Uncrewed Maritime Systems: Navy Should Improve Its Approach to Maximize Early Investments

GAO-22-104567 Published: Apr 07, 2022. Publicly Released: Apr 07, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The Navy envisions using uncrewed maritime systems—robot ships and submersibles with artificial intelligence instead of sailors—to meet current and future threats at sea.

The Navy estimates it will spend $4.3 billion to acquire 21 uncrewed vehicles over the next 5 years, but this estimate doesn't include the "digital infrastructure"—e.g., data repositories and software—needed for AI.

Now, the Navy is prototyping 6 kinds of uncrewed vehicles. Managing these together as a portfolio could help the Navy balance resources and focus on common elements, such as the digital infrastructure.

Our recommendations address this and other issues we found.

Prototype of a Robot Surface Ship

Robot surface ship in water with the shore in the background

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Other nations are investing in new weapons and technologies designed to disrupt U.S. naval advantages. Consequently, the U.S. Navy is reexamining its maritime strategy to respond to increased competition at sea. Based on the results of its analyses, the Navy determined that surface and undersea vehicles without crew on board—known as uncrewed maritime systems—are necessary to meet future threats (see figure). While the Navy's shipbuilding plan outlines spending more than $4 billion on uncrewed systems over the next 5 years, its plan does not account for the full costs to develop and operate these systems.

Notional Depiction of Uncrewed Surface Vehicle Operations

Notional Depiction of Uncrewed Surface Vehicle Operations

Once conceived, the Navy must build these vehicles with the information technology and the artificial intelligence capabilities needed to replace crews. While the Navy has established strategic objectives for these efforts, it has not established a management approach that orients its individual uncrewed maritime efforts toward achieving these objectives. As such, the Navy is not measuring its progress, such as building the robust information technology needed to operate the vehicles. GAO has previously found that portfolio management—a disciplined process that ensures new investments are aligned with an organization's strategic needs within available resources—enables agencies to implement strategic objectives and manage investments collectively. However, if it continues with its current approach, the Navy is less likely to achieve its objectives. In addition, the Navy has yet to:

  • establish criteria to evaluate prototypes and
  • develop improved schedules for prototype efforts.

With detailed planning, prototyping has the potential to further technology development and reduce acquisition risk before the Navy makes significant investments. Since uncrewed systems are key to the Navy's future, optimizing the prototyping phase of this effort is necessary to efficiently gaining information to support future decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

In March 2021, the Navy published a framework that called for developing and fielding uncrewed surface and undersea vehicles to complement its existing fleet as a key to future Navy capabilities. The Navy intends to prototype these systems to gain knowledge and address technical issues before acquiring systems in significant numbers.

A House Report included a provision for GAO to review the Navy's efforts to develop and produce uncrewed surface and undersea vehicles. GAO's report assesses the Navy's planned investments for these uncrewed maritime systems and its management and prototyping approaches.

GAO reviewed documentation for four ongoing medium and large uncrewed maritime system prototype efforts and the associated information technology efforts that enable these systems.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that the Navy (1) complete a cost estimate with full costs to develop and operate uncrewed maritime systems, (2) establish an uncrewed maritime systems portfolio and assign leadership to oversee it using portfolio management leading practices, and (3) develop evaluation criteria and schedules for its prototypes. The Navy generally concurred with the recommendations. However, the Navy's planned actions do not fully address three of them. GAO maintains that fully implementing all recommendations is warranted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should provide Congress with a cost estimate that includes the full scope of known costs to develop and operate uncrewed maritime systems—including estimated costs for operations and sustainment as well as the digital infrastructure—and develop an approach to refine this estimate over time as part of its next shipbuilding plan. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Navy concurred with developing cost estimates for the uncrewed maritime programs. However, the Navy is not planning to complete these estimates until these programs enter selected acquisition pathways, which may be several years away for these programs. We maintain that the Navy should develop a rough estimate of the potential costs of these programs now to better understand its long term budget outlook.
Department of the Navy As the Secretary of the Navy considers potential reorganization of the management of uncrewed maritime systems as required by law, it should establish an uncrewed maritime systems portfolio and assign an entity with the responsibility for overseeing this portfolio in line with portfolio management best practices and define the role of key stakeholders. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation and stated that it has assigned the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatant with the responsibility for overseeing its portfolio of uncrewed maritime systems and autonomy, more generally. However, as we state in our report, the Navy's response does not address gaps in the governance of the entire uncrewed maritime system enterprise, including research, acquisition, and operations. Specifically, the Navy's uncrewed maritime programs remain divided across the surface, undersea, and warfare integration offices within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations-since these are the offices that determine how the Navy allocates resources. Further, the Navy did not address how the Unmanned and Small Combatant Program Executive Office will improve collaboration with the science and technology community. As we discuss in the report, an essential element of portfolio management is empowering a governance structure that is responsible for the collective decision-making process and can direct Navy investments in uncrewed maritime system efforts to ensure that they achieve their collective objectives. The Unmanned and Small Combatant office, even as the executive agent for autonomy, still will not have the ability to make decisions and direct investments for the entire portfolio of uncrewed maritime efforts.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should provide details about how it intends to achieve its uncrewed maritime system strategic objectives. Such information should include measures and metrics, as well as a planned process to assess the Navy's progress toward achieving its stated objectives in line with portfolio management best practices. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation but requested that we remove the recommendation because they stated that it overlaps with our other recommendations. We disagree with the Navy's response because this recommendation focuses on the Navy's strategic objectives, as outlined in its Unmanned Campaign Framework. As we discuss in the report, a key element of managing a portfolio is establishing strategic objectives and measuring progress towards achieving them for the entire uncrewed maritime effort.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should develop evaluation criteria for assessing each uncrewed prototype effort's readiness to transition to an acquisition program. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation, stating that it already has transition criteria in the form of knowledge points that will inform its prototyping efforts. We reviewed these knowledge points as a part of our report and found that they were vague and subjective. As we state in our report, DOD guidance emphasizes that transition criteria should include milestones and metrics that describe when a prototype is ready to move to the next phase. We maintain that the Navy should develop transition criteria for its uncrewed maritime efforts that include milestones and metrics.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should develop a master planning schedule to include each uncrewed maritime system effort. This schedule should establish when the Navy plans to purchase and prototype each vehicle as well as when it plans to achieve desired capabilities, including the digital infrastructure. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation and stated that it has already completed these tasks. However, as of April 2022, the Navy has provided no evidence of a master planning schedule.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should revise the prototyping plans for each uncrewed maritime system to incorporate how it plans to use its prototyping efforts to mature technologies to achieve top level requirements. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation and stated that it has identified the technologies it needs to mature. However, as of April 2022, the Navy did not provide us with an assessment that identified its key technologies nor has it assessed the maturity of these technologies.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should revise its prototyping plans for each uncrewed maritime system to incorporate how it plans to use information gained from prototyping to develop certifications that apply to uncrewed maritime systems prior to investment decisions. (Recommendation 7)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation and, as of April 2022, stated that it is working on implementing it. This recommendation will remain open until the Navy provides evidence demonstrating how it plans to use information gained from prototyping to develop certifications that apply to uncrewed maritime systems.

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