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

GAO-22-104567 Published: Apr 07, 2022. Publicly Released: Apr 07, 2022.
Jump To:
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

Skip to Highlights
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.

Skip to Recommendations

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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

GAO Contacts