NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The U.S. Navy will expand its work with unmanned and artificial intelligence tools into U.S. 4th Fleet, following the success of Task Force 59 in the Middle East.

The secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations announced the expansion into Central and South America during a presentation at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference Tuesday in National Harbor, Maryland, saying the unmanned capability would make its debut in July at the annual UNITAS exercise.

“The 4th Fleet area of operations provides us with an environment best suited to operationalize the concepts Task Force 59 has worked tirelessly to develop to increase our maritime domain awareness capabilities,” Secretary Carlos Del Toro said at the lunchtime speech.

He told attendees that the move would support the 4th Fleet, U.S. Southern Command and the Joint Interagency Task Force South as they seek to crack down on narcotics and human trafficking and what Del Toro called the economic and ecological impact of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by China.

CNO Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters after the event that while the Navy stood up a formal task force in U.S. 5th Fleet to experiment with unmanned and AI technologies alongside regional partners, the Navy chose to try a different command structure here. Rather than create a task force underneath 4th Fleet, this effort will instead incorporate unmanned and AI tech — and the vast information that they’ll collect and analyze for operators — within existing offices at 4th Fleet, such as intelligence, operations, plans and manpower.

By doing this, he said, the Navy is further “normalizing” these advanced technologies.

U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro speaks at a Sea-Air-Space conference luncheon in National Harbor, Maryland, on April 4, 2023.

Task Force 59, created in September 2021, combined persistent unmanned systems for surveillance, high-speed unmanned systems to respond to problems and AI and machine learning tools to make sense of the significant quantity of data generated by the dozens of unmanned platforms. In just one year, this led to a mesh network capable of putting eyes and ears across most of the 5th Fleet area of operations, allowing manned vessels to more smartly focus their activities based on what the unmanned network was seeing.

A key to the success of Task Force 59 has been the number of inexpensive commercial systems put into the water, plus the number of partner nations willing to join in the effort. The task force is on track to have 100 systems by this summer. A recent exercise, the International Maritime Exercise, included 35 manned ships and 30 unmanned and artificial intelligence systems from more than 50 nations and international organizations.

Del Toro and Gilday did not discuss how many systems or which ones would be in the water this summer for UNITAS, nor did they specify which or how many countries may participate. Gilday said the event would include air and surface platforms but noted “we’re still lining those up” and didn’t want to name any vendors.

Real-world missions

Whereas Task Force 59 has focused on how to best leverage the unmanned and AI systems, Gilday said this effort in 4th Fleet would allow the Navy to learn more even as the systems contribute to real-world missions to help the U.S. and its neighbors. The benign environment is appealing as the Navy looks to expand unmanned operations out of 5th Fleet, with Del Toro and Gilday saying they may start small — focused on just the Caribbean basin, for example — and then increase the scope of the work as 4th Fleet learns more.

Experiments would also include looking at the concept of a mothership to host short-range unmanned systems. The Navy has in the past used 4th Fleet as a testbed for experimentation with expeditionary fast transport ships, littoral combat ships and more, as the service has sought to work through potential missions and concepts even while providing presence in a fleet that does not have any ships permanently operating there.

Del Toro said Mexico in particular is building up a drone manufacturing capability and that the U.S. Navy has been in touch with its Mexican counterparts to discuss how they could work together on unmanned platforms and in fielding them in 4th Fleet.

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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