A top U.S. Navy leader said last week that artificial intelligence capabilities are already being built into the U.S. fleet but said it will likely take some time before they are comfortable handing over full operational control to an AI system.
At a Navy League event in Maryland last week, Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said the Navy has more than 50,000 nautical miles under its belt of “transit in an autonomous mode.”
“We have a high degree of confidence in the AI’s ability to follow rules and to avoid traffic, to stay within the channel when required,” he said. “We’ve made transits from the Gulf Coast of the United States repeatedly through the Panama Canal and up around – to Port Hueneme, California.”
The destroyer USS Gravely moored in Poland in 2022 as it resupplies. Navy leaders have said they would be working AI more into the technology of the fleet, and said it is already being used to move ships around the world. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
But he said more work and trust is needed before the Navy gets comfortable handing over direct control of ships to AI systems for complex missions.
“It’s a whole other level… to give an unmanned vessel a mission and then have that vessel report back, mission complete,” he said. “So this is going to be an iterative process.”
Gilday said he envisions incorporating AI into ships that are “minimally manned” for a time before they are fully autonomous.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, seen here in 2021, said more AI capabilities are being worked into the fleet. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
“We need to go slow to go fast, if you will,” he said. “It has to be very deliberate, with a great deal of respect for AI. And we still have a lot to learn.”
Navy leaders have said for years that it supports a growing unmanned fleet and have put forward budget plans during the Biden administration that call for a slowly shrinking manned fleet. Gilday and others have said incorporating new technologies into the fleet can create a smaller but smarter presence by the Navy around the world.
But many Republicans and Democrats have argued the Navy is sacrificing current fleet strength in order to push for a new high-tech fleet that isn’t quite ready to be built. For the last two years, Congress has scrapped major elements of the Navy’s budget plan and provided funding to keep the manned U.S. fleet level or near-level.
The Navy is under fire from lawmakers for moving too quickly to decommission manned ships in favor of building advanced and unmanned vessels. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
Gilday said part of the process of building a highly advanced fleet that incorporates AI and other technology is working with U.S. partner countries and companies.
“No one nation can do this alone,” he said. “We welcome industry and we welcome all of our allies and partners to join us in this endeavor as we build a hybrid fleet. And while we still have so much to learn, we’re ready to scale these operations at the fleet level.”