Photo credit: NAVAIR – Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, executive officer of PEO (U&W)

The Navy League of the United States hosted its 59th annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition from April 8-10 at the at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The event is the country’s largest maritime expo and typically attracts about 16,000 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, and this year 430 exhibitors demonstrated models of ship-based technology, unmanned vehicles, embedded systems and more.

Large, medium and small defense contractors participated in the event, reinforcing Navy’s commitment to collaborating with small businesses to aid the warfighter. “SAS was a great show! It allows businesses to come together with government and explore opportunities with new partners,” commented Sumner Lee, CEO of Fuse Integration. “For Fuse, it gave us a platform to tell the story of our recent flight and maritime demonstrations illustrating the positive impact of delivering systems that are focused on enabling the warfighter in the challenging environments they must endure.”

It’s worth noting that the Navy canceled shipbuilding briefings just days before the expo got under way after an internal report came out to show that four of the service’s most critical shipbuilding programs are years behind schedule. “We found that we have issues that need to be resolved,” said Nickolas Guertin, the Navy’s senior acquisition executive. “But we don’t have all those things completely nailed down yet.”

Procurement Planning

Navy and Marine Corps officials said they’re looking for industry partners to help strengthen manned/unmanned systems, weapons-systems advancements, AI adoption, and cybersecurity protocols.

But Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Systems Command Col. Ross Monta cautioned against making awesome sales pitches for services that won’t actually work.

“You can go talk to the three stars and pitch the most wonderful thing on the planet, and all you do is make my life just a tad bit harder because then I’ve got to dispel everything you’ve said and get it down to brass tacks about how usable is it at the tactical edge,” Monta said.

Arveice Washington, director of the Navy Office of Small Business Programs, attempted to put small businesses looking to bid on Navy cybersecurity contracts at ease after a backlash over the Defense Department’s codifying of the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification rule in December. Under it, contractors handling federal contract and controlled unclassified information must change their organizational processes and systems to continue doing business with DoD.

“It’s going to take persistence, patience and research,” Washington said, adding that the Defense Acquisition University, Navy Small Business Office, Apex Accelerator, Blue Cyber Program, webinars and weekly newsletters can help.

Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Stephen Tedford, program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said the Navy is looking at ways to change how it buys and maintains AI-enabled unmanned cooperative combat aircraft (CCA). Specifically, he’s looking to forgo a long-term sustainment program for them.

“I don’t need them that long,” Tedford said. “I need a platform that, instead of buying 500, I’ll buy 60 … and I can do them in a rolling wave so I can keep pace with the technology of the unmanned platforms, but also keep pace with the threat by upgrading sensors, platforms, systems, weapons.”

Forward Motion on Uncrewed Systems

While calling for acquisition changes, Tedford also touted the Navy’s progress on uncrewed units. He noted that since last year, the uncrewed air systems program has deployed three MQ-4 Triton systems (by Northrop Grumman) to Guam and furthered testing on other technologies.

“In our ability to get after a truly artificial intelligence-autonomous system, especially one in the future, that we have the intent of arming with weapons, we’re going to have to start with a foundation of trust,” he said. “How do we test to make sure that the autonomy in the AI is doing exactly what we want it to do and it’s staying within the guardrails of both our rules of engagement [and] also our ethical rules of engagement for AI and autonomous systems?”

Additionally, the Navy is studying ways to bring inexpensive autonomous combat drones to aircraft carriers – with the keyword being inexpensive. Tedford said they can’t cost more than $15 million per unit.

Tying into his comments about procurement, he noted: “I want something that’s going to fly for a couple hundred hours. The last hour it’s either a target or a weapon. I’m either going to hit something with it or I’m going to train [a sensor on it] and shoot it down,” he said. “But I’m not going to sustain them for 30 years.”

Advancing Technology

Theodore Gronda, program manager for the Naval Air Systems Command’s Additive Manufacturing (AM) Team, said the group is responsible for creating parts in small quantities to get grounded aircraft back in service quickly. (Additive manufacturing is the use of 3D printing to fill a gap or other need by adding one layer at a time.)

Currently, the team uses three tiers of AM:

  • Tier 1 printers create commodity polymers for non-critical items such as knobs.
  • Tier 2 printers are for industrial polymers for pieces such as tools and mounts.
  • Tier 3 printers make industrial metal for things such as gearboxes and engine components.

Gronda also discussed a new cold spray technology that uses a metal powder to spray and build up or repair a designated item. Currently, the command has 96 AM devices deployed to 33 sites, including deployed aircraft carriers.

We hope that, by next year’s expo, the shipbuilding projects will be caught up so we can learn more about those and how the goals laid out this year progress.