The United States Navy committed 100 unmanned vessels in the Middle East in a joint international effort to deter sea attacks by aggressive nations, namely Iran. By joining forces and combining unmanned surface vessel numbers with Middle Eastern allies, the United States hopes to better secure the trade region vital for the global exchange of critical supplies like oil in the Strait of Hormuz.
“No navy acting alone can protect against all the threats here in this region,” said Vice Admiral Brad Cooper. “The region is simply too big. We must address this in a coordinated multinational way.” Cooper also admitted that Iran is the principal security threat in the region.
Iranian and U.S. forces faced confrontation since oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, a sea connecting the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, in 2019. The U.S. further strengthened sanctions against Iran, which denied accusations of responsibility for the attacks. Iran’s failed nuclear deal with Western powers further weakened the already thin ties in maritime trade.
Both Israel and the United Arab Emirates, who have only recently established diplomatic ties, have worked closely with the United States to increase regional security and have developed their own unmanned assets. On the other side of the confrontation, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement has targeted vessels off the Yemeni coast — despite recently carrying out multiple failed drone and missile strikes against the U.A.E.
Last month, the U.S. Navy revealed it seized a cargo ship in the Gulf, allegedly sailing from Iran to Yemen and loaded with fertilizer suspected to be used in explosive manufacturing, according to the Eurasian Times. Under United Nations maritime conflict rules, countries can employ nautical operations up to 12 nautical miles from their coastline, meaning the Strait is mostly within Iran and Oman’s territory. However, Iran signed but did not ratify the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, despite citing the agreement to safeguard its rights in the passage.
The robot fleet is the beginning of an “unmanned technological revolution,” according to Vice Admiral and Commander of the Fifth Fleet Brad Cooper during a defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi. The Fifth Fleet, the Bahrain-stationed U.S. Navy fleet responsible for naval operations in the region, has used unmanned vessels in exercises since November, according to Cooper, after establishing a new task force to integrate drone systems and artificial intelligence into high-sea warfare and maritime operations. As part of the “Ghost Fleet Overload” program, the drone ships — both sailing and submersible — greatly increase surveillance capabilities of the U.S. without committing human personnel. In September, the Pentagon shared a video showing one of the drone ships launching a missile capable of shooting down enemy ballistic and hypersonic missiles.
The use of unmanned drones for surveillance allows for greater control of the region without directly threatening Iranian sovereignty or implying a breach of peace. Although both nations teeter back and forth on the edge of war, increasing surveillance without risking lives could very well be the future of war technology, as Cooper implied.
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