As Navy Shifts Gears, Huntington-Ingalls Buys Autonomy Firm
The nation’s largest shipbuilder made a small but significant investment in autonomy this week, gobbling up a tech company specializing in building autonomous systems for the Pentagon — an indication the shipbuilding industry is recalibrating to meet Navy plans to build hundreds of unmanned ships.
Huntington Ingalls Industries announced today they snapped up the autonomy business of Spatial Integrated Systems Inc., adding the Virginia Beach, Va.-based company to its portfolio that includes building aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships.
“We are excited to welcome the SIS autonomy business employees to the HII family,” said Andy Green, president of Huntington’s Technical Solutions arm. “2020 was a significant year for HII in the unmanned systems industry, and this acquisition is the perfect complement to our existing portfolio and strategic partnerships.”
The technologies SIS has developed are used for “coordinating and controlling multiple collaborative unmanned vehicles” across missions including “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, harbor patrol, high value unit escort missions, payload delivery, mine clearance, and transporting supplies,” a Huntington release today said.
Last year, Huntington unveiled their new Unmanned Systems Center of Excellence in Hampton, Virginia, signaling a deeper dive into the world of unmanned and autonomous systems.
The company was snatched up days before Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday is expected to release his long-awaited Unmanned Campaign Plan, which will come hard on the heels of December’s 30-year shipbuilding plan that calls for somewhere between 119 and 166 unmanned vessels by 2045, which would make up a significant percentage of the planned 355-ship fleet.
The new unmanned plan promises to be the first time the Navy will wrap all of its unmanned aerial, surface and subsurface weapons together into one coherent whole.
A significant part of the effort will involve Project Overmatch, an push to develop a battle network capable of tying in to the Air Force and Army’s effort to link sensors and shooters from space to the undersea domain on one network.
The unmanned plan remains a work in progress, as does the 30-year plan. The Navy will have to submit a new 30-year plan along with the Biden administration’s first budget, expected by April, and while it’s unclear how much will change, the new team of senior leaders will undoubtedly have their own views on the size and composition of the future fleet.
Overall, the Navy is looking to buy three types of large unmanned ships– the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUV).
In July, despite bipartisan skepticism on Capitol Hill, the Navy awarded L3 Technologies Inc. a $34.9 million contract for a prototype MUSV in July, along with an option for up to eight additional ships. If the company builds those eight unmanned ships, the contract will be worth $281 million through June 2027.
Overall, the Navy wants to build about 40 MUSVs in coming years, which will clock in at between 45 to 190 feet long, with a displacement of roughly 500 tons. The medium ships are thought to skew more toward mission modules revolving around intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads and electronic warfare systems. The LUSV is expected to act as a forward-deployed missile launcher, bristling with missile tubes and other weapons, Navy planners have said.
The unmanned ships aren’t expected to take the place of manned ships at any point in the near future, but with continued skepticism over huge decked aircraft carriers and destroyers operating in contested environments, there’s little doubt that shipbuilders like Huntington will continue to invest in smaller companies specializing in autonomy and artificial intelligence.