The US Navy revealed last month that it had seized a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman. The vessel that was sailing from Iran to Yemen was loaded with fertilizer, suspected to be used in the manufacturing of explosives.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched drone and missile attacks on Gulf countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the recent past.
Amid rising tensions with Iran, the US Navy has announced the launch of a new joint fleet of drones in the Middle East with ally nations to patrol huge swathes of volatile waters, Al Jazeera reported.
Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the Commander of the 5th fleet responsible for the Middle-Eastern region, stated that 100 unmanned drone ships — both sailing and submersible — will greatly increase the US Navy’s surveillance capabilities, allowing it to maintain a close check on waters vital to the global oil supply and maritime flows.
“By using unmanned systems, we can just simply see more. They’re high reliability and remove the human factor,” Cooper said on the sidelines of a defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, adding the systems are “the only way to cover on whatever gaps that we have today”.
Last September, the Pentagon shared a video showing a Navy drone ship launching a deadly missile that can shoot down enemy ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The US Navy’s unmanned surface vessel (USV) is part of its ‘Ghost Fleet Overload’ program.
An SM-6 missile was fired using the Navy’s experimental launcher, the ‘Ranger’. This program was aimed at determining the capabilities of unmanned warships and understanding the way they operate, The EurAsian Times had reported.
The US Navy is currently in the process of developing its Underwater Unmanned Vehicle (UUV) under the Manta Ray project, the second phase of which was launched in December last year.
Since the failure of Iran’s nuclear deal with Western powers, maritime trade has come under attack. The US Navy in the region has had multiple encounters with Iran-based ships in the past. To combat the threat posed by Iran, it has been trying to strengthen its alliance in the region.
To that end, it recently conducted the International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 22) in the Middle-Eastern region which saw the participation of Israel with the Gulf-Arab world for the first time ever. It is pertinent to note that both the camps have a common enemy — Iran, despite their own personal differences.
Cooper expressed hope that artificial intelligence-assisted drone force will be operational by the summer of 2023 which will provide more “eyes and ears on the ocean”.
Deterring Iran At Sea
The 5th Fleet is stationed in Bahrain and is responsible for the security of the critical Strait of Hormuz, the tiny mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil shipments travel. The strait connects the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and is bordered to the north by Iran and to the south by Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Countries can exercise control up to 12 nautical miles from their coastline under UN rules. This means that the strait and its shipping lanes are wholly within Iran and Oman’s territorial seas at their narrowest point.
It is governed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which Iran has signed but not ratified, and which it has used in the past to safeguard its rights in the passage.
Following former US President Donald Trump’s decision of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing crippling sanctions over Iran, the high seas have seen a succession of assaults and escalations in recent years.
In 2019, a British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Impero, was seized by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz, who claimed it was “violating international maritime rules”. After this incident, several encounters and confrontations have occurred in waters near Iran.
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) September 27, 2019
Incidents of seizure of oil tankers by Iranian forces and mysterious explosions in vessels including those related to Israeli and Western companies have created a maritime shadow war. Iran has denied involvement in these assaults though.
Additionally, Windward, a marine intelligence service whose data is used by the US government to investigate sanction violations, revealed that since January 2020, it had found more than 200 ships involved in over 350 cases of manipulation of GPS location to evade sanctions. Most of these ships were believed to be operating from Iran.
— HourlyPrimeNews (@HourlyPrimeNews) February 3, 2022
“It’s been well established that Iran is number one in the primary regional threat we are addressing,” said Commander Cooper. “There’s the ballistic missile, cruise missile and UAV [drone] component, both in their capability and their mass proliferation, as well as well as the proxy forces.”
These comments follow deadly attacks by Yemen-based Houthi rebels on the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are Iran-backed militias that are fighting the government of Yemen backed by the Saudi-Emirati coalition. Iran is believed to sponsor rebels in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen that give it a military reach across the region, according to Al Jazeera.
Iran’s ‘Disruptive Expansion’
Apart from seizing ships and intimidating commercial vessels through its Coast Guard, Iran has allegedly employed new disruptive techniques to further its shadow war with the Arab world as well as its arch-enemy Israel.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels launched bomb-laden drone boats towards Saudi waterways, causing damage to vessels and oil installations as Yemen’s seven-year civil conflict continues. On April 2021, a remotely piloted boat loaded with explosives was sent to the Saudi port of Yanbu in the Red Sea.
“What the Houthis are doing, it is an entirely completely different operation that’s offensively oriented,” Cooper said. “What we are doing is inherently defensively oriented.”
— Defenseworld.net (@defenseworld) May 1, 2020
In the Middle East, there have also been a series of heated encounters between Iranian and US naval vessels. The clashes have highlighted the danger of an armed conflict between the two countries.
Cooper said, however, that such an incident has not occurred in the United States in recent months, as diplomats in Vienna tried to revive the nuclear deal with Iran.
“If you look back over the last couple of months, I would say it’s status quo,” Cooper said. “There have been some periods where they have had an uptick in activity … The overwhelming majority of these interactions are safe and professional.”
The threat posed by Iran has driven a rapid realignment in the Middle East. In a series of US-brokered agreements, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel in 2020. Following the signing of the Abraham Accords, there has been enhanced cooperation in trade and defense between the two sides.
Even though other states in the Gulf-Arab region have not yet recognized Israel and still remain opposed to it over the Palestine issue, the common threat of Iran and the militias backed by it as well as its threat of nuclear power has prompted some amount of cooperation.
Cooper also said that Israel is likely to join the US Navy’s unmanned naval drone task force in the region. A drone force of the entire Middle-Eastern region is aimed at countering Iran’s purported aggression in the region at a time when the Middle-Eastern countries opposed to Tehran are coming closer.