The drone force using artificial intelligence could be operational by summer 2023 to put more “eyes and ears on the water”.
The US Navy has announced the launch of a new joint fleet of unmanned drones in the Middle East with allied nations to patrol vast stretches of choppy waters as tensions simmer with Iran.
Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, who leads the 5th Fleet, said 100 unmanned, sail-powered and submersible drones would dramatically multiply the US Navy’s surveillance capabilities, allowing it to closely monitor critical waters for the global stream. oil and shipping. . Maritime trade has been targeted in recent years as Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers crumbled.
“By using unmanned systems, we can simply see more. They are very reliable and remove the human factor,” Cooper said on the sidelines of a defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, adding that the systems are “the only way to fill the gaps we have today.”
Cooper said he hopes the AI-powered drone force will be up and running by the summer of 2023 to put more “eyes and ears on the water.”
The Bahrain-based 5th Fleet includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes. It also extends to the Red Sea near the Suez Canal, the Egyptian waterway connecting the Middle East to the Mediterranean, and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.
The high seas have seen a series of assaults and escalations in recent years, following former US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose devastating penalties.
A maritime shadow war unfolded as tankers were seized by Iranian forces and suspicious explosions hit vessels in the area, including those linked to Israeli and Western companies. Iran has denied any involvement in the attacks, despite evidence to the contrary from the West.
“It’s well established that Iran is the number one major regional threat we’re tackling,” Cooper said. “There is the ballistic missile, the cruise missile and the drone [drone] component, both in their capacity and massive proliferation, as well as proxy forces.
Iran sponsors proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, giving it military reach across the region.
As Yemen’s seven-year-old civil war continues, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have sent bomb-laden drones into Saudi waters that have damaged ships and oil installations.
“What the Houthis are doing is a completely different operation that is offensively oriented,” Cooper said. “What we do is inherently defense-oriented.”
There have also recently been a series of tense encounters between Iranian and US naval vessels in Middle Eastern waters. The clashes have underscored the risk of armed confrontation between nations.
Notably, however, Cooper said the United States had not seen such an episode in recent months as diplomats in Vienna attempted to resuscitate the tattered atomic deal.
“If you look back over the last two months, I would say it’s status quo,” Cooper said. “There have been times when they’ve had a slight increase in activity…The vast majority of those interactions are safe and professional.”
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The shared threat from Iran has prompted a rapid realignment of policy in the Middle East. In 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized their relations with Israel in a series of agreements brokered by the United States.
These warm relations even extended to a form of military diplomacy. Israel for the first time joined a massive US-led naval exercise in the region earlier this month, publicly participating alongside other Arab Gulf states with which it has no relationship, including Saudi Arabia.
Cooper said Israel would likely join the Navy’s unmanned naval drone task force in the region.
“I would expect exercises in the future where we would work side by side,” he said.