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"Next level": Unmanned U.S. Navy boat fires weapons in Middle East for first time

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An unmanned U.S. Navy vessel successfully fired "lethal munitions" in international waters in the Middle East, officials announced Thursday, marking the first time such an exercise has been carried out in the region. The Navy said the unprecedented drill, which was captured on video, has taken its capabilities to the "next level."   

The exercise — dubbed Digital Talon — was carried out by the Navy's Task Force 59, a team focusing on unmanned and artificial intelligence, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a news release. On Oct. 23, members of the task force identified and targeted simulated hostile forces using a method called "manned-unmanned teaming," and launched live munitions from an unmanned vessel to destroy a target boat, officials said. 

An unmanned U.S. Navy vessel fired "lethal munitions" in international waters near the Middle East on Oct. 23, 2023. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command / U.S. 5th Fleet

The system "successfully scored direct hits each time," the news release said. The firing, which was in international waters surrounding the Arabian Peninsula, was overseen by a human operator ashore, who "made the engagement decisions." 

A video shared by the Navy showed an unmanned boat with two outboard motors zipping across the waves. The footage also showed naval operators monitoring the process from a remote location. Once the target is acquired, a missile is launched from what the Navy called a  "Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System" at the back of the unmanned boat. The video also showed the moment of successful impact. 

 MARTAC T-38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicle, equipped with a Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System, operates in the Arabian Gulf, Oct. 26.  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Vernier

"We are focused on the operational application of new, cutting-edge unmanned systems and artificial intelligence technologies," said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper in the news release. "During Digital Talon, we took a significant step forward and advanced our capability to the 'next level' beyond just maritime domain awareness, which has been a traditional focus with Task Force 59. We have proven these unmanned platforms can enhance fleet lethality. In doing so, we are strengthening regional maritime security and enhancing deterrence against malign activity."

This is the second time in as many months that the Navy has successfully demonstrated such capabilities, Cooper said. In September, several unmanned aquatic and aerial vehicles were able to track Iranian Navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy ships and small boats over the course of several days while they carried out routine patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz. Cooper said "12 different unmanned platforms" were integrated with manned ships for this exercise.  

The unmanned system hit the target. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command / U.S. 5th Fleet
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