Report: US Military Falling Behind in Sea Drone Development

06:31 May 8, 2024

Report: US Military Falling Behind in Sea Drone Development

U.S. efforts to expand the use of sea drones to defend against possible military threats are reportedly falling behind because of other American defense goals.

Reporters from Reuters said they spoke with several people who have “direct knowledge of the U.S. sea drone plans.” The news agency spoke with officials in the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense. They also spoke with executives with sea drone companies.

Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon told Reuters that U.S. military officials recognize the importance of using drones in operations at sea.

Pahon noted that military leaders had seen the ways Ukrainian forces had successfully used sea drones against Russian ships in the Ukraine war. In recent months, Yemeni-backed Houthi rebels have also used sea drones to attack private ships passing through the Red Sea.

Pahon said those examples had caught the attention of top military leaders. He said U.S. military officials would like to try using sea drones to answer moves by China in recent years to build up naval power in the Pacific.

Last August, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced a new agency program called Replicator. It aims to deploy hundreds of small, relatively low-cost air and sea drones over a period of 18 to 24 months in hopes of limiting Chinese threats.

Bryan Clark is an adviser to the Navy on drones. He is also a researcher at the Hudson Institute, a Washington D.C. international policy group. He estimates the U.S. Navy has around 100 small drones for use on the ocean surface and another 100 underwater drones. Experts say China has a similar-sized sea drone force.

Reuters reports that U.S. military officials told the news agency the Replicator announcement came after years of repeated warnings, even from people inside the Department of Defense. The warnings centered on a lack of progress in expanding its sea drone program, while efforts by other nations moved forward.

Two Navy sources and three officials with sea drone manufacturers described to Reuters one of the biggest barriers to progress. They described a budget process that centers too much on developing big ships and submarines built by established defense contractors.

"At some point, you hit the D.C. problem," said Philipp Stratmann. He is the chief of Ocean Power Technologies, a New Jersey company that supplies the Navy with one of its drones.

"You hit the fact that there is a military industrial complex that has the best lobbyists and knows exactly how the money flows and contracting works in the (Department of Defense)," Stratmann said.

A Navy spokesperson told Reuters it "acquires capabilities based on fleet demand signals." This means listening to officers operating at sea about the immediate needs they have.

A Navy spokesperson told the news agency it has a budget of $172 million this year for small and medium-sized underwater sea drones. This amount would fall to $101.8 million in 2025. That is a very small part of the $63 billion Navy budget that President Joe Biden's administration proposed for 2025.

Two Navy sources told Reuters that when sea drones were deployed at sea in recent years, there was not effective expertise to use them. They said the Navy does not have enough trained sailors to pilot the drones or to examine the large amount of data the drones collect. The sources asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

A Navy spokesperson said the Navy is currently in the process of improving its data collection and examination methods. Defense Department spokesperson Pahon said military efforts had been "laser-focused” on developing new “innovation” over the last three years. That includes the use of sea drones.

Speaking about the department’s budget challenges, Pahon said officials were trying to use creative ways to cross "the valley of death." This term is used to describe the complex approval process that new innovations must go through before they can be widely produced and deployed.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

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