Wittman urges quicker autonomy adoption through new Pentagon office

By Nick Wilson / July 18, 2023 at 3:40 PM

House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman (R-VA) today urged the accelerated adoption of autonomous systems and underscored a provision in the House's defense policy bill that would stand up a new Pentagon office to pursue this goal.

The legislative proposal, which was introduced in May by Wittman and House Appropriations defense subcommittee member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), would create the new joint autonomy office within the Defense Department’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO).

“In this year's [defense authorization bill], I was able to get in language creating the ‘autonomous system adoption policy act,’ which essentially says ‘we're all in to use autonomy.’ It is not going to replace manned systems, but it will complement manned systems and it will let us generate mass and capability and capacity quicker than we can anywhere else,” Wittman said at a joint warfighting conference today.

The proposed office would accelerate development and delivery of autonomy technology for military uses, he said, largely by centralizing and standardizing the development and roll-out processes for these technologies.

Wittman called autonomy a capability “gap filler,” with programs like the Collaborative Combat Aircraft -- an unmanned system intended to support manned aircraft -- enabling the U.S. to more effectively compete with China and other potential adversaries.

With unmanned platforms demonstrating growing value on the battlefield, Wittman also suggested the Defense Department begin sorting its acquisition programs into multiple categories, creating an expedient procurement track for expendable and inexpensive autonomous systems in addition to more traditional -- and typically slower and more expensive -- “exquisite” systems.

“Let's build expendable systems. Let's make sure we build those quickly. If they don’t come back, no biggie. Let’s build critical systems, things that have more capability and we’d like to get them back but if we don’t, no big deal. And [let’s build] exquisite systems,” he said.

“And let's put guardrails on that,” he continued. “Let's make sure we say, ‘OK, an expendable system is going to exist in this cost range, and a critical system exists in this cost range, and an exquisite system exists in this cost range,’ to provide certainty to the industry and make sure the Pentagon knows where they need or focus dollars.”

The House’s defense policy bill passed Friday in a tight vote and will enter conference committee negotiations once the Senate advances its version of the bill.