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02/03/22: Largest ever test of robot naval tech in fortnight-long Middle East exercise

Super-fast stealth speed boats and drones launched by Royal Navy vessels offered a glimpse of the future of naval operations in the Gulf.

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New tech lined-up with traditional warships and aircraft in the largest naval exercise ever to test crewless systems in the Middle East, part of a huge international test of maritime power in the region.

More than 60 countries, 50 ships, 80 uncrewed systems – airborne, seaborne and underwater – from ten nations – and 9,000 personnel took part in the combined International Maritime Exercise / Cutlass Express.

Spread over two and a half weeks and a vast area – the Red Sea, Gulf, Horn of Africa and eastern seaboard of Africa – it’s one of the largest, longest and most varied exercises ever staged by nations with an interest in the stability and security of the Middle East region.

The goal was to enhance partnerships, and ensure seamless interaction and cooperation between participants of many languages, with different systems and different ways of working.

Leading Combined Task Force North – operating in the Gulf – was the bulk of the RN’s presence in the region: minehunter command ship RFA Lyme Bay, with her ‘flock’ – HM Ships Bangor, Chiddingfold and Penzance – plus frigate HMS Montrose and vessels from other navies, including Japan, the USA and Gulf nations.

Lyme Bay proved key not just as a hub for the minehunters, but also some of the autonomous/crewless systems being put through their paces.

The RN brought Puma drones, courtesy of 700X Naval Air Squadron, plus L3Harris MAST-13 robot boat, while the Americans rolled out the Devil Ray, the MARTAC T-38, capable of speeds in excess of 80 knots, can pull turns at six times the force of gravity (6G) and either gather intelligence or serve as a launchpad for other unmanned systems.

Not to be outdone, MAST-13 – which has also been given a name, Madfox – is sleek, high-speed and long-range. It was handed over to the Royal Navy 12 months ago to experiment with surveillance/intelligence gathering operations as well as force protection for a ship or task group.

Completing the surveillance/intelligence picture is Puma, which gives ‘eyes in the sky’ – especially to ships which previously had none.

Puma weighs in at only seven kilogrammes and can be operated anywhere in the world from vessels with or without a flight deck. There’s no need to rely on larger, more expensive, crewed helicopters and aircraft: a Royal Navy Merlin or Wildcat helicopter, for example, requires at least a ten-strong team to crew and maintain it. Puma needs just three sailors.

700X from Culdrose have tested and operated Pumas extensively in the UK, in the Mediterranean and Arctic. On IMX22 Puma offered those at sea and on the ground a unique perspective of the exercise as it unfolded.

“We’ve been working with Puma back at Culdrose, so to bring it out to the Middle East and operate it in the Gulf has been fantastic,” said Naval Airman Joe Wright, an aircraft handler by trade who spent two years with the drone unit.

“A lot of hard work has gone into getting us here and seeing it fly on the international stage has been the icing on the cake.”

The activities of all the various robot/pilotless/sailorless systems came under the banner of Task Force X, formed especially for the exercise to focus on integrating unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into naval operations.

Its deputy commander was the Royal Navy’s Commander Antony Crabb. He believes IMX22 offered a glimpse of what could become regular sights and activities in Gulf in just five years’ time.

“We will see ships embarking uncrewed systems for missions as easily and seamlessly as embarking a helicopter or seaboat today – perhaps in addition to or perhaps instead of those crewed capabilities,” he predicted.

“The vision for the use of uncrewed systems across the theatre is exciting. However, we are aware that delivery will hold its challenges.”

The RN’s senior officer in the region, Commodore Adrian Fryer, said participation in this significant exercise has been extremely beneficial for UK personnel and capability.

“The Royal Navy can look back on being at the heart of the largest maritime exercise in the Middle East,” he added.

“Well-established skills were sharpened and cutting-edge new capabilities were trialled, all alongside our regional and international partner nations.”

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