Unmanned Systems and Artificial Intelligence in the US Navy with Captain Michael Brasseur

Captain Michael Brasseur, co-founder and current Commodore of Task Force 59, joins host Ken Harbaugh to talk about integrating unmanned systems and artificial intelligence.

Before leading Task Force 59, Capt. Brasseur was the Director for Naval Armaments Cooperation at NATO and the first Director of NATO’s Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation & Coordination Cell (MUSIC2). Follow him on Twitter at @brasseur_mdb.

ACME General: Welcome back to another season of Accelerate Defense, a podcast from ACME General Corp. I’m Ken Harbaugh, Principal at ACME, and host of this month’s episode. On Accelerate Defense, we hear from political figures, military professionals, and other thought leaders about how innovation shapes our national security landscape.

My guest today, Captain Michael Brasseur, is the co-founder and current Commodore of Task Force 59, which was created to rapidly integrate of Unmanned Systems and Artificial Intelligence into 5th Fleet operations. Prior to this role, Mike served as the Director, for Naval Armaments Cooperation at NATO and the first Director of NATO’s “Start-up” Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation & Coordination Cell (MUSIC2).  He has commanded two warships, and his writings on leadership and emerging disruptive technologies have appeared in The Hill, Atlantic Council, and Defense News.

Mike, welcome to Accelerate Defense. I’d love to start by getting a bit of your personal background, and what set you on this path.

Michael Brasseur: Sure Ken, it’s great to be here on the podcast. You know, myself, I grew up in South Carolina. I grew up on an island. I’ve always been surrounded by water, I guess, kind of naturally I end up in the Navy. I did the Vanderbilt Navy ROTC program. I thought about going to Duke, but I was just going to give you a Duke joke there, but I know you won’t.

ACME General: Well, I was going to come back at you with a South Carolina joke. I taught at the Citadel, which island did you grow up on?

MB: I grew up on Hilton Head Island.

ACME General: Got it.

MB: And as I mentioned, I went to Vanderbilt on an ROTC scholarship, joined the Navy as a surface warfare officer, served on many ships. Commanded two ships, one a patrol coastal, that’s a 180 foot warship. We have five of them out here. And actually I commanded the ship over here, USS Whirlwind. And then I also commanded an LCS and sailed LCS home from Singapore, USS Fort Worth on her maiden deployment. And then I ended up in a really, really interesting job at NATO. I was at the US mission to NATO and helped launch an initiative called, The NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative. And this particular initiative was focused basically on the vertical integration of unmanned systems above, on, and below the water. And then the horizontal integration across allies and just kind of bringing that together in a way that could be helpful for the Alliance.

So this is where I kind of got into the unmanned space, and that was 2018 to 2020, and still very well connected with the NATO initiative and have a lot of friends in that space. Then we got over here in Bahrain and I was supposed to be the commander of Task Force 55, which it has all our ships here in the region. And Admiral Cooper and I started iterating on the idea of an unmanned task force and started with a white paper, then went on to, we got a design sprint together, basically a who’s who of unmanned and artificial intelligence. This was actually about this time last year, this time last year, we were a two page white paper, end of July we got together basically a who’s who, an unmanned and artificial intelligence brought them out here to Bahrain and designed the task force. And in September of last year, we stood up the unmanned and artificial intelligence task force, Task Force 59, the first forward deployed task force focused on unmanned systems and artificial intelligence. So that’s a little background on me.

ACME General: That’s incredible progress. I’m curious though, in your early days, as a SWO, as a surface warfare officer, when did you begin to see the future that awaited? Were there moments when you realized, “Oh my gosh, ships full of people are only part of the chess map here, unmanned is coming,” when did you begin to realize that?

MB: You know, I would say, kind of mid-career. There’s a lot of really mundane tasks that you do that you think, “Boy, that could have really been done better in many? ends better, in many instances, by an unmanned system.” They call it the dull, the dirty, and the, some of the dumb tasks, you know, where you don’t necessarily need a human, but that machine can give you persistent presence and does not get fatigued and can handle the weather and this sort of stuff. So that was kind of mid-career after my PC command.

ACME General: So you’re at Fifth Fleet now, and before we dive into the details of Task Force 59, can you just give the brief overview for the uninitiated of your AOR? I mean, Fifth Fleet has some responsibilities.

MB: Yes. And it’s a vast and very dynamic AOR. It starts basically from the Suez Canal, goes down through the Red Sea, in through the Gulf of Aden, around the Horn of Africa, into the Northern Arabian Sea, into the Gulf of Oman, and then into the Arabian Gulf. And so just as I kind of walked you around the Arabian Peninsula there, there’s three major choke points, and this is kind of the strategic crossroads between Europe and Asia and those strategic choke points are critical to the global economy. And we saw, when motor vessel Evergreen got sideways in the Suez Canal, and that basically choked off the economy for a period of a week and a half, I believe it was. So strategic importance, dynamic, it’s hot, it’s sandy, it’s salty, it’s a really, really challenging environment to operate in. So that’s a little bit about the Fifth Fleet AOR.

ACME General: I did a couple deployments in Fifth Fleet back in the late nineties, early two thousands. And I just cannot fathom how dynamically the threats have evolved. Can you give me your perspective on the changing strategic threats that you are facing? Obviously you’ve got those choke points, but you also have some pretty committed adversaries.

MB: You know, Ken, it’s interesting. I think probably what’s changed since you were here is the opportunity to partner with our regional partners in new ways. And especially with unmanned and artificial intelligence to get after some of those threats that you were dealing with, that we still have to deal with many of them to this day. So, I think it’s a real big opportunity here to leverage tech in new ways, to get after some of these problems that have been challenging us for years now.

ACME General: And leveraging tech is, not to put too fine a point on it, the mission of Task Force 59, tell us about what you’re doing.

MB: Yeah. So what we’re all about is the rapid adoption of unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into fleet operations, to ultimately deter that malign activity that you were referring to, and ensure the free flow of commerce throughout the region and through those three choke points we mentioned. So it’s all about rapid adoption of tech. We are mostly in the dual-use commercial tech space. There’s a lot of advantages to that, it’s affordable, it’s good, it’s fast, it helps us solve our challenges now. So that’s primarily the space that Task Force 59 is operating on. We’re collaborative, it’s in our DNA. As I mentioned, my experience goes back to NATO and that’s a very collaborative environment, and we have that same sort of interaction with partners here. It’s a very, very exciting time right now here in the Arabian Gulf.

ACME General: And your task force is obviously forward deployed, it’s operational, but how does it interface with the Navy-wide unmanned task force that was announced last year? September I believe?

MB: Well, it was announced basically the same time we were announced and you should know the chair of the unmanned, or the executive director for the unmanned task force, that’s the CNOs task force, was here at our design sprint a few months earlier, July of last year. Helping us design the task force from the very, very beginning. And that sort of collaboration has only increased since we’ve launched in September. I speak to the executive director of the unmanned task force daily, sometimes five times a day. So there’s really no daylight between us and that effort. And this effort is very, very synergistic with the CNOs unmanned task force.

ACME General: What does success look like for you? A year from now, and then over the horizon. What, if we put it in commercial terms, are your objectives and key results?

MB: Well, I think we’re having some early success right now, Ken. I mean, there’s really a momentum building here in theater. You could, it’s almost tangible. I’ll just give you a, in the last week and a half, I visited several key partners and their level of enthusiasm for our effort and that ability to work side by side in the unmanned and artificial intelligence space is, like I said, it’s almost tangible. You can feel the excitement, but it’s progressed more past excitement. We’ve done lots of bilaterals. We’ve done the world’s largest unmanned systems, maritime unmanned systems exercise, IMX. So we are kind of experiencing early successes that are ultimately building towards a collaborative effort to get a lot of sensors out on the water, so we can understand what’s happening out there. And then sift through all the information that those sensors are providing with artificial intelligence to highlight what’s outside the normal patterns of life. So we can really direct our manned assets more precisely. So that’s kind of the grand vision and we’re making really, really strong progress towards that. And we’re doing it in short order. The pace of this effort is really, really exciting.

ACME General: I’m really interested in the collaborative nature of that effort. Surely you’re learning things that would benefit the wider Navy S&T community and Navy concept writers. How do those learnings get shared in a way that is efficient, that is actionable? How is what you’re doing propagated the lessons learned throughout the fleet?

MB: Ken, the key mechanism of that sort of sharing is the CNOs unmanned task force. So we have a call with them weekly, where all the key stakeholders are on that call. We’re providing real time updates of what we’re doing here, lessons learned on that call. And then that call spawns a lot of follow up calls, emails with our teams. We’ve also had folks from all across the Navy integrated with us out here. So that sort of level of sharing in real time, our learning. And again, I come back to the pace, the pace of learning that’s happening right now, because we are doing, and I want to make very, very clear, Ken, we don’t have all the answers. We are doing, in many instances we’re getting it wrong, but we’re learning, we’re adjusting, we’re improving, we’re sharing, and we’re building capability very, very fast.

ACME General: It sounds very much like a tech innovation mindset. How does that mesh with the Navy’s culture, which is very much geared towards minimizing risk?

MB: So this is, I’m glad you picked up on that, Ken. Our tolerance for risk at Task Force 59 is probably higher than many of our peers, that can be uncomfortable, but we believe you don’t really discover new capabilities unless you’re willing to take risks. You know, so we do mitigate a lot of those risks by doing it in benign environments before going out towards more challenging situations, but we do have a high tolerance for risk. We do have a very, very exciting and smart team. I’ll just give you a few examples if you’ll oblige me. My deputy commodore who helped, basically co-found Task Force 59 with me, was the CEO. He’s a reservist. He was the CEO of a $1 billion cyber security company. I recruited the top PC captain from the Waterfront, Lieutenant Commander Ray Miller. He’s got 700 days of experience at sea in the past four years, from the high North, to the south China sea. And he most recently was captain of one of our PCs out here. I’ve got two Forbes, 30 under 30s on my team. One just came from the Hill, she was also on the defense innovation board.

So you get kind of that sort of talent, all focused on those challenges, what you kind of alluded to early on, and there’s this really sort of creative mood. It’s not your standard Navy task force. And it’s an absolute thrill, thrill ride Ken. It’s the joy of my professional life, working with these people focused on a real problems moving very, very fast.

ACME General: It sounds like you’ve got the right talent, and the right team. How do they approach the perennial problem in situations like this, the chicken-and-egg problem of needing to understand how a technology will be used to be able to assess it while also needing to understand what that technology is capable of in order to understand how it can be used?

MB: So this is, and I just kind of touched on a few of the folks on the team, but there’s this intellectual diversity that really approaches problems from multiple angles. So you’ve got a world class operator, with a cybersecurity CEO, some expertise in 5G and all emerging tech. And you get those people focused on operational problems bounded, we’re not trying to boil the ocean here, we’re trying to solve real problems. And then most importantly, you go out and you do, right? We are in the mature dual-use commercial tech space. We want stuff, and we know KIT and tools are out there that can help solve our challenges now. And that’s the space we’re operating in. So, and in many instances, Ken, what happens is we may go into an exercise or an experiment thinking the particular KIT or AI application is going to perform one way. And then we start to see the potential of other concepts of operations. And we start to mature those through additional reps and sets. So it’s, yeah, that sort of diversity of experience, is so valuable in this space. And then just the value of doing, and we’ve done a lot. I mean, we’ve all got over 10,000 hours of experience at this point. So we’re not novices, we’re advancing relatively quickly.

ACME General: You referred to both KIT and AI applications. How would you characterize the balance of your tech assessments between hardware and software? Do you skew in favor one or the other?

MB: Okay. So what when I said KIT, I’m talking about maritime robotics above, on, and below the water, unmanned systems above, on, and below the water, and artificial intelligence. And the fact that we are a task force about unmanned systems and artificial intelligence is not an accident. We did that intentionally. We see these two as inextricably linked, right? They go together. The unmanned systems, and we’re in the affordable, attributable, unmanned systems. There’s a quality and quantity. So we’re trying to get a lot of sensors out on the water to cover more ground, but also get a lot of different sensors out there. And that is powering the machine learning and AI tools to give us key insights and highlight for us, what’s outside the normal pattern of life. So it can be very, very precise with the deployment of our man assets. So the balance, I would say, is 50/50. I would guess, or yeah I would say it’s about an equal balance of our focus. I know a lot of folks are focused on the robots. We are really, really focused on both the robots, the artificial intelligence, and then all those sort of enabling technologies, the mesh networks, the cloud computing, all the stuff that really power these machine learning and AI tools.

ACME General: For that software piece, are you leveraging a modular, open systems approach? Are there standards that companies can read and integrate into their development efforts, or are they being defined?

MB: They’re being defined. We are very closely connected with the NATO effort. The NATOs standard, tends to be the gold standard as far as integration. We very much are in favor of an open architecture that allows many different players to connect in, provide data, and start to build those databases that can be exploited with machine learning and AI. So we are, as I mentioned, yeah, it’s early days, we’re learning a lot. We’re doing a lot of learning for a lot of our Navy partners, be a project overmatch and other folks across the Navy, we’re doing a lot of learning. Because it’s one thing to see it on a PowerPoint, it’s another thing to integrate a bunch of systems in the real world. And we’ve done that multiple times, we did that at IMX, and we’ve done it during many of our bilateral exercises.

ACME General: We’ve been talking mostly about the Navy. Surely the other services are looking at what you’re doing and hope hopefully seeing the gauntlet thrown and stepping up. How have your efforts been received by the other services?

MB: Very, very warmly. You know, obviously we’re here in central command, General Kurilla, the new CENTCOM commander did some amazing work at the 18th. We have kind of much the similar approach I spoke to about NATO, kind of vertically. We look at the systems from seabed to space, and then horizontally we’re looking to integrate across our fellow task forces. So the Navy task forces here, across the joint force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and across our partners. And I’ll just give you a few quick examples AFWERX was at our digital ocean prototype in the Gulf of Aqaba. We went to Army Futures Command in Austin, the Marines and us work very, very closely on a lot of our USV efforts.

The Coast Guard, actually the commandant of the Coast Guard is out here this week. They really see Fifth Fleet as an opportunity to test and evaluate in a very, very challenging environment. That’s the same approach we have. So there’s great collaboration across the joint force. And as I alluded to earlier, that continues across with partners, and that’s happening in real time. And then if you go up one level, OSD you know, DIU is leading a major call to industry for us, and we’re collaborating with them on that to get a really, really wide net of capabilities and see them in the real world in a very, very challenging environment. So I could go on longer, but I think that’s a good flavor of this type of collaboration that’s happening across the joint force.

ACME General: Is that call to industry you referenced, and the wide net, to stick with the metaphor, is the mesh fine enough to grab those non-traditional innovators, the ones that are coming up with solutions that we can’t even conceive of because their approach is so niche and fine-tuned in some cases. The Primes get a ton of the attention and most of the contracts, but some of the most cutting-edge innovation happens kind of off the grid. How are you catching those?

MB: So, Ken, I think first of all, our effort to date has been largely small and medium enterprises. So it is those folks on the leading edge of innovation that are out here in the real world operating, and then that large net we cast, I am certain, I am certain it’s going to pick up some of that really, really talented stuff that we probably weren’t expecting. I am slightly removed from the evaluation process, but I can tell you that we got over a hundred companies and they’re certainly not all Primes. And I think there’s some companies with just five people on board. So we’re really, really looking forward to seeing what that delivers, and then seeing it out here in the real world. And then if it does help solve some of our challenges, then keeping it out here and continuing to work with it in the operational environment.

ACME General: Are those smaller companies sharing with you some of the challenges of working within the DOD ecosystem? That’s something we spend a lot of time talking about on this show, there is sometimes the cultural clash, there’s the economic challenge of navigating through that valley of death. I mean, the upside is huge, but the barriers for some of these non-traditional smaller innovators can be really discouraging.

MB: You know, Ken, they are, but part of our value proposition is really, is bringing the solution provider, whether it’s Prime, or a company with five people together with the problem holders, us, the operator. And you can see not only the value of that value proposition, but you can see the mission focus of not only our team, but the folks providing the solutions. And they just, they really, really enjoy working with our team on tough problems. So I think this could be a potential way ahead in this space. I know a lot of the experimentation and whatnot typically happens back state side or in a laboratory. But as I alluded to, this is the ultimate laboratory out here. It’s very, very challenging space operate. And you’re working with real operators, and if the solutions, or if they help us solve our problems, then that’s a pretty strong validation of that particular tech.

ACME General: When you’re formalizing your relationships with those smaller players, what kind of contract vehicles are you using? Is it a time and materials thing? Or more of a create a, what is it, cooperative research and development agreement? Are you able to adapt to their particular needs when it comes to contracting?

MB: So I’m not going to go into the specifics of contracting other than say, we’re using a contractor owned, contractor operated model, and we just kind of add one thing on top of it, Navy oversight. And what we really, really like about this model is, there’s a lot of things that we like about it, it’s fast, number one. Number two, it gets us the latest technology now, Avis Legacy stuff in 2, 3, 5 years from now. The folks are, you know, they deeply value feedback. So, and we’re seeing almost, not real time, but near real time iteration on feedback and an improvement of the platforms, or unmanned systems. And then there’s some flexibility there, and then there’s no tail, there’s no tail. So I have a small task force of 20, just over 20 people. We are built for speed, we’re built to scale. And I could envision us having 20, 30, 50 unmanned systems with this same team with that model. You know, there are certain limitations to that model and we are navigating those as we approach them, but that’s the model we’re using. It has a lot of advantages and we’re pretty excited about it.

ACME General: I love hearing that you’re built to scale. Is the Task Force 59 approach being considered by other AORs as a successful model to replicate?

MB: Ken, I can tell you generally, yes. I’m not going to tell you specifically who, other than through that unmanned task force, we are sharing our lessons with other fleets. We obviously work very closely from the top down. So Admiral Cooper is talking to Admiral Paparo in Pac Fleet, and Admiral Black in Sixth Fleet. And that sort of partnership across fleets is happening on the task force level as well. We believe we’ve learned lot of the hard lessons. We’re really starting to hit our stride. And we’re trying to build a model that can be replicated across fleets, if other fleets choose to do that. If they choose to do that, we’re happy to go out and work alongside with them. If and when they decide to stand them up, or just share kind of our lessons learned, but this is definitely a collaborative environment across fleets, and that’s enabled by the unmanned task force and those relationships that the fleet commanders have.

ACME General: Part of your success, I got to imagine, is your approach to staffing, picking the best and brightest as we’ve already talked about and relying heavily on reservists. Can you talk a little bit about the talent pool that you’re able to tap into by going into the reservist pool?

MB: Ken, I’m so glad you asked this question, because we could talk about robots and AI, but for me, this task force and our success to date has been about the people. I’ll just give you a few examples. There’s a real sort of mission focus. And the task force has become a magnet for talent in the reserves. Justine Moore, who I was referring to earlier, she’s Forbes 30 under 30, she was working on the House Armed Services Committee, was on the defense innovation board, Harvard undergrad. You know, joined the reserves to serve, heard about Task Force 59, had been operating kind of in the DC environment, but wanted to focus on a real challenge and help solve it. So she left a very, very good job. She was a two-star equivalent at that job, left DC and joined our team, and she has been exceptional.

Another one of the reservists that is helping us out, Elsa Kania from, she’s working on her PhD at Harvard, written a book called Fighting to Innovate, just on Chinese innovation, a really, really super talented officer. She’s also in the reserves of Lieutenant junior grade. She came out for a period of six to eight weeks and really helped us with that. What I’ve discovered is that there’s so much really, really talented folks across the reserves and they want to help solve problems like these. We have a really nice blend of active duty as well. The PC captain I was referring to is active duty, I’m active duty, my chief of staff is active duty, but that sort of diversity of expertise really leads to a lot of innovation and novel approaches to problems. And it’s just been a really, really rewarding experience to see folks gravitate to a real tough challenge.

ACME General: Well, Michael, this has been really enlightening. Thanks so much for sharing with us. Is there anything else you’d like to say about Task Force 59 and your team and the challenges you’re tackling?

MB: Yeah Ken, well first of all, thank you for the opportunity to join you on the podcast here. I’m honored to be among one of your esteemed guests. I would just want to leave you with, at Task Force 59, we are really focused on building. We are not tinkering here. We’re trying to enhance maritime domain awareness and ensure the free flow of commerce by leveraging exciting dual-use commercial technologies that are available now. There’s a pace to what we’re doing, there’s a purpose and there’s a real, real focus to move fast and do so in a partnered effort with our regional partners. And then, as we kind of alluded to, across the joint force as well. So thank you for the opportunity to chat. I hope your audience enjoyed the discussion. I know I did. Thank you, Ken.

ACME General: Thank you. Great having you. Thanks, Michael.

ACME General: Thanks again to Captain Brasseur for joining us on this episode of Accelerate Defense. 

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review Accelerate Defense on Apple Podcasts – it really helps other listeners find the show.

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Accelerate Defense is a podcast from ACME General Corp. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to the team at ACME. I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Accelerate Defense. Thanks for listening.

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