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17/01/24: US Navy prioritises unmanned assets in 2024

Task Group 59.1 to accelerate operational deployment of unmanned systems.

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Following two years of testing, experimentation and proof of concepts developed by Task Force 59, the first-of-its-kind U.S. Navy initiative with a mandate to find ways of accelerating the adoption of AI and unmanned systems, this month the Navy formed Task Group 59.1. The new group will focus on the operational deployment of unmanned systems, teamed with manned operators, to bolster maritime security across the 5th Fleet's area of operations.

The formation of Task Group 59.1 comes at a pivotal moment for the U.S. Navy, for Middle East maritime security, and even for the very nature of naval warfare itself.

Recent conflicts have laid bare longstanding assumptions about the capabilities of traditional naval forces and how they are used in modern warfare that increasingly uses unmanned systems to penetrate air, sea and land defences. Navy battlegroups that were once seen as a sign of strength and invincibility must now contend with a fast growing variety of airborne, surface and underwater drones and guided munitions.

The new threats posed by Houthi rebels in Yemen to shipping in the Red Sea and the vital Strait of Bab al Mandeb, is of acute concern to both commercial shipping and to the naval forces that are trying to provide safety to ships in the area. The Houthi's are able to attack ships from mobile positions on the Yemen coast with a practically unending number of drones and guided missiles. Meanwhile, current anti-missile and anti-drone defences can prove to be prohibitively expensive. Whilst the Houthi's Iranian and locally-made drones and missiles can cost a few thousand dollars, the U.S. Navy missiles used to shoot them down with can cost $2 million. Furthermore, protecting maritime shipping in the Red Sea, still very much depends on having the right assets in the right places, and at the time that adversaries decide to strike.

The Russia-Ukraine war over the past two years was a wake-up call for military forces worldwide, as they get a glimpse of what the future of warfare looks like with the extensive use of unmanned systems. The Ukrainian military had a number of unexpected successes with new unmanned surface vessels (USVs) last year, some of which are capable of carrying payloads up to 850 kilos. Ukraine has used USVs to strike decisively against Russian navy ships, supply ships and infrastructure. On land, the dynamics of the battlefield have changed radically with the proliferation of both armed guided munitions and those for ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance).

In light of such conflicts, U.S. Navy warships, which can cost billions of dollars, must be considered both in terms of capability and lethality, and in terms of the size of target that they represent for the growing number of air, sea and underwater drones and missiles that are now available to even the smallest militias.

In the 5th Fleet's area of operations - which covers the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and seas off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean - the stakes have never been higher. The Gaza war has not only highlighted the state of alliances and interdependencies across the region, it has also emboldened a variety of political and militant groups to challenge the authority of the US military and that of its alliance partners. Although the underlying issues may require long term political solutions, U.S and other defence forces in the region require the capability to manage confrontations in 'the here and now', in order to safeguard shipping and prevent military escalation. In the fast-developing era of drone warfare, this is going to remain a challenge for sometime.

The U.S. Navy's Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti, released a paper earlier this month at navy symposium, which stated "We must think, act, and operate differently, leveraging wargaming and experimentation to integrate conventional capability with hybrid, unmanned, and disruptive technologies. Tomorrow’s battlefield will be incredibly challenging and complex. To win decisively in that environment, our Sailors must be the best warfighters in the world with the best systems, weapons, and platforms to ensure we can defeat our adversaries."

The big change for the U.S. Navy and others could be that 'best' is no longer synonymous with 'biggest'.

The critical importance of artificial intelligence, real-time data and unmanned systems has been recognised by more and more military officials over the past few years. In the U.S. Navy, this resulted in the standing up of Task Force 59 in September 2021. The task force's goal was to find ways of accelerating tests, trials and adoption of AI and data technologies, unmanned systems and other cutting edge solutions.

From big data to mesh networks, and from sail and wave powered surveillance craft to high-speed autonomous interceptors, Task Force 59 pioneered a raft of new technologies, unmanned vessels and solutions, testing them with traditional navy operations. The work resulted in new navy plans including a 4th Fleet programme to integrate AI and unmanned systems into its operations in the seas surrounding Central and South America.

The new Task Group 59.1, created by Task Force 59, will focus on deploying unmanned systems across 4th Fleet operations, teamed with manned operators and working closely with traditional naval forces. In the words of the TF59 commodore Captain Colin Corridan, "bringing budding, relevant technology to warfighters and doing it fast."

It also seems likely that the formation of Task Group 59.1 reflects a need to not only transition to a more hybrid fleet, but also to a fleet where unmanned systems lend it more lethality. While Task Force 59 over 2021 and 2022 appeared to be largely focused on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, last year it conducted a series of unmanned exercises using live munitions. During the exercises the navy used MARTAC's T38 Devil Ray USV to fire 'Lethal Miniature Aerial Missiles' working in concert with traditional forces, although the USV's live fire was controlled remotely by a Robotics Operations Centre.

With Task Group 59.1 focusing squarely on current operational requirements and integrating USVs with traditional navy assets, we can expect to see more armed unmanned assets out on the water. Although there has recently been a surge in unmanned systems buying across the Middle East, by both national defence forces and militant groups, the U.S. Navy's heavy investment in ISTAR and big data could well see the effectiveness of its unmanned assets sail quickly past its adversaries.

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