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22/02/22: Allies and robots: Navy joins 60 nations in International Maritime Exercise

This year's IMX will include a focus on how unmanned systems can change naval operations, from rescue operations to endurance missions.

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WASHINGTON: The United States and dozens of partner nations will bring together their naval forces for joint exercises in the Middle East this month with a focus on demonstrating how unmanned systems change how their respective militaries operate both alone and in conjunction with one another.

“This is a unique opportunity to increase our capabilities and interoperability while strengthening maritime ties,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, in a written statement after the exercise launched Monday.

The International Maritime Exercise (IMX), an 18-day biennial event first held in 2012 and the largest maritime exercise held in the Middle East, will include 50 ships, 9,000 personnel and 60 partner countries. The event is being combined with the US 6th Fleet exercise known as Cutlass Express, and will involve the US 5th Fleet, the Navy command located in Bahrain and also led by Cooper, which previously established a special panel focused on unmanned technology in September 2021.

Cmdr. Kenyatta Martin and Cmdr. Tom McAndrew, both US Navy officers in charge of planning exercises for IMX, told reporters today the demonstrations will focus on how “unmanned systems can help us improve our ability to detect, rapidly respond and provide deterrence.”

Assets the US Navy is bringing to the exercise include the unmanned surface vessels Devil Ray T-38 and Mantas T-12, the aerial drones MQ-4 Triton and Switchblade 300, and the subsurface vehicle Remus 300. In total, 10 nations participating in IMX will introduce unmanned technologies into the operations.

McAndrew is also in charge of Task Force X, a panel established to lead the portions of IMX that incorporate unmanned technology and artificial intelligence. He described one example of the operations to be tested: how unmanned systems can assist in search-and-rescue operations.

“When someone falls in the water, where we do a search and rescue, it’s critical to ensure that we can quickly identify and recover that person safely,” said McAndrew. “Unmanned systems, when they’re deployed in the way that we’re planning, we believe can cover a larger area, identify someone quicker and more accurately.”

McAndrew also described testing unmanned systems’ ability to operate for extended periods of time without human intervention and the advantages of not needing to refuel them them as frequently as a traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

The exercise could provide a proving ground for that particular use, after lawmakers have expressed skepticism about whether the service has fully vetted the technology. There are also policy questions about the autonomous, long-endurance proposition the military rarely discusses publicly, such as how to prevent adversarial units from boarding the vessel or recovering the ship if it is disabled by extreme weather.

In the past, Navy leadership has often countered these questions by saying unmanned technology will assist sailors, but it will never fully replace them. Nonetheless, lawmakers’ concerns about unmanned systems have been pervasive in public discussions for at least three years now since the Navy tried — and failed — to persuade Congress to retire an aircraft 25 years early in exchange for a raft of funding for future unmanned technologies.

The success or failure of exercises such as IMX are certain to play a big part in helping the service justify its future budget requests, and more specifically as it asks for Congress to buy into unmanned systems.

McAndrew also said, without speaking about specific exercises or platforms, that the US personnel involved in IMX are working to incorporate elements of Project Overmatch into the event. Overmatch is the Navy’s portion of the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control concept — one where details are scarce by design.

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