New in 2023: Here comes the first-ever surface drone fleet

Send in the sea drones!

Er, or the “unmanned surface vehicles,” in the preferred Big Navy nomenclature.

Either way, 2023 should see the sea service stand up its first ever unmanned surface fleet by the end of the summer.

While the Navy and the U.S. military in general spent much of 2022 focused on the European theater following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not to mention the whole China situation, the Navy’s drone arm has been quietly hard at work in the Middle Eastern waters of U.S. 5th Fleet testing and developing all types of drone platforms.

Task Force 59, stood up in September 2021 to oversee the effort, has in roughly the past year operated surface drones in area waters for more than 25,000 hours, and the Saildrone Explorer in particular logged 220 consecutive days at sea with no refueling or maintenance.

“The pace of innovation is amazing,” Capt. Michael Brasseur, TF 59′s commander, said in a statement. “We are challenging our industry partners in one of the most difficult operational environments, and they are responding with enhanced capability, fast.”

Fifth Fleet held a three-week unmanned and artificial intelligence integration event called Digital Horizon in November, which a command press release billed as a crucial step to integrating new drones ahead of the unmanned surface vessel fleet’s standing up next summer.

Navy boosting USV presence, network capability in Middle East

Such efforts seek to improve what the U.S. and partner navies can see above, below and on the surface of the water.

“By harnessing these new unmanned technologies and combining them with artificial intelligence, we will enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence,” Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, 5th Fleet’s commander, said in a statement. “This benefits everybody.”

The Digital Horizon exercise in November involved 15 different systems, 10 of which were operating among 5th Fleet for the first time.

The event involved two unmanned vertical take-off and landing systems, as well as a bevy of surface drones.