ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Operational and environmental challenges in Middle Eastern waters are hindering the pace of innovation around unmanned surface vessels, according to the chief of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
“You bring things out, they look good on a PowerPoint, they look good when they are tested back in the middle of America,” Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said during a panel discussion at the UMEX conference in the United Arab Emirates on Jan. 22. “But when you bring them out in the Middle East and have them operate in the actual waters with the heat and the sand, some don’t work as well.”
The Mideast region is home to several important maritime passages and shipping lanes, each possessing their own characteristics that can make navigating an unmanned vessel challenging.
The Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, for example, is known to have relatively bad visibility year-round due to dust and haze. This may impact the range of vision for a USV while carrying out surveillance.
The Red Sea, which touches Saudi Arabia and Egypt, is characterized by its considerable length of about 1,400 miles; extremely shallow waters, where about 40% of it is less than 100 meters deep; and its business as a vital trade route.
Cooper outlined a recent procurement effort seeking USVs that can operate effectively in such conditions.
“With the Defense Innovation Unit out in Silicon Valley, we essentially said: ‘We’re looking for the very best the world can produce of USVs and [artificial intelligence] and their applications to maritime domain awareness,’ ” he said. “It took about nine days [after solicitation went out] for 107 companies to come in with an input.”
DIU whittled that down to about 15 companies, he added. “We then brought them out here to the region and had them operate in the environment where the systems would ultimately serve. And in the course of doing that, we recognized we’d probably choose winners and losers.”
From these tests, the 15 companies were “very quickly” brought down to seven or eight, Cooper said.
”You’ll see a lot of good concepts in the experimental phase, but then you present them to a larger force and some of these concepts end up dying because they don’t have the power of a legacy acquisition system,” Daniel Baltrusaitis, dean of the National Defense College in the UAE, said during the panel.
Holli Foster, chief technology officer at Task Force 59, identified another difficulty. That U.S.-deployed unit is stationed in Bahrain and serves as a testbed for unmanned and AI innovations.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is applying our systems of systems approach in a complex environment,“ she said. “Fifth Fleet area of responsibility isn’t like testing environments we have stateside — our battlelab environment can quickly prove or disprove capabilities.”
This is not just specific to unmanned systems, she added, “but also includes the communications infrastructure, the integration of data streams and the interoperability with manned assets.”
Other experts noted the speed at which new autonomous capabilities are developed has far outmatched most national acquisition processes, which can further complicate their integration with legacy platforms in military operations.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.