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UK Royal Navy trials artificial intelligence for missile defense

HMS Dragon tests AI during Formidable Shield 2021
HMS Dragon's operations room team monitor the air picture during Formidable Shield. Photo: Royal Navy

The Royal Navy has trialed the use of artificial intelligence (AI) as a way of boosting its capability of defeating missile attacks during exercise Formidable Shield taking place off the coasts of Scotland and Norway.

This operational experiment is being carried out by Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon and Type 23 frigate (HMS Lancaster), using the AI applications, Startle and Sycoiea, which were tested against a supersonic missile threat.

As part of the Above Water Systems program, led by Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) scientists, the AI improves the early detection of a lethal threat, accelerates engagement timelines and provides Royal Navy commanders with a rapid hazard assessment to select the optimum weapon or measure to counter and destroy the target.

Experts from the government’s defense laboratory Dstl and industry partners from Roke, CGI and BAE Systems are using the three-week exercise to test their Startle and Sycoiea systems.

Startle is designed to help ease the load on sailors monitoring the air picture in the operations room by providing real-time recommendations and alerts.

Sycoiea builds upon this and is at the forefront of automated Platform and Force Threat Evaluation Weapon assignment, effectively allowing operations room teams to identify incoming missiles and advise on the best weapon to deal with them more quickly than even the most experienced operator.

Above Water Tactician Leading Seaman Sean Brooks aboard HMS Lancaster is among those who was impressed by the software.

“I was able identify missile threats more quickly than usual and even outwit the operations room,” he said.

Although experiments with AI have been conducted before, this is the first time it’s been tested against live missiles, said Lancaster’s Weapon Engineer Officer Lieutenant Commander Adam Leveridge.

“Observing Startle and Sycoiea augment the human warfighter in real time against a live supersonic missile threat was truly impressive – a glimpse into our highly-autonomous future.”

Alasdair Gilchrist, program manager for Dstl said it was “imperative” that Britain continued to invest in the combat systems installed on Royal Navy warships to ensure they meet present and future challenges.

“Being able to bring get the AI onto the ships is a massive achievement, and while we can prove the AI works in the labs, actually getting Navy personnel hands on is brilliant,” he said.

Involving more than 3,000 military personnel, Formidable Shield tests the ability of NATO warships to detect, track and defeat incoming missiles, from sea-skimming weapons travelling at twice the speed of sound just above the waterline, to ballistic missiles.

Three Royal Navy warships are taking part in the exercise, which runs until early June: destroyer HMS Dragon and two frigates, Lancaster and Argyll.