In an era where the future of military operations is increasingly intertwined with technology and innovation, the United States Navy’s Task Force 59 (TF59) has emerged as a trailblazer, revolutionizing naval operations by embracing a hybrid manned-unmanned fleet.
Two years since its inception, TF59 has marked significant milestones and set a precedent for innovation and experimentation that is now spreading to other naval commands.
A Startup Mentality in the Navy
“We have a kind of a startup mentality here,” stated Captain Colin Corridan, the commander of Task Force 59, during an interview with Defense One.
This innovative approach creates an environment where ideas flourish, and innovation takes center stage. Capt. Corridan emphasized the importance of soliciting ideas from every level of the organization, fostering a culture where innovation is paramount.
Task Force 59 reached full operational capability in January, marking its second anniversary in the previous month. During this period, TF59 has put approximately 15 types of drones through a rigorous testing regime, accumulating an impressive total of 55,000 operating hours.
These unmanned systems have not remained confined to the drawing board, as TF59 participated in more than 30 multilateral and bilateral at-sea exercises and six operational deployments in the challenging Arabian Peninsula region.
One of the latest achievements to grab headlines was a “complex operation” involving sea crews working in collaboration with unmanned surface, subsurface, and aerial vehicles in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically vital waterway. This operation, according to the 5th Fleet’s commander, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, showcased the effectiveness of the “manned-unmanned teaming” concept to which TF59 has been dedicated.
“Looking ahead, we will continue to apply lessons learned as we increase our operational capabilities through ‘manned-unmanned teaming’ concepts,” Cooper said in a statement, reflecting TF59’s goal of optimizing the use of manned assets within the Fifth Fleet, ensuring their efficiency.
Innovating with Commercial Products
Instead of creating new equipment from scratch, TF59 has adopted a practical approach, focusing on 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,” said Corridan.
This method allows for quicker development and adaptation to real-world requirements.
One of the notable companies working with TF59 is Saildrone, which has been a partner from the beginning.
Saildrone’s unmanned surface vessels have been deployed to operate for extended periods, collecting and relaying valuable surveillance data to the Fleet.
Richard Jenkins, CEO of Saildrone, praised TF59 for its rapid and bold goals and noted that real-world operations in an adversarial environment have provided invaluable lessons.
Furthermore, Jenkins mentioned instances where Iranian forces attempted to capture Saildrone’s unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), leading to unexpected insights that could not have been gained through hypothetical scenarios.
TF59’s success has demonstrated that commercial unmanned surface vessels can play a vital role in military operations, especially in challenging regions like the Persian Gulf.
Bryan Clark, a naval expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, noted that one of the significant takeaways from TF59 was the ability of these vehicles to create mesh networks at sea, enhancing military communication and security.
The persistent surveillance carried out by TF59’s drones has also positively impacted regional security by deterring illegal activities such as trafficking and illegal fishing. Clark emphasized the profound effect this has had on the security of the region.
What Lies Ahead: The Future of Unmanned Surface Vessels
Captain Corridan highlighted some developments that TF59 is currently working on, including improving artificial intelligence to identify items of concern from drone sensors and raise alerts.
This advancement will allow a single sailor to control up to 100 drones, significantly reducing the cognitive burden while gaining a time advantage over potential adversaries. The aim is to transition from a reactive state to a proactive and predictive state.
Likewise, TF59 is exploring ways to operate in environments where Global Positioning System (GPS) and conventional communication methods may not be available, ensuring adaptability to various scenarios.
The impact of TF59 is not limited to the Fifth Fleet’s area of operations.
In April, the Navy announced plans to apply the lessons learned by TF59 to the Fourth Fleet. This expansion aims to address issues like illegal fishing, human trafficking, and drug smuggling around South America.
The Navy also intends to extend TF59’s innovative approach to the Pacific Fleet. Secretary Carlos Del Toro revealed this plan in April, emphasizing the potential to apply the TF59 model to different environmental conditions and drone demands. This expansion to the Pacific will likely shift the focus from surveillance to effects, including targeting, combat identification, and potentially kinetic or electronic warfare.
Bryan Clark noted that this expansion could lead to a change in the contractor-owned model used by TF59 to government-owned assets for military missions.
He described this as a “bifurcation” of TF59’s work, where ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) missions may shift to regional partners and the Combined Maritime Force – while the Navy transforms drones for military operations.
In summary, Task Force 59’s journey over the past two years has been marked by innovation, adaptability, and a startup mentality that has changed the landscape of naval operations. Their pioneering work is now expanding to other fleets and promises to further shape the future of military technology and operations. As technology advances, the lessons learned from TF59 serve as a testament to the US Navy’s commitment to staying ahead in an ever-evolving world of maritime warfare.