The commander of 5th Fleet last week said the Navy is expanding unmanned operations under his command, leading up to the largest unmanned exercise in the world later this month.

“Two weeks from now…we’ll be commencing IMX 22, International Maritime Exercise ‘22. It’s our largest exercise, biannual exercise, 60 nations participating, pretty remarkable. 10 of those nations are bringing unmanned platforms. It’ll be the largest unmanned exercise in the world,” Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of 5th Fleet and Naval Forces Central Command, said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion on Jan. 14.

He said it is the result of progress made in Task Force 59, which was

stood up last September to help test and integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into the Navy (Defense Daily, Sept. 9, 2021).

The 5th Fleet area of operations includes the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Red Sea.

Last October, the Navy said the Task Force was conducting a series of smaller experiments and operations leading up to IMX 22, the fleet’s largest exercise. It conducted exercise New Horizon on Oct. 26, an initial at-sea evolution of Task Force 59 with both U.S. and Bahrain maritime forces (Defense Daily, Oct. 27, 2021).

Cooper noted the group has two hubs currently, “one out of Bahrain where we’ve worked with the Bahrainis both unilaterally and bilaterally, another hub in Jordan, again unilaterally and bilaterally. And we’re really resetting benchmarks of what we thought was possible.”

“I’ll give you an example. The drones that we have operating out of Aqaba have been at sea for 33 straight days. They’re really redefining what persistence means in the maritime environment. So we’re really excited about that.”

Cooper said the Navy needs to work both these kinds of lanes: international partnerships and innovations. 

He noted before Task Force 59 began, 5th Fleet brought together a team from 14 different organizations, including experts from both the military and private sector, on unmanned systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Boy, that really postured us for success. We came out of that in a much better position, a great trajectory…That ground has largely stayed intact.”

“The pace that we’ve been able to move at is going to result in IMX validating about 14 different [concepts of operations], unimaginable a few months ago, and then shifting into a more operational mode into the future,” Cooper said.

He also noted on the industry side, the Task Force is using off-the-shelf technology focusing on Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs), including the 23-foot long wind-powered Saildrone Explorer that travels at an average of three knots and endurance of over 365 days as well as the MARTEC Mantas T12 12-foot long USV operating out of Bahrain.

“We’re taking off-the-shelf emerging technology in unmanned, coupling with artificial intelligence and machine learning, in really moving at pace to bring new capabilities to the region. I think in 2022, we’re going to see continued efforts in this regard into the operational realm and impacting operations”

 “Where I see us going is beyond our wildest expectation and I give credit to everybody involved,” Cooper added.