Navy’s 2-year-old robot task force eyes more AI

by Braxton Taylor

Two years ago, the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 59 began its sprint toward a hybrid manned-unmanned fleet, bucking acquisition norms as it wrung out new ideas and new uncrewed systems and passed them to 5th Fleet operators. Now its concepts are spreading to other commands, even as TF59 continues to push new boundaries in AI and other technologies.  

“We have a kind of a startup mentality here,” said Capt. Colin Corridan, the commander of Task Force 59, in an interview with Defense One. “We try to really create an environment where innovation is key, and ideas are coming from every level of the organization, because otherwise I think we would seriously be missing out.”

TF59, which reached full operational capability in January and marked its second birthday last month, has put about 15 types of drones through a total of 55,000 operating hours, Corridan said. It has participated in more than 30 multilateral and bilateral at-sea exercises and six operational deployments around the Arabian Peninsula. 

Most recently, the unit finished a “complex operation” that had crews at sea working alongside unmanned surface, subsurface, and aerial vehicles in the Strait of Hormuz, according to 5th Fleet’s commander, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper.

“Looking ahead, we will continue to apply lessons learned as we increase our operational capabilities through ‘manned-unmanned teaming’ concepts,” Cooper said in an emailed statement.

Corridan said the task force was created to “really get after manned-unmanned teaming, and really becoming much more efficient in the use of our manned assets out here in the Fifth Fleet.”

Rather than design new gear from scratch, the unit focused on more readily available commercial products. 

“We want to grab that stuff, bring it out here, tweak it in our environment right next to the operators who would be using it in this very kind-of-harsh, contested environment. And then see if it meets the mark, and then if it does, or if it needs a little tweaking, we tweak it, and then we deliver it to the operators,” he said.

TF59 generally uses a contractor-owned, contractor-operated, or COCO, acquisition model that provides operators access to new systems and capabilities with far less training of sailors and dealing with logistics. They also set contract lengths that allow them to abandon platforms that no longer meet their needs.

One of the companies that has been with the task force since the beginning is Saildrone, whose unmanned surface vessels can operate for months at a time, radioing surveillance data back to the fleet.

TF59’s “ability to move fast was impressive. And they had some very bold goals as to what they’re going to do in a very short period of time, which for Navy or for [the Department of Defense] is unusual to move that quickly,” said Saildrone CEO Richard Jenkins.

Jenkins said his company had worked with the task force as it “tuned our payloads and our systems to get more data and more high-value data.”

Jenkins also noted that TF59’s real-world operations in an adversarial environment have produced unexpected lessons. Last year, Iranian forces twice tried to capture a few Saildrone USVs before being caught by the U.S. Navy.

“Just lots and lots of things that arise from those incidents that you would never learn from just hypothetically thinking about it,” Jenkins said. “The value of Task Force 59 was not being afraid to get out into the field, in the real world, with the real adversaries, and learn fast.”

TF59’s “biggest success” has been demonstrating that commercial USVs—not just custom Navy-built drones—can be useful for military operations like surveillance in “a challenging environment like the Persian Gulf,” said Bryan Clark, a naval expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“One of the big takeaways from Task Force 59 was how these combinations of vehicles have been able to create their own mesh networks at sea that you can use to support military communication, so ships can use these communication networks as well,” Clark said.

The persistence surveillance of the TF59’s drones has also “made a difference” in the security of the region by cowing traffickers and illegal fishermen, he said.

What’s next

Corridan said they are working to get their artificial intelligence to a point where it can identify items of concern from the drone sensors and raise an alert, allowing a sailor to control up to 100 drones instead of just the “multiples” controlled today.

“So number one, it reduces that cognitive burden. But number two, it allows us the advantage of speed and time. It gives that commander the advantage over the adversary for time,” he said, adding they want to leave “the very reactive state that we’re in right now where we’re just reacting to everything, to get into not only the proactive but the predictive state… where we can start to try to get ahead of any adversaries.”

Corridan said the unit is also working on ways to operate when GPS and current communications methods are unavailable.

The unit’s work is beginning to spread beyond 5th Fleet’s area of operations. In April, the Navy announced that it would apply its lessons to 4th Fleet, which would create a similar effort to monitor illegal fishing and stop human trafficking and drug smuggling around South America.

The Navy also intends to apply TF59’s lessons in the Pacific, Secretary Carlos Del Toro said in April.

For his part, Clark said he wished the Navy had skipped 4th Fleet and brought unmanned experimentation straight to the Pacific Fleet, where environmental conditions and the demands on drones are different.  Pacific applications will likely focus less on surveillance than effects: “targeting, combat identification, and then kinetic or electronic warfare maybe,” he said, citing conversations with Pacific Fleet officials for his recent study on unmanned systems.

Clark said this will likely mean moving away from TF59’s contractor-owned model. 

“One of the problems that 5th Fleet identified was, if we want to take this model and apply it to military missions, we’d have to probably have them be government-owned,” he said.

In the next few years, Clark said, he hopes to see a “bifurcation” of TF59’s work, with ISR missions shifting to regional partners and the Combined Maritime Force, and the Navy taking on transforming the drones for military operations.



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