New Navy Task Force Focused on AI, Robotics

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Navy, iStock photo-illustration

The Navy is planning to put new robotic and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies through their paces in one of its toughest areas of operations.

The Fifth Fleet — which operates in the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean — faces congested waterways, threats from nearby adversaries and an inhospitable climate.

However, it is an ideal location to test new technology in harsh conditions, said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces.

The waterways in the region — which feature three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait — are ripe for real-world evaluation of unmanned systems, Cooper said during a media roundtable with reporters in September.

The service recently stood up Task Force 59 to integrate new and promising unmanned and AI-enabled systems to enhance maritime domain awareness and bolster deterrence, he said.

Fifth Fleet’s area of operations encompasses a maritime region with 5,000 miles of coastline, he said.

The “environment really suits us well to experiment and move faster,” Cooper said. “Our belief is if the new systems can work here, they can probably work anywhere else and be scaled across other fleets.”

The area features extreme weather conditions and challenging seas during the monsoon season, he added. “It’s a very rich, operational environment with real issues and problems in maritime domain awareness.”

The Navy expects the task force — which is the first of its kind — to draw in allies to collaborate, which will ultimately strengthen the service’s presence in the area, Cooper said. This “really invigorates our partnerships around this particular region as we expand our common operating picture,” he said.

The sea service plans to field more surface and subsurface robotic systems. “We want more eyes on what’s happening out there in addition to the awareness we generate through our manned platforms that continue to patrol the region today,” he said.

However, it is not enough to simply increase the amount of information and raw data coming in, Cooper added. The service will also need to process and store it in real time to determine what information is relevant to missions.

“This is where the AI piece really comes to bear,” he said. “We’ve got to find the means to process all the data and extract the key gems that we need for operational and tactical decision making.”

Navy leadership has directed the service to move quickly in this regard, Cooper said. The standing up of Task Force 59 will allow officials to evaluate systems for real-world applications and to help accelerate technology development and integration across the fleet.

Over the next several months, the task force intends to make headway, including increased integration between unmanned aerial, surface and undersea vehicles, Cooper said. “We will move from a largely aerial unmanned focused [strategy] to a multi-domain focus,” he said.

The service is already planning to showcase technology during a two-week event called IMX 2022 — Fifth Fleet’s largest exercise — which will take place in late January 2022. The effort will demonstrate the Navy’s resolve to maintain freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce throughout the region and to build interoperability between partner nations, according to the service.

“A very significant portion of that will be focused on unmanned,” Cooper said. The Navy has invited representatives from more than 60 countries to participate in the event.

However, before IMX 2022 takes place, the service plans to hold several smaller events. The exercises will include unmanned systems operating by themselves as well as unmanned-manned teaming and platform integration with partner nations, Cooper said.

“It will be very much modeled in an operational environment so that we can quickly roll into a parallel process of developing the operational concepts of using this new technology,” he said.

The task force was designed by a team of experts over the summer during a meeting in Bahrain, said Capt. Michael Brasseur, the task force’s new commodore. It included officials from the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Navy’s program executive office for unmanned and small combatants and representatives from the Imperial College London, he noted.

“A lot of thought … has gone into this and we’re looking forward to executing,” he said.

From the start the Navy has been working with service officials, civilians, industry and academia on the effort, Cooper added.

“We kind of use that multi-helix approach of, ‘How are we going to design something different?’” he said. “We’re trying to get to a different outcome, so the input was different.”

The task force will be closely linked to the Navy’s secretive Project Overmatch, which is the sea service’s contribution to the Defense Department’s joint all-domain command and control effort, Brasseur said. JADC2 is meant to better link sensors and shooters in future battles.

Team members from Project Overmatch were at design meetings for the task force, he noted. “We’ve been clutched in with them all along the way,” he added. “We think we can do a lot of learning over here that can advance that project.”

Topics: Navy News, Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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