The U.S. Navy is looking at using artificial intelligence paired with unmanned vessels to solve its most urgent fleet readiness challenges in some of the most consequential theaters to the intensifying peer competition.
In recent months, the service has made notable strides forward in exploring how AI and unmanned or minimally manned vessels can be strategically deployed during this decisive decade.
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AI in the 4th Fleet & SOCOM
Today, the Navy is testing out AI-powered unmanned ships in the 4th Fleet region, which encompasses the U.S. Southern Command and the Caribbean. The effort builds upon the Navy’s unmanned experimentation work in its 5th fleet, or the Middle East region.
According to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, a 2023 Wash100 Award winner, unmanned experimentation in the 4th Fleet will be essential to increasing maritime domain awareness, or MDA, and outpacing the country’s closest competitors in critical areas.
“The MDA technologies and platforms we are bringing to the region will address several significant challenges. These include narcotics and human trafficking, as well as economic and ecological harm caused by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which the People’s Republic of China participates in through their distant water fishing fleets,” Del Toro said at the 2023 Sea Air Space conference, Federal News Network reported.
“The sustained presence of these unmanned platforms provide us with the endurance and reach necessary to complement the activities of our manned platforms, freeing them up for other missions,” he added.
The 4th Fleet is expected to begin deploying these capabilities in July 2023.
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, added, “We think we have a responsibility to defend and to watch over the maritime approaches to North America, and arguably right now, given the size of the fleet we have and the global responsibilities that we must attend to, we think unmanned takes it to another level,” explaining that this capability provides an “unblinking eye” in that area of responsibility.
The Role of Uncrewed Systems in Gilday’s Navigation Plan
Adm. Gilday’s recent Navigation Plan update outlined a fleet of 373 manned ships and 150 uncrewed vessels, which he envisions could have command and control, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.
“That kind of work is happening now,” Gilday revealed at the West 2023 conference in February, and it will help the force have a stronger presence in areas that currently lack manpower, C4ISRNET reported.
“We’re getting to the point, probably within the next four or five years, where we’ll begin to deploy unmanned platforms with carrier strike groups… And the idea is that we need more ships, we need more. We need to distribute ourselves across the Pacific Ocean and across the globe,” said Gilday.
“We can do that faster and, we think, more effectively by having a combination of manned and unmanned,” he continued.
Looking Toward the Future
At a recent Navy League event, Gilday touted the service’s more than 50,000 nautical miles of transit in an autonomous mode and highlighted the technology’s ability to execute simple transit missions. However, there is still work to be done in using AI for more complex missions, he said.
“It’s a whole other level… to give an unmanned vessel a mission and then have that vessel report back, mission complete. So this is going to be an iterative process,” Gilday shared.
“We need to go slow to go fast, if you will. It has to be very deliberate, with a great deal of respect for AI. And we still have a lot to learn.”