SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The chief of naval operations wants to deploy minimally manned or unmanned surface vessels with a strike group in the next five or six years, with an eye toward scaled-up unmanned systems operations around the globe in the 2030s.

And he hopes to start working toward that goal without a proper budget in place.

Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters in a Feb. 16 call that he wants the U.S. Navy to experiment, fail fast as needed, and learn a lot of lessons on unmanned technology and concepts of operations.

His new unmanned task force spent about 14 weeks conducting seven different spirals — rounds of experimentation — on various aspects of unmanned systems, including payload integration on larger unmanned vessels and the reliability of components like engineering plants and flight controls.

“These spirals, taking a look at specific technologies from specific vendors, gave us insights on what technologies or lines of emphasis we should continue to pursue, which ones we should absolutely accelerate now, and which ones we should pivot away from because they just weren’t performing at a level or we didn’t get what we expected out of them,” Gilday told Defense News during the roundtable.

Additionally, he said, some of those same technologies are undergoing testing in International Maritime Exercise 2022 in the Middle East, which ran Jan. 31-Feb. 17 and is the largest-ever exercise focused on unmanned systems and artificial intelligence.

“That effort is intended to not only help us push these spirals along so that we can actually see capabilities in a real-world environment, but also it informs our concept of operations and how we’re going to employ them either alone or in conjunction with other unmanned or manned assets,” Gilday said, adding that exercises like IMX and the ongoing work of the unmanned task force were meant to help field unmanned systems within the five-year Future Years Defense Program.

But he FYDP is murky, at best, from a budget standpoint. The government is operating under a continuing resolution, with the potential for a full-year CR still looming — which would see the Navy stuck with fiscal 2021 spending items for another year, instead of moving onto the planned FY22 projects and funding levels. This is happening as the Biden administration is late in releasing its FY23 budget request to Congress but is already starting to craft the FY24 request despite the uncertainty.

Asked if the fiscal situation means all of today’s lessons learned on unmanned technology must wait until FY24 to start shaping decisions, Gilday told Defense News that the Navy is finding ways to influence a path forward on unmanned systems now.

“We’re moving now. We’re using [research and development] money now. We are leveraging NavalX through [the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition] to leverage our touchpoints into industry, especially small companies,” he said.

Using IMX and its host, the new Task Force 59 unmanned experimentation unit under U.S. 5th Fleet, as an example, Gilday said the at-sea work is “not only giving us insights into new technologies but also helping mature our concept of operations in terms of how we think about using them.”

The concept of employment could greatly affect what system and how many the Navy buys, Gilday said, making it important to do this work even as the service takes a slow and deliberate approach in selecting unmanned systems, such as those for the medium and large unmanned surface vessel programs.

For example, he said, a long-endurance, small UAV — like a drone with the endurance to fly for several thousand miles carrying payloads for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — could make the Navy less dependent on the medium unmanned surface vessel as a forward ISR node. The Navy could, in that situation, buy fewer MUSVs and buy a large number of expendable small UAVs that could provide a more persistent and a more distributed ISR capability.

“I think about how we’re going to fight, and we have been maturing distributed maritime operations along with the Marine Corps’ [expeditionary advanced base operations concept and its littoral operations in a contested environment concept], kind of nested in there for the last five or six years. And we feel that we have a very good understanding of how conceptually we’re going to fight in the future. That’s now informing what we’re going to fight with, over what we believe to be a very large area coming at an aggressor across many different vectors,” the CNO said, noting that unmanned systems could help provide both the high-volume capacity and the high-end capability to operate this way in the coming years.

Later in the call, Gilday added that he wants to do the underlying experimentation within the five-year FYDP. Just outside that time frame, in about 2027 or 2028, he hopes to see early solutions deployed with a carrier strike group or an amphibious ready group.

“They may not necessarily be completely unmanned, they may be minimally manned, but I want be in the position where we can crawl, walk, run, get those platforms out there after we’ve proven in a land-based test facility that they’re reliable, get them out there with the fleet, actually deploy with them, to put us in a position where we can scale in the 2030s” to use unmanned systems in larger quantities and “make distributed maritime operations come alive in a way that would be highly effective if we actually had to fight.”

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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