WASHINGTON — One influential lawmaker is encouraging the U.S. military to accept more risk in pursuing unmanned systems, with the hope these drones can fill capability gaps left behind when old systems retire.

Federal spending caps for fiscal 2024 and fiscal 2025 forced the House Armed Services Committee to agree to retire aging ships and aircraft they may have otherwise fought to keep a little while longer, Rep Rob Wittman told Defense News.

But, he warned, “there’s probably going to be some gap” between when old platforms like the Air Force’s A-10s and the Navy’s cruisers retire, and when the services can fully rebuild their inventory.

“I think it really calls to the forefront the issue of using other smaller, less expensive, attritable platforms as the gap-filler,” Wittman, R-Va., said in a June 14 interview in his Capitol Hill office.

“Those things can be very, very capable, and these are platforms that are already out there that could go to production tomorrow. So unmanned surface vessels, unmanned underwater vessels — the Navy really has to push the gas pedal on this and say: ‘OK, how do we get these platforms integrated?’ ” added Wittman, who chairs the committee’s tactical air and land forces panel and also sits on its sea power and projection forces subcommittee.

Though Congress has questioned some of the Navy’s experimentation and acquisition efforts following expensive mistakes with the Littoral Combat Ship program, among others, Wittman said now is an appropriate time to take more risk in pursuing unmanned surface and subsurface vessels at a quicker pace.

The Navy has largely eyed programs of record based on the size of the platform: it’s aiming to award a contract for the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel’s design and construction in FY25, and a Medium USV would likely follow a few years behind. The Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle program is running several years behind in the construction and testing of five prototype vehicles, but the Navy expects to see a version operating overseas by FY26.

Wittman said the Navy could potentially move faster if it focused on mission rather than size, which is more in line with the experimentation happening in the Middle East under Task Force 59.

“They need to go out there and say, ‘Listen, we believe this platform will do a great job as an addition to a carrier strike group, or as an addition to an [amphibious ready group], or destroyer squadron, or Virginia-class [attack submarine], or Ohio-class [ballistic missile submarine],’ and then buy a relative number that you can test very vigorously” for 12-18 months, and then either modify them or move into serial production, he said.

“The good news is, these things are at a price point where you can afford to take some risks. You can afford to have platforms that you look at and go: ‘Gosh, looked like it was going to work out, but it just didn’t,’ ” he added.

He’d also prefer the Navy have unmanned surface vehicles that can only perform surveillance missions, others solely meant for electronic warfare and more that only shoot weapons, he said, versus spent too much money and too much time trying to pursue a platform that can do it all.

“I just want the Navy to look at those things, and I think they can do that speed of relevance. That’s going to be the gap-filler because our exquisite platforms — aircraft carriers, our surface ships, our submarines — all great platforms, but it takes years and years and years to get them in the inventory. So even with the best of intentions, we’re not going to have that capability” in time for when China might attack Taiwan.

What about the Air Force?

The Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee included language in its section of the FY24 National Defense Authorization Act setting cost limits for collaborative combat aircraft plans, which would see a drone serve as a wingman for crewed jets, such as the future Next Generation Air Dominance fighter.

Wittman said this is a preemptive measure, and not because he has concerns about collaborative combat aircraft. In fact, he explained, he is “very comfortable” with what he’s seen, including several vendors with many options that come in at a good cost point.

He also said he’s optimistic about the way the competition is looking at this early stage, but wants to avoid requirements and therefore cost ballooning.

“We’ve seen that too many times with programs where we’re chasing requirements, we’re chasing technology, and you never catch it. And then all of the sudden we see platforms that started out as [an] X-million-dollar platform [that] are now three or four times the cost,” he noted.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall wants the collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA, to be cheap enough that, in some cases, the service can afford to lose some in combat. A drone wingman that could be sacrificed might not need as many protective subsystems, which could help keep down costs, Kendall said at the September 2022 Defense News conference.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican, speaks May 17, 2023, at the Nexus 23 defense conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The service considers CCAs a way to deliver combat capability at a lower price point and to move away from recent spiraling costs of fighters and bombers.

For his part, Wittman considers these drones important in light of the retirements of legacy Air Force planes and a dip in inventory in the short term. He connected CCA efforts to another program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for which the NDAA proposes creating a formal “major subprogram” to focus on the continuous development and delivery of new F-35 capabilities, and designating six aircraft as permanent test assets for this work.

Wittman said the focus of these efforts is to address ongoing software issues as well as engine power and cooling challenges today, and prepare to quickly address challenges in the coming decades.

“Along with partners, there’s going to be 3,300 of these aircraft out there. What we don’t want is all of a sudden for somebody to come back in 10 years and go: ‘Oh, sorry, the whole fleet’s antiquated,’ ” he said. “So let’s do some rigorous testing and evaluation, figure out how do we make sure this platform gets maximum utility. And I think there are a lot of ways that they can do that — and especially if you combine this platform with combat collaborative aircraft, and you combine it with E-7s, which has to happen — all of a sudden this aircraft is a pretty significant gap-filler until you get to endgame.”

“But you don’t have its full potential unless you rigorously test what the challenges are with the aircraft. And that’s on every element of the platform, from the avionics to the software to the engine systems to the power and cooling,” he added, noting the designation of the major subprogram would signal the seriousness of this effort to the Pentagon and congressional appropriators.

Even with budget caps in place, Wittman said the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee is trying to make these adjustments.

“We are making smart investments in the FY24 NDAA by reprioritizing and reallocating funding requested for Air Force and Navy NGAD programs,” he said, noting his subcommittee is making investments in CCA refueling technology maturation and risk reduction within the Air Force’s research and development budget, in the Adaptive Engine Transition Program that would replace the current F-35 engine, and in F-15 procurement and E-7 advance procurement.

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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