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Research Questions

  1. How great is current demand for UxS, and how will that demand change in the future?
  2. What can the U.S. military and the commercial sector do to keep up with future demand for UxS?
  3. How are near peers China and Russia handling their own demands for UxS?

The Department of Defense (DoD) has hypothesized that the demand signal for uncrewed systems (UxS) in the coming years will strain the capacity of the U.S. defense industrial base (DIB). DoD asked the RAND Corporation to explore this possibility and assemble relevant risks, issues, and opportunities to support ongoing DoD activities, including complying with statutory requirements to provide annual reports to Congress. The scope of the request covered many types of UxS, including uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), uncrewed ground systems (UGSs), and maritime platforms — specifically, uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) and uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs).

The authors consulted a variety of data sources and conducted interviews with officials from military UxS program offices, representatives from commercial entities, and subject matter experts. They examined fragility indicators, such as financial outlook, DoD sales, the number of firms in relevant sectors, and dependence on foreign sources of supply; and examined criticality indicators, such as defense uniqueness, design requirements, skilled labor needs, facility and equipment availability, materials and components with long lead times, and availability of alternatives. This report contains an analysis of required levels of autonomous UxS to meet DIB requirements, data on DIB categories and specific component elements within those categories, an assessment of the posture of the DIB to produce and sustain levels of UxS platforms as required by DoD, the results of a comparative analysis of near-peer nation-states China and Russia, and recommendations on strengthening the DIB.

Key Findings

  • Expected U.S. military demand will increase from fiscal year (FY) 2021 to FY 2026 for all types of UxS (except UUVs, for which demand declines slightly). Although the scale of the expected increase varies significantly by the type of system, the increase is unlikely to burden the DIB by FY 2026.
  • The U.S. UxS DIB is more fragile than it is critical — that is, there is more risk in losing capabilities than there is in replacing capabilities once they are gone; this is due to financial outlook risks, maritime demand uncertainty, a limited number of firms building large UxS, and foreign dependence on selected components.
  • In the maritime domain, representatives from multiple program offices and vendors identified shortages of welders and forging skills as challenging to the building of USVs and UUVs, especially for larger platforms.
  • UAS appear to be the only system types with significant current Chinese capabilities, whereas UGSs, USVs, and UUVs all require further development before being employed more commonly; Chinese sources have cited safety, accuracy, and interoperability issues, among others, with these non-UASs.
  • In general, Russia has clearly demonstrated advancements in its uncrewed technologies; although it might not be a major exporter of uncrewed platforms now, it remains the second-largest exporter of arms after the United States.

Recommendations

  • Improve demand certainty for USVs and UUVs to mitigate the fragility of the maritime DIB.
  • Explore resilience mitigations for lithium-ion batteries, UAS motors, electro-optical components, semiconductors, light detection and ranging sensors, ferrite, iridium, titanium, and fiberglass.
  • Expand the Defense Innovation Unit's Blue UAS project (or a similar effort) to include UGSs, USVs, and UUVs. This will create more defense-ready off-the-shelf systems and better enable smaller performers to engage DoD.
  • Explore options to boost the large UAS commercial industrial base to mitigate defense uniqueness in large UAS platforms.
  • Support policies that grow important trade skills, such as electronics soldering (for UAS), welding, forging, and metal casting (for USVs and UUVs).

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD[R&E]) and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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