Comment: Navy’s latest task force sailing without onboard crew

Task Force 59’s drones, using artificial intelligence, are on duty monitoring the Arabian Gulf.

By James Stavridis / Bloomberg Opinion

U.S. Navy recently stood up a seagoing task force that it hopes will sail into not just the Arabian Gulf but also the future. The question is whether the service, and the Pentagon as a whole, can put its focus and money into the weapons of tomorrow and not those of the past.

Instead of the traditional collection of destroyers and cruisers, Task Force 59 is outfitted with unmanned vehicles powered by artificial intelligence. It is commanded by Captain Michael “Brasso” Brasseur, whom I met in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks in the Pentagon, which still reeked of smoke and jet fuel. I was a recently promoted rear admiral, in charge of a small group of officers chosen to create new ways of thinking about how to use marine forces in what we would come to call “the global war on terror.”

Known as Deep Blue, our team worked on new alignments of land-attack forces built around amphibious ships; alternating crew arrangements that allowed the Navy to keep ships forward in combat far longer; and integrating naval special forces with our conventional capabilities to fight in a landlocked country, Afghanistan.

One of the most energetic and creative members of that team was young Lieutenant Brasseur. Twenty years later, he is a commodore of a cutting-edge force more capable than anything we imagined after 9/11. We talked recently, and he emphasized how important it is to move these weapons into the field. “We want to accelerate getting these new capabilities in the hands of the operators,” he said. “They are the ultimate innovators because they are closest to the problems.”

His boss, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, emphasizes an international dimension to the mission. “Going forward,” he told me, “we will work closely with our many allies and partners in the region. Like us, they fully recognize the value that unmanned systems can bring to maritime security and deterrence in the region.”

Working with other navies is particularly important, given the inherent complexities of the Gulf. In addition to local U.S. partners — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — U.S. allies from outside the region operate extensively there: a British flag officer is typically a deputy to the U.S. fleet commander in what’s called the Combined Military Forces. It is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with around 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passing through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. And, of course, Iran controls its eastern shore.

Task Force 59 will have various unmanned assets: airborne drones, surface vessels and underwater vehicles. While all the Navy’s “numbered fleets” operate some unmanned vehicles in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean and elsewhere, the Fifth Fleet will have the most capability. Examples cited by Brasseur include the MQ-8B Fire Scout, an autonomous helicopter; the MQ-9B SeaGuardian, a seagoing version of the well-known MQ-9 Reaper; and the unmanned surface vehicles Sea Hunter and Seahawk.

The mission is diverse: develop detailed situational awareness across the Gulf and the waters of the North Arabian Sea; track Iranian air, surface and subsurface platforms; guard against hostile actions by Iranian speedboats; escort manned U.S. and allied vessels, especially commercial tankers; surveil coastal areas of Iran and the offshore islands it claims, while operating from international waters; and conducting oceanographic research.

The advantages of these new technologies go beyond capability in battle. First, they are cost-effective, eliminating the most expensive part of any platform, the crew. They are also in many cases environmentally attractive, using a smaller carbon footprint than full-sized, manned naval vessels and aircraft.

Unfortunately, the Department of Defense remains wedded to big legacy programs: the huge nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines, long-range strategic bombers, and main battle tanks with supporting close-air support helicopter forces. Drones, cyber and AI are still far too small in terms of the budget, and the department must continue to swing focus away from the big contracts and toward the more-nimble systems. The current budget still has less than $20 billion total for cyber, AI and unmanned systems, a tiny fraction of the overall $700 billion or so.

When I was a commodore in the Gulf, I had command of eight destroyers from several different countries. That was a powerful military force in its day. But the new way of war will be increasingly unmanned and supported by AI, and Task Force 59 is well-positioned on the leading edge of 21st century warfare.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”

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