Pentagon Wants a Process to Field Unmanned Systems, AI Faster

 In U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy

Tests of Boeing’s MQ-25A Stringray prototype in St. Louis. Boeing Image

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Though the Pentagon is accel­er­at­ing how it buys unmanned and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence sys­tems, lead­ers want to move faster still in acquir­ing what the Defense Department con­sid­ers key future tech­nol­o­gy. 

Alan Shaffer, deputy under sec­re­tary of defense acqui­si­tion and sus­tain­ment, said it’s large­ly an “urban legend” that com­pa­nies don’t want to do busi­ness with the Pentagon but con­ced­ed there’s still a great mis­match between how long it takes to write and approve require­ments and how quick­ly tech­nol­o­gy is devel­oped and made ready for field­ing.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, accom­pa­nied by Shaffer and sev­er­al of his staff, met with large com­pa­nies like Boeing, small com­pa­nies like 2015 start­up Shield AI, gov­ern­ment-led efforts like the team sup­port­ing the Sea Hunter unmanned sur­face vessel and more last week in Southern California to hear how unmanned and AI are sup­port­ing the Navy and the joint force. During the same trip, Esper made repeat­ed remarks about how unmanned systems would play a significant role in the future of naval surface and aviation operations.

Shaffer told USNI News during the plane ride back from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., to Joint Base Andrews, Md., that during the trip he saw “a number of sys­tems that are in pro­to­type moving very quick­ly into oper­a­tions.”

Discussing the Sept. 18 meet­ing with Shield AI with­out direct­ly naming the com­pa­ny, he said he saw “a very, very clever way of using small UAVs, quad­copters, to go in and sur­veil a build­ing. And they have pro­gressed to the point where you’re able to have a couple of these quad­copters work togeth­er. This went from lab­o­ra­to­ry to design into the hands of spe­cial oper­a­tors and now is being used for­ward because the oper­a­tors saw such a need for it. One of the things that struck me, again, is the mis­match between our require­ments process … and field­ing the capa­bil­i­ty – and in this space, in AI and auton­o­my, we can field capa­bil­i­ty very quick­ly once pro­to­typed.”

The Navy has strug­gled to move quick­ly on its unmanned sys­tems intro­duc­tion for a vari­ety of rea­sons. On the avi­a­tion side, early attempts to intro­duce car­ri­er-based unmanned aerial vehi­cles unrav­eled around 2015 after dis­agree­ments over what mis­sions the UAV should con­duct. The MQ-25 Stingray UAV pro­gram start­ed in 2016 still won’t be field­ed until per­haps 2024, though it’s meant to learn early lessons about oper­at­ing and sus­tain­ing UAVs on a car­ri­er that could help speed up the devel­op­ment and field­ing of future car­ri­er-based UAV pro­grams.

A developmental, early variant of the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) autonomously conducts maneuvers on the Potomac River Test Range on March 28, 2018. US Navy Photo

On the USV side, the Navy has an aggres­sive plan to buy and test pro­to­type ves­sels before shift­ing to pro­gram-of-record acqui­si­tion, but Congress has hit the brakes on the plan due to con­cerns over the matu­ri­ty of the tech­nol­o­gy and the fideli­ty of the Navy’s con­cepts for employ­ing them.

Asked if he shares Congress’ con­cerns over matu­ri­ty after vis­it­ing with indus­try, Shaffer said more broad­ly that “it’s not just Congress that’s having trou­ble keep­ing up. It’s also some of our stan­dard acqui­si­tion process­es and require­ments process­es. So the lead­er­ship – Secretary Esper, Secretary [Ellen] Lord, other people – are trying to get much more agile – [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John] Hyten – with the require­ments process; they’re trying to dra­mat­i­cal­ly short­en the process time because we’re now in tech space that’s moving very quick­ly, in a matter of a year or two years, and yet we have require­ments process­es that take two years to devel­op,” he said.

Shaffer noted that Lord, the under sec­re­tary of defense for acqui­si­tion and sus­tain­ment, had cod­i­fied a Middle Tier of Acquisition process “so we can now go out and actu­al­ly buy things in under five years with­out require­ments, if they sign up to field it within, or have it pro­to­typed, within five years.”

“So we’re start­ing to see some process­es. We in the depart­ment have to get quick­er, we have to work with Congress to give us the abil­i­ty to move more quick­ly, and they have to let us do it,” Shaffer said.
“And we have to keep work­ing with Congress to make them under­stand we’re faced now with the com­pe­ti­tion of great powers and people who are moving faster than we are.”

Asked if he came away from the indus­try meet­ings with any ideas for how the Pentagon can bring in unmanned and AI tech­nolo­gies faster, he told USNI News, “inter­est­ing­ly, I came away after the indus­try lunch on Wednesday think­ing that we have to go back and look at the pro­gres­sion of Small Business Innovative Research. So you can go phase 1 to phase 2 to phase 3 very quick­ly, and phase 3 you can award a con­tract with­out having a com­pe­ti­tion because the com­pe­ti­tion was held in phase 1 and 2. And yet, we don’t make enough use of that to field capa­bil­i­ty, espe­cial­ly in these areas that are moving very quick­ly. So I took that as a take­away to go back and see if we can move faster in that space.”

USNI source|articles

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