The 58th annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition was held on three unseasonably warm days in April at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Hosted by the Navy League of the United States, the event is the largest maritime exposition in the country and an extension of the organization’s mission of maritime policy education and sea service support as they relate to the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
The conference, held this year from April 3-5 on the shores of the Potomac River, typically attracts about 15,000 attendees, including the U.S. defense industrial base, American companies and military decision-makers, to discuss what’s needed to ensure that the U.S. sea services maintain their edge.
The event also includes an exhibition hall of about 250,000 square feet. This year, 400 exhibitors demonstrated impressive models of ship-based technology, unmanned vehicles, embedded systems and more.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro both stressed the need for uncrewed systems and said the service is ready to expand their use to the broader fleet.
The 4th Fleet will be the first to debut them this summer.
“The 4th Fleet area of operations will provide us with an environment best suited to operationalize the concepts of Task Force 59 that’s worked tirelessly to develop to increase our maritime domain awareness,” Del Toro said.
Task Force 59 was founded in 2021 to experiment with commercially available uncrewed systems and AI, but the announcement marks a move from experimentation to operations.
“We’re integrating additional sensors into the battle space,” Gilday said. “We want to scale this.”
Ultimately, the idea is to create a hybrid fleet of crewed and uncrewed assets, he added, calling it a “distributed fleet.”
“We are experimenting with unmanned in terms of how we increase our ability to effectively and efficiently sustain the Navy and Marine Corps at their forward operating bases,” Gilday said.
Brig. Gen. David Walsh of Marine Corps Systems Command outlined two main ways the service could use uncrewed systems. One is placing “persistent sensors” on battlefields to be “eyes on the battlefield, on the shipping lanes, on the sea lanes, that allow us to identify targets, maintain custody of those targets,” he said.
The other is to modernize logistics with the help of drones to move resources.
Eyes on the Cloud
Another necessity for sustaining Navy and Marine Corps fleets is having cloud on ships at sea.
“Ashore, we have the entire enterprise available to us,” said Rear Adm. Stephen Donald, deputy commander of Navy Cyber Command, AKA 10th Fleet. “We need to extend that enterprise for our maritime assets afloat, for all of our weapons and weapons platforms out there.”
The Marine Corps and Coast Guard have an even more pressing need to expand the cloud. The former relies on Navy infrastructure, while the latter falls under the purview of the Homeland Security Department.
One way to address this is by placing forward deployments on small islands in missile range of major threats such as China. “As you fight and you take hits, how do you reconstitute [the network] once you’ve gone down?” said Russell Meade, executive director of Marine Corps Cyber Command. “Small, segmented networks when necessary” and “in time, the cloud” are the solutions he provides.
Donald also called for ships to have more computing power onboard. “They need to be almost mini-data centers, mini-network operation centers and mini-security centers,” he said.
Additionally, ships at sea need to be able to automatically reconnect when connections fail, without requiring manual switchovers, which can run the risk of creating disparate sets of data.
“I need industry to figure out how to give me a virtual cloud, if you will, while afloat, so that while I’m disconnected, I have all the capabilities that I can possibly have locally, and then when I reconnect, it is seamless,” added Donald.
The Navy shared plans to increase procurement of missiles, which aligns with the service’s recently released fiscal 2024 budget.
For instance, Rear Adm. Stephen Tedford, Program Executive Officer of Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said that the Navy and Air Force are looking at bundling a procurement of long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASM) in a multi-year plan that would double current production rates.
“We both use LRASM and that’s combined with their [Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile] buys and our LRASM buys,” Tedford said.
Additionally, production of the Tomahawk cruise missile will increase by sixfold.
We’ll stay tuned to how all of this progresses by next year’s event. We’re looking forward to being there and finding out!