Missile launches from drone boats signal lethal evolution of Navy’s unmanned fleet
Stars and Stripes November 3, 2023
Navy drone boats participating in a recent Middle East exercise fired lethal munitions for the first time, as sailors from the 5th Fleet deployed the vessels in a way not seen before.
Footage of the Digital Talon exercise released Thursday by the Navy shows an unmanned speedboat launching missiles off the Arabian Peninsula on Oct. 23.
“We took a significant step forward and advanced our capability to the next level,” Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the 5th Fleet commander, said in a statement Thursday.
The 5th Fleet has used drone boats extensively in the Middle East for surveillance over the past two years, but the use of lethal weaponry in the exercise moves the Navy “beyond just maritime domain awareness,” Cooper said.
During Digital Talon, unmanned surveillance drones and crewed ships worked together to find and destroy orange target boats. Then, a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray unmanned speedboat launched missiles at the targets, scoring direct hits each time, the statement said.
A sailor at an operations center in Bahrain was in charge of firing the missiles, and Special Operations Forces Central Command also took part in the exercise, the statement said.
Future exercises will expand the number of combat-capable unmanned systems, Cooper said in the Navy statement.
In 2021, the Navy created a unit known as Task Force 59 to focus on developing drones and artificial intelligence for 5th Fleet operations.
Navy officials have said they aim to rely more on unmanned vessels aided by AI to patrol Middle East waterways, through which much of the world’s trade transits.
These unmanned boats have been used for ship surveillance in the Strait of Hormuz amid an increase in naval patrols over the summer, after the U.S. accused Iran of harassing civilian shipping.
In September, unmanned underwater boats and aerial drones shadowed Iranian ships and small boats during these patrols, the Navy said.
Iran has gained prominence for its own unmanned technology, specifically the aerial drones it is supplying to Russia for the war in Ukraine.
In the Middle East, Iran is smuggling weapons to militant groups around the region, according to the Navy, which has seized some of these shipments.
Iran seized Navy drone boats twice in 2022. In both instances, the drones were released as U.S. warships neared, the Navy said.
Analysts say the U.S. and Iran have been locked in a shadow war, with Washington’s allies clashing with militant groups backed and funded by Tehran.