Navy weaving underwater drones into Project Overmatch

Dorothy Engelhardt, Director, Unmanned Systems, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Ships), christens the Orca XLUUV Test Asset System during a ceremony April 28, 2022, in Huntington Beach, California. (Boeing photo)

The Navy is working through communications challenges as it moves to integrate unmanned undersea vessels into its highly secretive Project Overmatch initiative, according to the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants.

Project Overmatch is the Navy’s contribution to the U.S. military’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept, and it comes at a time when the sea service is pursuing a variety of UUVs, unmanned surface vessels, and other robotic platforms that will be part of the “hybrid fleet” of the future.

“The area of networking and command and control and cross-vehicle coordination is, I believe, really one of the most transformational changes happening now and to come,” Rear Adm. Casey Moton said during remarks at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

“Improvements in underwater communications and control will enable better in situ mission monitoring and control — and together with AI at the edge will improve vehicle coordination in the conduct of a multi-vehicle network. We already fielding improvements in that area now, but it’s going to transform even more,” Moton added.

Project Overmatch is defining and creating the sea service’s next-generation C2 networks and facilitating the “naval operational architecture” (NOA), he noted. UUVs and other robotic systems in the PEO’s portfolio are a key part of this vision.

“All of our programs have been directed to ensure we develop and acquire platforms and capabilities to be fully integrated and compliant with the NOA. We are executing cooperative efforts with Project Overmatch in mission autonomy and AI. So now we have better and better platforms with better and better sensors and capabilities [that are] improved because of modular open systems architectures, and specifically leveraging the Navy’s unmanned maritime autonomy architecture,” Moton said.

As the sea service pushes to improve its networking capabilities, officials are still working through challenges with undersea communications, he told DefenseScoop on the sidelines of the conference.

“There have been some pretty good improvements, right. So acoustic communication is improving, underwater modems, you know, there’s been a lot of work there,” he said.

Communication buoys could be a helpful tool.

“You have a buoy that can communicate in the RF spectrum, but then also translate on the acoustic spectrum,” he explained. “At our level …there has been pretty good improvements that we’re leveraging in that domain. But clearly, moving sounds through water — physics is physics, you know. It’s still hard.”

Meanwhile, Moton told DefenseScoop that his office is “very much involved” with Project Overmatch.

“We’ve had discussions with them about where to proceed with USVs and the UUVs, working with them on some experimentation and things that they have coming up,” he said.

Next year the Navy is planning to deploy advanced networking capabilities with a carrier strike group and put the technology through its paces, but Moton said UUVs and USVs won’t necessarily be part of that effort.

He declined to go into more detail about the experimentation and other work that his office is doing with Overmatch, noting that officials overseeing the project are keeping their cards close to the vest.

“I know they’re, for reasons that you could probably imagine, trying to kind of keep that all pretty tight,” he said.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and other officials have been relatively mum about their JADC2 efforts compared with the other services, citing security concerns.