Navy’s Task Force 59 To Keep Tabs On Iran With Armada Of Drones

TF59 and its regional allies hope to deploy a fleet of 100 unmanned vessels by this summer as it works toward building a ‘Digital Ocean.’

byEmma Helfrich|
NAVCENT's unmanned AI Task Force 59
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth


The U.S. Naval Forces Central Command’s Task Force 59 began as an idea in a two-page white paper published 17 months ago, The War Zone learned in an interview with Commander Timothy Hawkins, force public affairs officer for U.S. 5th Fleet located in Bahrain. The command recognized the vast and dynamic nature of the Middle East’s maritime environment, and with that, the ways unmanned systems and artificial intelligence-enabled tech could be leveraged to more persistently monitor the tumultuous region. Then, in September 2021, Naval Forces Central Command officially stood up Task Force 59 to do just that. 

Also based in Bahrain, which is situated on the Persian Gulf, Task Force 59 is the first Navy unit of its kind. This has made it so officials are treating its establishment as a clear investment in the future of unmanned and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, like unmanned surface vessels (USV) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). 

Two unmanned surface vessels, a Devil Ray T-38 and a Saildrone Explorer, operate in the Gulf of Aqaba, Sept. 10, during Eager Lion 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy

The team of roughly 20 is led by their commodore, Capt. Michael D. Brasseur, who himself has a history in maritime robotics. Task Force 59 has now been operating with Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and U.S. 5th Fleet for well over a year, and they have several military exercises under their belts to show for it. 

“The bottom line on why we’re doing this is so that we can develop and integrate unmanned systems and AI as a means to do two things,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of NAVCENT, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces in September 2021. “One, enhance our maritime domain awareness, and two, increase deterrence.”

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, left, commander of NAVCENT, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, shakes hands with Capt. Michael D. Brasseur, commodore of Task Force during a commissioning ceremony for the unit. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth

The NAVCENT and 5th Fleet command, which falls under the larger Central Command (CENTCOM) umbrella, is expansive. Its area of responsibility (AOR) broadly encompasses nearly 2.5 million square miles of water including the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean, along with being comprised of 21 countries. With these areas being hotspots for adversarial activities, ensuring that the Navy can maintain vigilance over these regional waters at all times is an overarching goal of NAVCENT/5th Fleet that Task Force 59 is being called upon to address.

While its CENTCOM counterparts — the Army’s Task Force 39 and the Air Force’s Task Force 99 — have been recently established to experiment with unmanned and AI-powered systems in their respective land and air domains, Task Force 59 will focus on what’s occurring above, on, and below the surface of the ocean. In doing so, all three units will take full advantage of CENTCOM’s geographical disposition in their innovations, using the AOR’s hot, sandy, and salty climate to push the boundaries of every new platform or weapon system they receive from industry.

Map of U.S. CENTCOM's area of responsibility. Credit: CENTCOM

Through fostering this "culture of innovation," as CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Kurilla has described it, Task Forces 59, 39, and 99 are aiming to emphasize how pivotal it can be to experiment with readily available technologies in the field. Partnering with regional allies, industry, and academia, especially during military exercises, has also been key in facilitating these efforts, with Task Force 59 having just last February completed the largest unmanned maritime exercise in the world at the time. 

But there’s no one better to explain exactly what Task Force 59 hopes to achieve than Hawkins himself.

Marines assigned to the All Domain Reconnaissance Detachment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, operate a MANTAS T12 USV during training with Task Force 59 at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Oct. 28, 2022. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Seth Rosenberg

TWZ: How did Task Force 59 come to be?

HAWKINS: The genesis really is with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper. When he took over, he saw an opportunity to really explore how we could leverage new technologies, particularly unmanned and AI, to enhance our visibility of the regional waters. 

And if you are familiar with the Middle East, and I know many people are not, it's vast, and it's very, very dynamic. We're talking 5,000 miles of coastline, stretching from the Suez Canal down the Red Sea, through the Bab al Mandab Strait, around the Arabian Peninsula, and up into the Arabian Gulf.

That's 5,000 miles of coastline, and there's typically a lot of activity just off the coasts. That's why when we talk about just that distance around the Arabian Peninsula and the fact that all these countries border it, it's an incredibly large distance. 

Then you couple that with the fact that these waters are critical to the global economy, with sea lanes in the Middle East connecting Europe, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific. They're among the world's most heavily trafficked [waters], with three strategic choke points being the Suez Canal, Bab al Mandab, and the Strait of Hormuz. So, the two-page white paper really called for the staff to explore what's in the art of the possible, and so Cooper gathered the best minds, if you will, on the topic of unmanned and AI. 

A map of the strategic shipping lanes in the Middle East. Credit: Energy Information Administration, World Oil Transit Chokepoints & BP Statistical Review of World Energy

These were experts not just from the military, but also academia. And they all gathered in Bahrain, and during that meeting was born a recommendation to stand up a dedicated staff. That's what Task Force 59 became just months later. 

Task Force 59 is responsible for leading the U.S. fleet integration of new unmanned systems and AI into our regional operations. That's their charge.

TWZ: We know Task Force 59 has been around for about a year longer than its Army and Air Force counterparts, so tell me what it’s been like blazing that trail. What was learned from being the first CENTCOM innovation task force, and how did you help CENTCOM apply those lessons learned to the formation of the Army’s Task Force 39 and the Air Force’s Task Force 99?

HAWKINS: First of all, standing up a unit is not new to any of these military commands. They stand up different organizations and units all the time. So, it's not as if it's a heavy lift in that regard. And when you stand something up, you're putting a staff together and all of that can be unique to those organizations and their cultures. 

So, I'm not going to speak to what lessons they may have applied in standing up their organizations, but I will say that [for Task Force 59] over the past 15 months, that path has included 11 bilateral maritime exercises, and three major international exercises, including in February last year, which was the, at the time, largest unmanned maritime exercise ever conducted in the world. 

And then again, over the past 15 months, over 30,000 hours of safely operating unmanned surface vessels in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula. That's what we have accomplished. As a matter of fact, just yesterday, Admiral Cooper publicly declared Task Force 59 as having achieved full operational capability. 

Saildrone Explorer USVs operate with USS Delbert D. Black, HMS Bangor, HMS Chiddingfold, and USCGC Robert Goldman in the Arabian Gulf during exercise Phantom Scope, Oct. 7, 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Roland Franklin

It's a major milestone to achieve just 15 months after Task Force 59 was established. What began as a two-page white paper, this task force is now fully staffed and ready to accomplish the tasks and missions assigned. And in this case, bringing in new, emerging unmanned systems and artificial intelligence, applying them to daily fleet operations, and specifically, enhancing what our forces and our partner forces can see above, on, and below the surrounding waters.

TWZ: What would you say is the biggest threat facing the combatant command that TF 59 can help confront? What unique problems does NAVCENT’s AOR present compared to other AORs? What unique opportunities does it provide?

HAWKINS: I'm not gonna speak for CENTCOM, I'll speak for NAVCENT and U.S. 5th Fleet, and we have said all along that Iran poses the most pressing threat in the region. There have been a number of growing threats, from a maritime perspective, facing commercial vessels that are transiting regional waters, and those threats are well reported. And Iran has often been behind them. That's a common thread. 

Two months ago, Iran was behind a one-way drone attack on a commercial vessel called Pacific Zircon, a commercial tanker. The drone had an attached explosive that led to a large hole in the ship’s stern. The crew, fortunately, was unharmed, but that has not been the situation in every case previously. 

As a matter of fact, that attack fits the historical pattern that we've seen from Iran and their increasing use of one-way attack aerial drones, either directly or through their proxies around the region. It's also worth pointing out that this same lethal capability is something that Iran is exporting to Russia for attacks against Ukraine.

The other example is how Iran is linked to illegal shipments of drugs and weapons. Just on Friday, we announced that we seized more than 2,000 AK-47 assault rifles that were on their way to Yemen from Iran. That's in violation of U.S. Treaty Council Resolution 2216 and international law, the fact that they were attempting to smuggle these weapons to the Iranian-backed rebels known as the Houthis in Yemen.

Thousands of AK-47 assault rifles sit on the flight deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans during an inventory process, Jan. 7, 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy 

Then you look at the fact that in December there was a shipment, again coming from Iran on its way to Yemen, with 170 tons of explosive material. Then there were also just weeks before 50 tons of ammunition rounds and fuses and propellants for rockets. 

That's just over the past two months. Over the past two years, we've seized nearly a billion dollars worth of drugs, and in 2021 alone, we seized 9,000 weapons. That's a record amount, three times more than in 2020. And then throughout 2022, we seized weapons components for the same type of cruise missiles that were launched in attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

These situations clearly show that the threats from Iran are very real, and that's why they have our attention. That's how I would characterize a top concern with respect to an actor, a state actor, that is behind activities that are destabilizing across the region.

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That's why we feel that strengthening our existing partnerships and accelerating innovation are key. And those two things are intertwined. And those two things are reflected in our establishment of Task Force 59 and how we have moved out and are integrating these new technologies because we're doing it in a heavily partnered way. 

TWZ: Tell me about Digital Horizon 2022. How did the exercise help Task Force 59 “push beyond technological boundaries” and “discover new capabilities for maritime domain awareness” as Capt. Brasseur described it as? 

HAWKINS: Digital Horizon was a U.S. 5th Fleet event. We did have observers, just as we had observers from Task Force 99. We also had observers from different nations. Almost everything we do when we do something with Task Force 59 has a partner element to it because we have international partners represented on the unit’s staff itself. We have officers from Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. And actually, just last week, an officer from the U.K. Royal Navy reported as Task Force 59’s new deputy commander. 

Our actions match our words in terms of integrating these technologies in lockstep and shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners; they are there. With Digital Horizon, we learned a tremendous amount, and there were five key takeaways. 

Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian MacMillan, left, Intelligence Specialist 1st Class Samantha Jordan, center, and U.K. Royal Navy Lt. Andrew Burns, participate in Digital Horizon 2022 in the Task Force 59 Robotics Operations Center, Nov. 28, 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anita Chebahtah

First, we were able to advance our mesh network capability. It's a system that we use to exchange data and information in a communications-denied environment. There's a resiliency built into it, which is a critical capability in potential future conflicts we believe. Leading up to Digital Horizon, we spent months developing this mesh network during a series of bilateral exercises with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and NATO off the coast of Portugal. 

Before Digital Horizon, we iterated the capability each week over a period of a month and a half. Then during Digital Horizon, we were able to take what we had iterated and developed prior to the exercise literally and figuratively to the next level when we successfully launched a UAV from a Coast Guard Cutter.

Essentially, we had an Aerovel Flexrotor tactical UAV with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, it can operate either day or night with a diverse range of missions. In this case, we launched it to help us provide an over-the-horizon capability for the mesh network. That was significant, a significant breakthrough. 

An Aerovel Flexrotor UAV takes off from U.S. Coast Guard fast response cutter USCGC Emlen Tunnell transiting the Arabian Gulf, Dec. 7, 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy photo

Prior to the resilient comms network that we developed, it was limited to line of sight, but by launching it on this UAV, we were able to give it an over-the-horizon capability … The first kind of key takeaway was with respect to that mesh network.

The second key thing we were able to do was we were able to see really the best that's available in terms of new unmanned AI data integration systems. We had many systems out there for the first time. Even though we've been doing this for over a year, we're still bringing in new technologies, and Digital Horizon, because of the way we went about it, allowed us to bring some new players to the region and allowed us to get an up-close look at what they offer.

An Elbit Systems Seagull USV operates in the Arabian Gulf, on Nov. 29 during Digital Horizon 2022. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy

The third takeaway was the fact that we were able to make progress on developing the single pane of glass concept that's essentially allowing an operator to command and control multiple unmanned systems on a singular screen. So, that's one operator for multiple unmanned systems, not just one system being controlled by multiple operators. 

The fourth takeaway was our ability to further develop this rapid innovation process through exceptional industry collaboration. We saw software changes during Digital Horizon within hours and hardware adjustments within days throughout the event. Typically, it would be software changes in weeks and hardware changes in months, but in this case, during Digital Horizon, it was software changes within hours and hardware changes within days throughout the event. What makes that possible is a tremendous amount of talent and innovative minds in one place, working toward the same goal, or the same set of goals, and just making it happen. 

A Marine Advanced Robotics WAM-V USV operates in the Arabian Gulf, Nov. 29, during Digital Horizon 2022. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy

There was exceptional industry representation and collaboration alongside the Task Force 59 staff throughout the three-week event. 17 different industry partners brought 15 systems, 10 of which were in the region for the first time. 

The fifth takeaway was just the fact that people remain at the heart of everything we do. They remain essential. They are the ones who enable those relationships that we have with our industry partners. Our people continue to make tremendous contributions, including our active and reserve sailors, our international officers, and our civilians alongside industry partners. They've not only enabled us to imagine many possibilities with these systems, but I mean, we've achieved full operational capability with Task Force 59.

Graphic illustration depicting the unmanned systems that participated in exercise Digital Horizon 2022. Credit: U.S. Army graphic by Sgt. Brandon Murphy

TWZ: Persistence seems to be a key factor going forward, especially in order to do much more with less. How will advanced balloon systems, like Aerostar’s Raven, play a role in keeping a close eye on things and providing communications support across the AOR? What about very long endurance fixed wing types, like Zephyr S?

HAWKINS: Our interest is experimenting with, and bringing out for field testing, the best in class. That's our focus, and it will be a compilation, a diverse mix of capabilities, types of approaches, and designs, and that's what we saw during Digital Horizon three weeks ago. 

Persistence is just one element we are interested in, for instance. We call it a persistent ISR capability. We've had one USV system that has been out on the water for more than 200 days without refueling, resupply, and maintenance. That's huge. That's a significant capability, one that couldn't be duplicated with a crewed vessel without significant logistic support. 

So, persistence is important but also speed. It's just a mix. And we're not done yet. We're not going to stop bringing new stuff in. We're going to continue so that we can stay at the tactical edge.

Lt. j.g. Jay Faylo assigned to Task Force 59, launches an M5D Airfox UAS during International Maritime Exercise/Cutlass Express 2022 Feb. 13. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth

TWZ: There is also the use of large swarms of smaller drones to create a vast and resilient sensing and communications mesh network. Studies have shown that such a concept could be critical to prevailing in the Taiwan Strait for instance. What about in the Persian Gulf? 

HAWKINS: Our focus is on a diverse set of capabilities, platforms, and the best in class at the tactical edge. With respect to the kind of specifics you're mentioning, we'll see. Our focus is on maritime domain awareness, enhancing what we can see above, below, and on the water. 

That's our focus. Best-in-class systems that enable us to enhance our visibility of surrounding seas, that's really where you're gonna see us spend a lot of our time working with those partners. There are other types of mission sets that are relevant, they may be relevant in other regions, but I'm telling you speaking for 5th Fleet, that's our key focus.

TWZ: What about unmanned undersea warfare? What is Task Force 59 doing in that regard? What are the opportunities and limitations when it comes to this challenging but critical domain?

HAWKINS: In addition to bringing in new technologies, unmanned and AI technologies, Task Force 59 is also responsible for coordinating across the 5th Fleet, because we have other task forces, and so they work with the other task forces who are also integrating unmanned systems. In particular, we have one task force that already prior to Task Force 59’s existence operates UUVs in regional waters for the mine countermeasures mission. This is Task Force 52.

Lt. T.J. Brown, assigned to Task Force 59, lowers a floating sensor that collects maritime environmental data into the Gulf of Aqaba during International Maritime Exercise/Cutlass Express 2022 Feb. 13. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth

TWZ: While the platforms and software get most of the attention, networking is what will enable it all. How is networking architecture changing to achieve a far more ‘uncrewed’ battlespace and Task Force 59’s ambitions? What will this architecture look like? 

HAWKINS: The idea is establishing what we call a ‘Digital Ocean.’ So, every partner and every sensor collecting new data that gets added to an intelligent synthesis of around-the-clock inputs encompassing 1000s of images from the seabed to space, from ships, unmanned systems, subsea sensors, satellites, buoys, and other persistent technologies. 

What happens is that you kind of create this distributed integrated network of systems that are operating closely with our regional partners to provide a clearer picture of what's happening. If we have a clearer picture of what's happening on, above, and below the water, we believe we can ensure safer seas and enhance maritime security for all.

TWZ: By some time in 2023, the goal is for Task Force 59 to have a fleet of over 100 vessels operating together and providing that common operating picture. Can you speak to whether you believe Task Force 59 is on track to meet this goal?

HAWKINS: The goal is to establish this fleet by the end of this summer, summer 2023, and we are on track. With respect to this fleet of 100 USVs, 20% will be from us, and then the rest is contributed by our regional and international partners. That's about 20 systems for us. We've already reached our goal, and we are bringing our partners on board as we look to establish this by the end of summer 2023.

An Open Ocean Robotics Data Xplorer unmanned surface vessel operates in the Arabian Gulf, Nov. 29, during Digital Horizon 2022. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy

TWZ: Do you think some of the innovations occurring in NAVCENT out of necessity could also migrate to the Pacific for instance?

HAWKINS: We believe that the effort that we have undertaken here in the 5th Fleet, and as we develop and advance the integration of unmanned and AI, these systems can be scaled across other fleets. They can be applied in other fleets, and we have been working closely with other fleets.

They have had observers here, we have shared lessons that we've learned with them. As a matter of fact, you've seen some comments from Navy leadership that [in] other areas, other fleets will be embarking on a similar effort as we have at the 5th Fleet with Task Force 59. It only makes sense, because if you can operate these unmanned and artificial intelligence platforms here in this theater that is very dynamic and vast, it can definitely be scaled and applied in other places.

TWZ: I want to touch on the Saildrones briefly captured by Iran last fall. CENTCOM Chief Technology Officer Schuyler Moore in a December press briefing assured the media that Saildrones are commercial tech, unsophisticated, and weren’t carrying any sensitive information, but if the capture of these drones is not a major issue and they are not sensitive tech, are they more or less attritable? If so, how long before Iran has similar drones all over the AOR? How will the Navy deal with similar tactics being deployed against it?

HAWKINS: [The value of unmanned systems and A.I.] is recognized not only by us, 5th Fleet, but also by our regional and international partners, and we are moving full steam ahead with further investment in this effort. You saw since those incidents, we conducted four major exercises in the same waters without incident. No issue. The bottom line is this: We have and we will continue to fly, sail, and operate unmanned systems here in the region, anywhere international law allows. And our partners remain with this at every step.

Integrating these new systems, together with our partners, matters because it enables us to rapidly enhance the monitoring of the surrounding seas, which strengthens regional deterrence. Malign actors don't want to get caught in the act, and we have certainly seen that with Iran: the number one instigator of regional instability.

Screenshot from an Iranian state TV news broadcast showing Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy relinquishing the captured Saildrone USVs back to the Navy. Credit: Iranian state TV

TWZ: Will Task Force 59’s experimentation with unmanned systems ever extend beyond intelligence gathering and threat detection into, for example, researching how they could be used to augment the arsenals of manned ships, help distribute weapons over a greater area, or be used as electronic warfare assets? Is there a future kinetic role for Task Force 59’s initiatives?

HAWKINS: We are operating these platforms, equipped with sensors, radars, and cameras for many uses, including navigation, data collection, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR]. But if we can do this today, it's not hard to imagine what is possible in the not-too-distant future. The same systems can be used to support warfighting missions across the entire spectrum of joint functions and joint warfighting operations. 

TWZ: How has the war in Ukraine and especially the use of Iranian loitering drones impacted Task Force 59’s thinking of their own mission and the threats facing forces in the AOR? 

HAWKINS: I would just say that the threats from Iran and the reminders that we've seen over the past year and even more recently really lead us to strengthen our existing partnerships and accelerate innovation. 

We believe that integrating these new technologies across the fleet will enhance and help us address some of these regional security challenges. Putting more eyes out on the surrounding waters and providing greater visibility has a deterrent effect in that regard. In cases where a malign actor is not deterred from a destabilizing activity, these new systems allow us to position our crews to respond faster.

An L3 Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13 USV operates in the Arabian Gulf, Nov. 29, during Digital Horizon 2022. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy

TWZ: Experimentation in the AOR is a huge facet of Task Force 59 it seems. How do platforms and capabilities get selected for experimentation or development and testing? What’s the process?

HAWKINS: Well for Digital Horizon, we worked through the Defense Department innovation ecosystem. So, Defense Innovation Unit put out a call across the world and said ‘Hey, calling on the industry to submit proposals to be a part of this opportunity.’ 

We gave them kind of our requirements, and what we were looking for, and then the Defense Innovation Unit kind of meshed those requirements with their proposals and got 105 submissions, and they narrowed them down to the 17 partners that came out for the exercise. That's the process that we'll continue to utilize. 

There's this existing innovation ecosystem within the DOD that is able to call out and invite members of the broader innovation ecosystem in the U.S. and throughout the world, and enable us to partner with the best in class.

TWZ: What about cyber operations? Where do they fit into your vision?

HAWKINS: The data is transmitted over the net, so there's a cyber aspect to this, a cybersecurity aspect. That is fully embedded in our contractual arrangements and in our operations. Those considerations are made, but I won't go into any level of specifics on that for reasons you can appreciate.

TWZ: How will manned surface combatants interact with unmanned ones? What does the future look like for ‘cooperative’ manned-unmanned operations? Will they assume some form of command and control? 

HAWKINS: The future is now. Our unmanned assets are teaming with our crewed ships during the exercises. We completed one Monday. 

The International Maritime Security Construct is a major international coalition that we lead, and it conducted operations with guided-missile destroyer USS Delbert D Black and two Saildrone Explorers that were out in the Arabian Gulf providing imagery in near real-time to operation centers ashore, and also the ship's nerve center of operations, watchstanders on the destroyer, and providing them more eyes and enabling them to monitor nearby commercial traffic. 

An infographic showing the participating systems in last year's International Maritime Exercise. Credit: U.S. Navy

TWZ: Lastly, what does TF 59 have in store for 2023?

HAWKINS: A lot of great things are in store. The next major focus for Task Force 59 is International Maritime Exercise 23. That begins next month. As you recall, I mentioned of the three major international exercises it has done so far, International Maritime Exercise 22 was the largest unmanned maritime exercise to date. 

So, the next iteration begins this upcoming February, International Maritime Exercise 23. It will be one of the largest unmanned naval exercises conducted in the Middle East this year. We are heavily focused and excited about that. 

Going forward in 2023, you're going to see additional ... bilateral and international maritime exercises. You're going to continue to see the integration of new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence technologies. You're going to continue to see us make progress on the mesh network, and the operating concepts that we continue to develop and experiment with during the various exercises and opportunities, and you're going to continue to see U.S. 5th Fleet employ the systems in daily operations.

Author's note: Tyler Rogoway contributed to the questions for this interview.

Editor's note: A previous mention of "Huawei tech" was changed to "one-way attack" after further review of the transcript and clarification.

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