March that, “what you’re really seeing is an ecosystem of how the Department of the Navy is starting to embrace unmanned technologies. We’ve learnt learned a lot through initiatives like Task Force 59, and … we’re starting to bring in that learning of how to adapt unmanned technologies, and also be able to scale them.”

Depending on the capability, some “more enduring priorities” may become programs of record that would be sustained over a longer period of time. Others may be things the Navy buys in limited quantities to use and then replace with a different system, to ensure it’s “getting the best of breed of what’s coming out of industry, and then being able to iterate and move more quickly.”

Though Raven called this technology area a “great strategic advantage,” the Navy could not provide any details on how much it plans to spend on small unmanned systems in its FY25 budget proposal.

Raven told reporters in March while unveiling the budget request that two large unmanned systems were being delayed in the budget plan but that small unmanned systems would be funded throu

“We continue to see unmanned as a feature of so many important naval capabilities, and we are making those investments in this budget,” the undersecretary said.

Seven weeks after Defense News submitted a request asking about the nature of those investments, a Navy spokesperson did not provide any totals.

Rather, the spokesperson said, “the Navy continues to invest in unmanned system programs of record as well as emergent operational needs across the air, surface, and undersea domains as part of the [FY25] President’s Budget request.”

The statement highlights two programs: the Lionfish UUV program, which will replace the MK 18 Mod 1 Swordfish used by the explosive ordnance disposal community; and the Production Ready, Inexpensive Maritime Expeditionary (PRIME) Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) collaboration with the Defense Innovation Unit under the Replicator initiative.

“Overall, the Navy’s FY25 investment in unmanned systems continues to increase as we learn and experiment across the fleet with unmanned capabilities and position ourselves to enter into production,” the spokesperson concluded.

For companies like L3Harris, the details may be missing, but the sentiment is enough.

“We do move quickly, some of the components of these systems we produce already at a reasonably large scale, so we are ready when the call comes,” Rambeau said.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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