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31/12/22: A busy year for Task Force 59

Task Force 59 is pioneering naval use of AI, data and unmanned systems.

There are powerful forces driving the Middle East's unmanned systems sector, including the diversity of threats from existing and new adversaries, new technologies that can be leveraged for tactical and strategic advantage, and the desire of nations in the region to spend more of their defence budgets on equipment and systems produced locally.

However, never has so much focus been given to the use of unmanned systems in naval operations as we've seen during the past twelve months and the credit for this goes to Task Force 59.

Formed in September 2021 by the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), Task Force 59 (or TF59) is a first-of-its-kind U.S. Navy initiative given the mandate to accelerate the integration of AI and unmanned systems with maritime operations. Based in the U.S. Fifth Fleet's Bahrain headquarters, the new task force immediately began a sea trial using Saildrone Inc.’s 23 foot Saildrone Explorer uncrewed surface vessel (or USV) in the Gulf of Aqaba in together with the Royal Jordanian Navy.

Saildrone designs and manufactures wind and solar-powered USVs able to collect 'high-resolution' ocean datasets over extended periods at sea. The company's USVs combine wind-powered propulsion technology and solar-powered meteorological and oceanographic sensors to perform autonomous, long-range ocean data collection missions. The USV exceeded U.S. navy expectations during its first trial and, within a few months, the Saildrone Explorer trial was extended to the Arabian Gulf.

Meanwhile, Task Force 59 was already planning IMX 2022, which was to be the largest unmanned maritime exercise in the world and the biggest naval exercise ever to be held in the Middle East. With an objective of testing the integration of AI and unmanned systems with traditional assets in different operational scenarios, IMX took place across the 5th Fleet's entire area of operations, being the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

During January and February, IMX 2022 deployed at least 80 unmanned systems from 10 countries, including USVs, vertical takeoff and landing UAVs, unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs) and hybrid surface / undersea vessels. More than 60 U.S. partner nations participated in the exercise, which involved 9,000 personnel and about 50 ships.

Partly in testament to the success of IMX 2022, the 5th Fleet then announced plans to create a new joint fleet of 100 maritime unmanned systems together with partner nations, to be operational by the summer of 2023, in an effort to put more 'eyes and ears on the water'. Using artificial intelligence, data from unmanned vessels, traditional assets and other maritime sensors, together with commercially available data, can all be integrated to provide a variety of real-time insights, alerts and reports. The data and insights can be used to avoid undesirable incidents, take action to interdict and prevent malign activity and for predictive analysis.

The growing unmanned systems threat

The pace that the 5th Fleet is ramping up its AI and unmanned systems capability is not simply a play to win recognition for being a trail-blazer. Access to a wider number of sources for drone technologies and lower costs of those technologies are quickly leading to a proliferation of remote controlled and autonomous unmanned systems. These technologies can be used by armed forces, terrorist organisations and individuals to attack civilian and military targets, causing loss of life, physical damage, commercial losses and even impacting whole economies. As this continues to become easier and cheaper to do, the scale of the threat increases.

Saudi Arabia has been targeted by drones and missiles over the past two years by Houthi rebels from Yemen. However, in January, the Houthi's campaign was extended to attack strategic targets in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi with drones and missiles, killing three people and injuring eight. In February, the UAE thwarted another drone and missile attack, which took place during the official visit of the president of Israel to the country..

In November, a kamikaze drone - later identified as an Iranian HESA Shahed 136 - hit a Liberian-flagged, Israeli-affiliated tanker carrying gas oil off the coast of Oman, in the Arabian Sea. No injuries or serious damage were reported, but the incident served to highlight the growing vulnerability of commercial shipping to attacks from drones and other unmanned systems.

Simply put, the better that nations are able to monitor the seas and air space around them, the better equipped they will be to deter and intercept such attacks. Task Force 59 is pioneering the use of AI, data and unmanned system technologies to create a 'digital ocean', that can ultimately monitor hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of water.

Digital Horizon 2022

In late November, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and alliance partners launched a three-week naval exercise in the Arabian Gulf called Digital Horizon 2022. This exercise expanded on the number and type of unmanned systems deployed for the earlier IMX 2022 and aimed to test how these different systems could be made to work together in real-world conditions. Necessarily, the exercise also had a higher degree of involvement from technology partners, bringing together 17 industry partners in total.

Manufacturers supporting Digital Horizon included: Aerovel, Easy Aerial, Elbit Systems, Exail (previously iXblue), L3 Harris, Marine Advanced Robotics (part of OPT), MARTAC, Ocean Aero, OCIUS Technology, Open Ocean Robotics, Saildrone, Seasats, SeaTrac and Shield AI.

More than the operation and control of individual unmanned systems, Digital Horizon tested command and control for these systems, the integration of data streams from different maritime systems and communications between different systems. So, in addition to the unmanned system developers, the navy enlisted the help of AI and data services company Big Bear AI, Accenture Federal Services and wireless connectivity company Silvus Technologies.

Key to being able to test and coordinate all the different systems in an operational environment, was the 'mesh network' deployed by Task Force 59. The mesh network allowed data to be communicated via a network of wireless devices that required no central network hub to manage the data flow.

More task forces to come

The impact of the task force's success is being felt far beyond the 5th Fleet's area of operations.

Based on the performance of Task Force 59, the U.S. Navy now has plans to create similar task forces in other regions around the world, beginning with a second one towards the end of 2023 or in 2024. Meanwhile, it can be no coincidence that the U.S. AIr Force's Central Command (AFCENT) formed an eight-man task force in October 2022 (Task Force 99) - headquartered out of Qatar - to accelerate adoption of digital and unmanned technologies in the air force.

On the commercial side, a number of the U.S. Navy's technology partners have allocated resources to support Task Force 59, bringing some of the world's most innovative tech startups to the region.

Whilst information on upcoming military programmes is always in short supply, Task Force 59 is expecting another busy year in 2023 and with the anticipated deployment of some 100 unmanned systems over the coming months by the U.S. Navy and partners, the fast pace of innovation is unlikely to falter. Plans are already underway for further unmanned system exercises during 2023. As Capt. Michael Brasseur, commodore of Task Force 59 puts it: "We have no intention of slowing down!"

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