The US and its allies are tinkering with AI to help do some of the most complex naval operations

  • The US, the UK, and Australia are exploring the use of artificial intelligence in naval operations.
  • Their projects aim to capitalize on AI’s ability to process data to make tough missions easier. 

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As artificial intelligence becomes more capable and more widely used, militaries are trying to harness it to increase their effectiveness. Recent exercises and announcements show how the US and its allies are turning to AI for help with some of the most complex naval operations in their playbook.

Over five days in October, the British military and industry partners conducted amphibious landings using some 130 personnel, 13 vessels, crewed and uncrewed aircraft, and 50 cameras and sensors to record their activity and gather data for AI products.

Conducted in challenging conditions, including wind up to 40 knots, the drills “saw personnel boarding and leaving vehicles in different ways to generate data representative of different behavioural traits,” the British Ministry of Defence said in a release.

“Data captured during the exercise included visual, infrared, sonar and radar as well as supporting ‘metadata’ including platform and sensor locations, weather, sea states and other contextual information,” the release said. The data will be used to build more datasets to train AI algorithms to recognize objects, like boats and the people on them, and analyze their behavior.

British Royal Marines during a NATO exercise in Norway in January 2016.

UK Ministry of Defence/PO Phot Donny Osmond



Even in ideal conditions, landing large numbers of troops and vehicles on shore is not easy, and it doesn’t get any easier when under fire. By gathering data about human behavior and the natural environment during such operations, British officials are looking to develop more efficient ways to conduct and defend against amphibious landings and other maritime activity.

“Innovative, data driven exercises like this demonstrate how AI can enhance our military capabilities, enabling us to respond more efficiently to the threats of today and tomorrow,” James Cartlidge, the minister for defence procurement, said after the exercise.

Most uses of AI create concerns about ethics, especially when militaries are involved. British officials emphasized their commitment and that of their industry partners to develop new AI products and use them in an “ethical, safe and responsible” way.

Farther from shore, the British navy and its US and Australian counterparts are looking to AI to help with one of their most tricky and time-consuming operations: hunting enemy submarines.

Amid increasing competition with capable adversaries, like the Chinese military and its growing undersea force, gaining even a small edge is key to deterring and, if need be, winning a war.

US sailors monitor sonar during a NATO anti-submarine exercise in the North Sea in 2015.

REUTERS/Marit Hommedal/NTB Scanpix



During testing at sea in November, a Royal Navy frigate and helicopter worked together “to trial cutting-edge sonar networking while collecting a significant amount of underwater data,” the Royal Navy said in a release. “When processed, this information will contribute to upgrades in submarine detection capabilities, networking, and help to develop AI to support information compilation and decision making.”

Anti-submarine warfare is an extremely difficult and laborious mission. Vigilance is key to catching an enemy submarine hundreds of feet under the surface, where it can use currents, water temperature, and the seabed to disguise its presence.

Navies use a combination of sonobuoys, helicopters, submarines, and surface ships to spot and track an enemy sub, but it still takes a high level of skill and more than a little luck to find a sub as it lurks below. AI could seriously improve this process by quickly sifting through reams of data.

As part of their AUKUS partnership, the British, US, and Australian militaries are looking to capitalize on those benefits by deploying “common advanced artificial intelligence algorithms on multiple systems,” including their P-8A maritime patrol planes, “to process data from each nation’s sonobuoys,” the countries’ defense ministers said after a meeting this month.

“These joint advances will allow for timely high-volume data analysis, improving our anti-submarine warfare capabilities,” the ministers said in a joint statement.

Crew members at radar stations on an E-3A early-warning-and control plane during a NATO exercise over Turkey in 2015.

US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Richard Longoria



Timely identification of targets through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, is key to modern warfare, as the war in Ukraine has shown. AI can assist by streamlining the information-gathering process and increasing efficiency during the crucial targeting phase.

The AUKUS defense ministers also said their countries were focused on delivering AI algorithms and machine-learning capabilities “to enhance force protection, precision targeting, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.”

The ministers said their countries aimed to integrate “resilient and autonomous artificial intelligence technologies” into their national programs in 2024 and to pursue “rapid adoption” of them in land and maritime operations.

In many respects, AI is the future. The US military and its allies see that incorporating it into their operations, intelligence-gathering, and procurement processes is necessary to keep up with adversaries.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He has a B.A. from the Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. in strategy, cybersecurity, and intelligence from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is currently pursuing a Juris Doctor degree from Boston College Law School.

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Stavros Atlamazoglou