US navy launches Middle East drone task force amid Iran tensions

An MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned maritime surveillance drone flies over the USS Coronado (US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe, via AP) (AP)
18:05pm, Wed 08 Sep 2021
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The US navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet is to launch a new task force that incorporates airborne, sailing and underwater drones after years of maritime attacks linked to ongoing tensions with Iran.

Navy officials did not identify which systems they would introduce from their headquarters on the island nation of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf but they promised that the coming months would see the drones stretch their capabilities across a region of chokepoints crucial to both global energy supplies and worldwide shipping.

“We want to put more systems out in the maritime domain above, on and below the sea,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, who leads the 5th Fleet, said.

An ADARO unmanned drone passes by the USS Oakland (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex Perlman, via AP) (AP)

“We want more eyes on what’s happening out there.”

The 5th Fleet includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes. It also stretches as far as the Red Sea reaches near the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt linking the Middle East to the Mediterranean, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.

The systems being used by the 5th Fleet’s new Task Force 59 will include some of those involved in an April test led by the navy’s Pacific Fleet.

Drones used in that exercise included ultra-endurance aerial surveillance drones, surface ships the Sea Hawk and the Sea Hunter and smaller underwater drones that resemble torpedoes.

The 5th Fleet includes shallow water areas, salty waters and temperatures in the summertime that can exceed 45C (113F) with high humidity.

US navy sailors prepare a CARINA unmanned undersea drone (US Navy/Lt Cmdr Tony Wright, via AP) (AP)

“I think that environment really suits us well to experiment and move faster,” Vice Admiral Cooper said.

“And our belief is if the new systems can work here, they can probably work anywhere else and can scale them across other fleets.”

It also represents a region that has seen a series of at-sea attacks in recent years.

Off Yemen, bomb-laden drone boats and mines set adrift by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have damaged vessels amid that country’s years-long war. Near the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz, oil tankers have been seized by Iranian forces.

Suspicious explosions also have struck vessels in the region, ranging from tankers owned by Western firms, ships tied to Israel and Iranian vessels.

We're very aware of Iran's posture and we'll be prepared to deal with that appropriately

These attacks have become part of a wider shadow war playing out across the region in the wake of former US president Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

While US president Joe Biden has said he is willing to re-enter the deal, negotiations in Vienna have stalled as Iran now has a new hard-line president.

That leaves open the possibility of further attacks by Iran — as well as by Israel, which has been suspected in incidents targeting Iranian shipping and its nuclear programme.

Vice Admiral Cooper acknowledged the tensions in his remarks to journalists on Wednesday, but declined to go into details.

“We’re very aware of Iran’s posture and we’ll be prepared to deal with that appropriately,” he said.

“I’m going to leave it at that.”

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