The US Navy’s plans for robot ships are on the rocks

After a bruising, year-long fight with Congress, part of the Navy’s plan to field unmanned ships appears to be on life support, making 2021 a crucial year for plotting a path forward.

In the 2021 appropriations and policy bills, lawmakers eviscerated funding for the Navy’s Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) development program and laid in stringent requirements for the Navy to work out nearly every component of the new vessel before moving forward with an acquisition program. In all, lawmakers slashed more than $370 million from the $464 million the Pentagon requested.

The LUSV is supposed to be the Navy’s answer to a troubling problem: How does the service quickly and cheaply field hundreds of new missile tubes to make up for dozens of large-capacity ships due to retire over the coming years? But Congress is not convinced the Navy did the proper analysis prior to launching into a technically risky, 2,000-ton robot ship.

Before going any further, the Navy must conduct a full study examining alternative approaches for fielding missiles downrange.

The LUSV has become a flashpoint for a larger problem: After two decades of high-profile problems with programs such as the littoral combat ship and the Ford-class carrier, Congress’s faith in the Navy to make significant technical leaps without close supervision has all but evaporated, according to more than two dozen interviews, roundtables and conversations with knowledgeable sources over the past several months. Furthermore, it is unclear that, even if the Navy managed to make the LUSV related technologies work, it would be the right answer for the missile tube problem.

Now the Navy enters 2021 with its LUSV funding slashed and knowing that Congress doesn’t trust it with basic technology development.

“We fully support the move toward unmanned, whether that’s on the surface or undersea.” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s sea power subpanel. “But we want to make sure … the real nuts-and-bolts issues … are worked out before we start building large, unmanned platforms.”

Navy leaders insist they are fully committed to bringing the Navy into a future that incorporates unmanned ships, but sources both inside and outside the service, as well as analysts who spoke on the record, agreed the Navy has not come up with a convincing concept of operations for the ship. And while the prototyping effort will continue this year, the Navy will have to decide whether It needs to change course entirely.

Navy leaders appear poised to build a year delay into the LUSV program according to an early version of its 2022 shipbuilding plan released in December, but the future of the program is in some doubt. Since last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress explicitly forbade the Navy installing its ubiquitous MK 41 VLS launcher on its LUSV prototypes.

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