DoD Budget Boosts Unmanned Systems

The U.S. Navy's autonomously operated MQ-4C Triton. Credit: NAVAIR

Unmanned systems are not new to the Department of Defense (DoD). They have been used successfully for over a decade to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as to deliver tactical strikes. While the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) garner the most attention due to their successes on the battlefield in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, and while most current procurement funding focuses on legacy UAVs, over the next 5 years FBIQ expects the market for unmanned vehicles to grow in each of the services and expand beyond unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

For example, the Navy is developing unmanned surface vessels (USV) and unmanned undersea vessels (UUV), and the Army is funding unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) that have tremendous potential for both Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) operations as well as Chemical, Biological Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) defense operations.

In addition, the Department is working to develop technologies to counter and defeat these unmanned systems. Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems (CUAS) technology is funded by DoD and the Department of Homeland Security.

While Congress has been generally supportive, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) urges caution in moving forward too quickly. Section 230 of the House-passed FY21 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibits the Navy from acquiring any large unmanned surface vessels until it certifies to Congress the technological maturity of those vessels and systems. The same bill includes language that encourages the Navy to continue making technology advances by utilizing a common architecture for its medium unmanned undersea vehicle (M-UUV).

For the Army’s Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) HASC requires a report on the acquisition strategy for this platform. The Army used rapid prototyping procurement for the first tranche, and HASC wants to ensure the procurement considered DoD’s cybersecurity policy since several non-traditional vendors were used. Along these same lines, two floor amendments were passed as part of this year’s NDAA that address supply chain security for UAS and foreign-made UAS. These amendments were both offered by Rep. Gallagher (R-WI) and require both DoD and NASA to provide the Committee a briefing on the supply chain for small unmanned aircraft system components. Further, agencies are prohibited from procuring any commercial off-the-shelf drone or unmanned aircraft, or any component thereof, that is manufactured or assembled by a covered foreign entity.

The MQ-9 (Reaper) unmanned aircraft system has been a workhorse for the Air Force and Special Operations. The program is set to terminate this year. The MQ-X program had been under development as the follow-on to the MQ-9, before the program was cancelled in 2012. The Air Force published an RFI this year to industry for a follow-on to the MQ-9. Initial operating capability is not expected before 2030. In report language accompanying the FY21 DoD appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) directs the Air Force to submit a report on the “MQ-Next” follow-on program outlining how it plans to accelerate the development and fielding of the follow-on system. The HAC bill more than doubles the President’s $172 million FY21 request for the MQ-9 with $373 million.

The Department does not publish a comprehensive unmanned programs list. The mission of those programs is often imbedded in broader DoD missions (such as Counter UAS), force protection or warrior systems. An analysis of the services’ unclassified FY21 budget documents show that the bulk of the legacy spending occurs in the procurement accounts and most of the future programs are included in the RDTE accounts. Chart I, while not exhaustive of all unmanned systems, provides an accounting of the larger systems in unclassified procurement accounts and shows the President’s request and the FY21 funding approved by the House.As Chart I shows, the preponderance of spending on unmanned systems in the procurement accounts is for UAS. The chart signals that Congress is willing to spend more than the Administration’s plan on the Gray Eagle, Reaper, and Triton programs. A more thorough review of the RDTE accounts and the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) may show more growth in the unmanned sea, undersea, and ground systems as those technologies are developed. Because the coronavirus has strained manned operations, and because the national defense strategy emphasizes the development of AI, machine learning, and advanced supercomputing (all technologies that will further unmanned systems development), FBIQ forecasts continued growth in unmanned systems funding over the next 5 years.

Today, we are at another inflection point, one where I believe unmanned technologies, AI, and long-range precision weapons will play an increasingly leading role.

Defense Secretary Esper, September 16th