Like it or not, unmanned surface vehicles (USV) and artificial intelligence are here. To that end, the U.S. Navy established an Unmanned and Artificial Intelligence Task Force. Launched in 2021 under U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Task Force 59 is the first of its kind. "The bottom line on why we’re doing this is so that we can develop and integrate unmanned systems and AI as a means to...enhance our maritime domain awareness [and]...increase deterrence," said NAVCENT commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper in a press release.
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On October 23, 2023, Task Force 59 advanced the lethality and combat capabilities of unmanned surface vehicles during Exercise Digital Talon. In international waters near the Arabian Peninsula, a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray USV conducted live weapons firing exercises. This represented the first use of lethal munitions from a USV in the Middle East region. A USV was paired with manned vessels in "manned-unmanned teaming." Together, they identified and targeted simulated hostile forces represented by a target boat. Then, the Devil Ray launched live munitions to engage and destroy the targets.
Exercise Digital Talon included multiple firing events. Employing the Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System, the Devil Ray scored direct hits on the target each time. NAVCENT notes that a human operator ashore at the Task Force 59 Robotics Operations Center made the engagement decisions during the exercise. Additionally, Digital Talon was coordinated with and supported by Special Operations Forces Central Command.
Notably, Digital Talon was the second time in as many months that the Navy successfully employed unmanned vehicles in the Middle East. In September 2023, unmanned underwater, surface, and aerial vehicles tracked Iranian Navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy ships and smaller vessels over several days during routine patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
"We are focused on the operational application of new, cutting-edge unmanned systems and artificial intelligence technologies. Last month, we integrated 12 different unmanned platforms with manned ships for 'manned-unmanned teaming' operations to conduct enhanced maritime security operations in the waters surrounding the Arabian Peninsula," said Vice Adm. Cooper. "During Digital Talon, we took a significant step forward and advanced our capability to the ‘next level’ beyond just maritime domain awareness, which has been a traditional focus with Task Force 59. We have proven these unmanned platforms can enhance fleet lethality. In doing so, we are strengthening regional maritime security and enhancing deterrence against malign activity."