WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has begun a major exercise in the Middle East that both brings in 60 regional navies to rehearse operating together and introduces unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence to test their contributions at sea.

The combined International Maritime Exercise 2022 and Cutlass Express 2022, which runs from Jan. 31 through Feb. 17, is the biggest opportunity yet for the newly created Task Force 59, which falls under the purview of U.S. 5th Fleet and was designed to experiment with and demonstrate unmanned and AI technologies in the maritime domain.

The event will combine 9,000 personnel, 50 ships and about 80 unmanned systems to conduct maritime domain awareness, sea control, maritime security, mine countermeasures and other related missions.

The exercise covers a vast regional area: the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and North Indian Ocean, which span both U.S. 5th Fleet’s and U.S. 6th Fleet’s areas of operations. Participants are split into four exercise task groups in the north, east, south and west. A fifth task group in the exercise, Task Force X, covers the unmanned and AI systems undergoing testing and is partnering with the other four so that unmanned systems can be involved in all the scenarios across geographies.

Notably, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are participating in the maritime exercise; those two countries have not normalized diplomatic relations, despite some surrounding neighbors formally recognizing Israel under the Abraham Accords.

Cmdr. Tom McAndrew, the exercise planner for unmanned systems and AI integration, told reporters in a Feb. 2 media call that AI and machine learning were integrated in the bulk of the events that would take place.

Though he said he couldn’t provide specific details for security reasons, he did note that a major theme is AI and ML in support of maritime domain awareness. For example, a task group commander might have access to a lot of imagery — from sensors on ships and aircraft, from unmanned systems, from public access cameras, social media and more — but the images alone don’t necessarily create a clear picture of what’s happening in the operating area. AI and ML tools can help collect the images and process them into something the commander can use to make informed decisions.

Additionally, he cited search and rescue as one topic that would be covered in the exercise and could benefit from unmanned systems and AI tools. Unmanned systems, especially when fielded in large numbers and employed on a continuous basis, can search the water faster and more accurately than manned platforms, McAndrew said, and some platforms can assist the rescuee until a manned ship or aircraft arrives.

Not all the participating nations and organizations are bringing unmanned systems, he said, but all will be exposed to them and what they can contribute to routine maritime missions. A Navy news release stated that 10 nations are bringing unmanned air, surface and undersea systems.

Cmdr. Kenyatta Martin, the lead exercise planner for International Maritime Exercise, said during the same call that the drill is being held at an unclassified level so all participants can practice sending and receiving data in the simplest way. In the coming years, he said, future operations or exercises could start to incorporate unmanned systems and AI tools in the collection and sharing of classified information.

Martin said planning for the exercise started in December 2020, and the unmanned portion wasn’t added in until about halfway through the planning process, meaning the fundamentals of the exercise, its organization and the scenarios weren’t designed with the new technology in mind. But the unmanned system and AI tools laid in nicely, he said.

“Once we did incorporate the unmanned systems [as] part of the exercise, it was quite a bit of interest from our partner nations to participate — and not just on a level of curiosity [and observing only], but a level of integration and participation with the knowledge of this unmanned and AI being a part of the coalition force,” he added.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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