US Navy sets up Gulf drone task force amid Iran tensions

Published September 10, 2021
An MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned maritime surveillance drone flies over the littoral combat ship Coronado during a drill in the Pacific Ocean April 21. — AP
An MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned maritime surveillance drone flies over the littoral combat ship Coronado during a drill in the Pacific Ocean April 21. — AP

DUBAI: The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said on Thursday it launched a new task force in the Gulf incorporating drones and artificial intelligence following maritime attacks blamed on Iran.

A statement by the US Naval Forces Central Command, or NAVCENT, said the task force would rely on regional and coalition partnerships.

“The bottom line on why we’re doing this is so that we can develop and integrate unmanned systems and AI as a means to do two things,” NAVCENT commander Brad Cooper said.

“One, enhance our maritime domain awareness, and two, increase deterrence,” he said in the statement.

Since February, Iran and its arch-enemy Israel have been accused of engaging in what analysts have called a “shadow war”, in which vessels linked to each nation have come under attack in waters around the Gulf in tit-for-tat exchanges.

On July 29 an attack against the Israeli-linked MT Mercer Street oil products tanker off Oman’s coast killed a British security guard and a Romanian crew member.

G7 foreign ministers last month said “all available evidence clearly points to Iran” being behind the attack in which drones were used.

Iran rejected the allegations, which came days before ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi took office in the Islamic republic. The attack on the Mercer Street came amid stalled talks between Tehran and world powers aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

US Navy spokesman Tim Hawkins said the task force was “dedicated to rapidly integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence with maritime operations in the Fifth Fleet region”. “When we talk about the integration of new unmanned systems, we’re talking about systems that can be used under, on and above the water,” he said.

Iran has also been accused of hijacking an asphalt and bitumen tanker in the Gulf of Oman in August, which it denied. The Fifth Fleet is based in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2021

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