U.S. Conducts Exercise Preparing for First Unmanned Surface Fleet

unmanned US Navy exercise
Saildrone is one of the unmanned technologies the U.S. 5th Fleet is deploying (US Navy photo)

Published Nov 24, 2022 12:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy is on track to establish the world’s first unmanned surface vessel fleet by end of next summer. As the next step in the efforts, the U.S. 5th Fleet is commencing a three-week unmanned and artificial intelligence integration event in Bahrain that will involve employing new platforms in the region for the first time.

The event, called Digital Horizon, started on November 23 and according to Navy command will advance the efforts to integrate new unmanned technologies. The U.S. 5th Fleet reports that its efforts are focused on improving what U.S. and regional navies are able to see above, on, and below the water.

“I am excited about the direction we are headed,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces. “By harnessing these new unmanned technologies and combining them with artificial intelligence, we will enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence.”

Cooper established a staff called Task Force 59 in September 2021 to speed new tech integration across U.S. 5th Fleet. Since its launch, the task force has deployed a suite of new unmanned systems from operational hubs in Bahrain and Aqaba, Jordan.

Over the past year, Task Force 59 operated USVs in regional waters for more than 25,000 hours, which according to the Navy equates to 12 years of nine-to-five testing five days a week. The Saildrone Explorer USV in particular has operated at sea for as long as 220 consecutive days without refueling or maintenance.

The Navy has highlighted its use of the Saildrones in the region, but it has also caught the attention of others including the Iranians. In August, the U.S. Navy stopped the Iranians when they attempted to tow a Saildrone operating in the Arabian Gulf. Days later, Iran briefly captured the unmanned vessel and took it aboard one of its ships before returning it to the water.


Unmanned technologies prepared for deployment during the three-week exercise (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)


“The pace of innovation is amazing,” said Capt. Michael Brasseur, commander of Task Force 59. “We are challenging our industry partners in one of the most difficult operational environments, and they are responding with enhanced capability.”

The U.S. 5th Fleet reports the new exercise Digital Horizon will include 17 industry partners bringing 15 different types of unmanned systems, 10 of which will operate with the U.S. 5th Fleet for the first time. Among the different technologies to be deployed during the three weeks are two vertical take-off and landing systems, Aerovel’s Flexrotor and Shield AI’s V-BAT as well as Easy Aerial’s tethered UAV. The unmanned surface vessels will include the Elbit Systems Seagull, Exail DriX, L3Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13, Marine Advanced Robotics WAM-V, MARTAC T-38 Devil Ray, Ocean Aero TRITON, Open Ocean Robotics Data Xplorer, Saildrone Explorer, Seasats X3 and SeaTrac SP-48.  

NAVCENT is headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, and includes maritime forces operating in the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean. The area of operation includes three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and Bab al-Mandeb.