US Navy 4th Fleet ramps up AI and unmanned systems

A US Navy Saildrone operating in the Arabian Gulf (U.S. Navy image)
A US Navy Saildrone operating in the Arabian Gulf (U.S. Navy image)

The US Navy is expanding its use and integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and unmanned systems via a new programme to drive technology adoption in the 4th Fleet, which covers the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans around Central and South America, including the Caribbean Sea and falls under the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). The new programme will support both SOUTHCOM and the Joint Interagency Task Force South, with an impact on countering the narcotics trade, human trafficking and illegal fishing activities.

Disclosed by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro at the 2023 Sea-Air-Space Conference in Maryland earlier this month, the programme follows the success of the 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59 in the Middle East. The task force was stood up in September 2021 to accelerate the Navy’s AI and unmanned system adoption.

Task Force 59 has pioneered the intensive use of unmanned systems and AI, employing surface, undersea and air systems in close collaboration with technology developers. The task force has been able to make great strides in both integrating new technologies into navy operations and integrating the systems of different vendors. In addition, TF59 has developed ways to process volumes of maritime data to support decision making.

However, rather than establish another specialised task force for the 4th Fleet, the Navy has decided on an even more ambitious plan. The new programme will integrate unmanned systems, AI and expertise directly across existing 4th Fleet’s intelligence, operations, planning and manpower. The Navy hopes that the integration throughout its operations will help normalise adoption. Immediate plans include unmanned air systems (UAS), unmanned surface vessels (USVs), expanding the number of sensors in the ocean for data collection and processing that data.

SOUTHCOM already has a reputation for acting as a test bed for new technologies. Unmanned air systems in operation include the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance aircraft and the new Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which was deployed by the 4th Fleet last year (after a less than successful deployment in 2021, during which the UAV crashed into the Littoral Combat Ship USS Charleston!).

Longer term, the 4th Fleet aims to deploy undersea platforms that can be deployed either via torpedo launch from a submarine, or from surface vessels. The Fleet’s first full exercise to test is new AI and unmanned systems will be UNITAS, the annual multinational maritime exercise conducted annually in SOUTHCOM’s area of operations.

by Carrington Malin