AI is now transforming warfare with its autonomous capabilities.

AI is now transforming warfare with its autonomous capabilities.

The Rise of Robot Armadas: Pioneering the Future of Naval Warfare

A fleet of robot ships floats gracefully in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, situated between Bahrain and Qatar. They are participating in an exercise organized by Task Force 59, a division within the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, focused on integrating robotics and artificial intelligence into naval operations. This exercise brings together a variety of unmanned platforms, from surface vessels to submersibles and aerial drones, all equipped with cutting-edge technology that will serve as the fleet’s distributed eyes and ears.

As I observe the robot fleet from the deck of a US Coast Guard speedboat, I am captivated by their diversity in design. From solar-powered kayaks to surfboard-like vessels, each machine is purpose-built for its specific task. These robots possess no biological needs or desires, unlike our human need for shade on this scorching December day. The robots are impervious to the heat, tirelessly fulfilling their missions.

Through cameras, radar, and hydrophones, the uncrewed platforms monitor the ocean’s surface and underwater activities, employing pattern-matching algorithms to differentiate between oil tankers and potential smugglers. A particular surfboard-style vessel, known as the Triton, catches my attention as it abruptly folds down its sail and disappears into the water. This stealth feature would have proven useful when Iranian warships recently seized non-submersible autonomous vessels. Thankfully, the Triton can remain submerged for days before resurfacing to recharge and transmit data.

Leaving the robot fleet behind, I return to the Coast Guard cutter’s docking bay and make my way to the upper deck. As we sail back to base in Manama, Bahrain, I engage in a conversation with the crew. I’m eager to discuss the heavy use of drones in the war in Ukraine. However, the crew informs me that they lack information about the situation due to their focus on the Gulf region. Instead, we delve into topics like AI image generators and the impact of artificial intelligence on civilian society. Little do we know that OpenAI’s recent launch of ChatGPT 504 is about to send shockwaves through the internet.

Back at base, I visit the Robotics Operations Center (ROC), where the sensors of the distributed platforms are monitored. Captain Michael Brasseur, the head of Task Force 59, guides me through the center, explaining how data from the unmanned systems is fused and analyzed using AI and machine learning. The monitors display suspicious vessels flagged by the AI, prompting further investigation. Brasseur showcases a new interface that streamlines multiple tasks, such as viewing camera feeds and directing drones. Although the autonomous systems are currently limited to sensing and detection, their potential for armed intervention is evident. One autonomous speedboat, the Seagull, developed by Israeli defense firm Elbit Systems, can hunt mines and submarines while also equipped with remotely operated machine guns and torpedoes. Brasseur, with a smile, jokingly emphasizes the importance of human oversight to avoid triggering World War III.

The progression from unarmed to armed autonomous systems is a short leap, mostly involving the interchange of payloads and software modifications. It is a concerning reality that autonomous systems capable of lethal actions exist globally. In future conflicts, the temptation to remove human oversight and allow machines to fight at machine speed will undoubtedly arise. In this AI-driven war, only humans will pay the ultimate price. The question arises: what goes through the minds of those who develop these machines?

Autonomous technology has been a part of the US military for decades, focusing on specific functions within controlled environments. However, in 2014, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work recognized the need for more capable autonomous technology to maintain military dominance. Work’s inquiry led to the identification of AI-enabled autonomy as a critical area for development and innovation. Nevertheless, integrating AI into military operations faced various challenges, including political obstacles and public backlash.

Michael Stewart, an officer overseeing the US fleet’s combat systems, recognized the need for rapid integration of robotics and AI. Inspired by concepts from Harvard Business School, where he learned about disruptive innovation, Stewart sought an unconventional approach. The Unmanned Campaign Framework, co-authored by Stewart and colleagues, proposed a nimble, experimentation-driven strategy to adopt autonomous systems at a lower cost. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper of the Fifth Fleet embraced Stewart’s ideas and assisted in establishing Task Force 59.

Task Force 59 recognized the potential of leasing and modifying existing autonomous systems, significantly reducing expenses compared to traditional shipbuilding. By using AI-driven software, they could generate a cohesive network of unmanned systems to maintain maritime security and enhance operational visibility. The complex waters under the task force’s jurisdiction, plagued by illegal fishing and smuggling, amplify the need for these autonomous platforms.

During the formation of Task Force 59, the situation in the Gulf region intensified. Iran’s aggressive attacks on commercial vessels prompted a desire for increased capabilities. However, it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that sparked widespread interest in autonomous technology. The heightened demand for autonomy from military officials and government agencies like Task Force 59 prompted a shift in their timelines and priorities.

Shield AI, a leading defense startup in San Diego, plays a crucial role in advancing autonomous technology for naval operations. Their V-BAT, an aerial drone with an upside-down T shape, is both compact and efficient. However, the true breakthrough lies in Shield AI’s AI pilot, Hivemind. The V-BATs, guided by Hivemind, autonomously navigate and complete missions as a team, demonstrating the power of swarm intelligence.

Hivemind’s ability to identify simulated wildfires highlights its dynamic decision-making capabilities. Other sub-algorithms within Hivemind can be tailored to identify various targets, transforming the V-BATs into a versatile toolset for modern maritime operations. Shield AI is not limiting Hivemind to the skies; they aim to integrate the AI pilot into fighter jets and ground-level quadcopters for mapping purposes.

While the potential of autonomous systems seems promising, it is essential to acknowledge the risks and ethical concerns they present. Machine-learning algorithms, despite their incredible abilities, can be unpredictable and inscrutable. They can exhibit biases and make errors, raising questions of responsibility in the event of a deadly mistake.

The path towards autonomous naval warfare is still unfolding, and the implications are profound. Although crewed vessels will continue to outnumber their uncrewed counterparts for the foreseeable future, the rise of robot armadas represents our move into uncharted territory. A safer world with autonomous drones assisting humans in conflict prevention could be on the horizon, but there is a lurking danger of highly coordinated attack swarms. The robots are indeed sailing toward the future, but only time will reveal the true path they will follow.

Images courtesy of Julien Gobled and Getty Images.