WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy leveraged air and surface drones throughout its two-week UNITAS 2023 naval exercise near Latin America, the first major event since service leadership announced the region would host the sea service’s second unmanned operations hub.

Following successful unmanned and artificial intelligence systems’ operations in the Middle East through Task Force 59, the Navy announced in April that a similar construct would come to naval forces in Central and South America — the area of responsibility for U.S. Southern Command.

The goal, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said, was to use unmanned systems to create better maritime domain awareness in the region and to flag potential problems — such as illegal fishing and trafficking — for the limited number of crewed ships and aircraft able to respond.

Rear Adm. Jim Aiken, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet, told reporters in a Thursday call that information from unmanned aerial systems and surface vessels were fed into the common operating picture and helped inform UNITAS missions. The event lasted 11 days.

During a sinking exercise, for example, the unmanned systems provided surveillance beforehand, range clearance just before missiles started flying, target identification as a last step before anti-ship missiles were launched, and then battle damage assessment afterward to measure the strikes’ effectiveness in sinking the target ship at sea.

Aiken said the integration was mature enough that a live video feed from one of the unmanned systems was piped into the watch floor in Cartagena, Colombia, and at sea on the flagship of the event, Peruvian Navy ship Pisco. Both staffs could watch the same images of the sinking exercise live.

Aiken said his goal wasn’t to experiment with new unmanned and artificial intelligence tools, but rather to learn how to operationalize proven systems through weekslong and monthslong operations at sea.

Some of the same systems will return this fall for operations and exercises in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean, he added.

Cmdr. David Edwards, 4th Fleet director of technology and innovation, said his directorate, known as N9, fully incorporated unmanned and hybrid systems into the normal battle rhythm to ensure they’re used as part of daily missions instead of kept separate as an experimental novelty.

In this way, the planning staff can see how the crewed and uncrewed systems’ strengths and weaknesses come together, and can learn to create the best force packages for various missions in theater.

For example, according to Aiken, Colombian Navy Commander Adm. Francisco Hernando Cubides Granados said his fleet has several extremely fast ships, which far surpass even the fastest U.S. ship at 60 knots — but the Colombian Navy is wearing out the readiness of these ships by sending them on patrols without a clear destination in mind.

If the U.S. Navy can replicate what it achieved in Task Force 59 — more than 100 unmanned systems that pool their data via a mesh network that compiles a detailed common operating picture of the region — then AI tools could help flag areas where potentially problematic activities are happening.

The fast Colombian ships could then scramble to intercept a specific ship, rather than trawling the area in the hopes of stumbling upon a bad actor.

Aiken said 4th Fleet has set up the Minotaur mission control system to integrate video and data feeds from unmanned vehicles, similar to what was done in Task Force 59. Though 4th Fleet isn’t looking to copy exactly from that playbook, Aiken explained, he’s worked extensively with leadership from the Task Force 59, the Unmanned Task Force at the Pentagon as well as U.S. Pacific Fleet, and that those leaders were on hand for UNITAS to share insights.

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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