The latest ship attack around the Arabian Sea shows that even with a reopening of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is no guarantee of safety in one of the world’s most important sea lanes for crude oil and natural gas supplies.
For the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, surveillance of the waters surrounding the Arabian Peninsula now includes an unmanned surface vessel fleet, in partnership with allies, to improve what can be seen above, on and below the water.
The goal is to help secure seaborne trade, including vital energy shipments, that remains vulnerable to regional tensions, as well as now growing supply chain issues and the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
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“We are focused on addressing any destabilizing activity, whether it’s a state-run or non-state actor,” 5th Fleet spokesman Commander Tim Hawkins said in an interview. “Our focus is on any activity that impedes the free flow of trade and commercial traffic in key regional waterways that help fuel the global economy.”
Other countries in the unmanned surface vessel project, dubbed Task Force 59, are the UK, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, with Jordan soon to join, he said. Hubs to process the data collected by the drones have been established in Bahrain and Jordan.
Eventually they aim to establish an unmanned surface vessel fleet of 100 platforms by the end of the summer to monitor some 5,000 miles around the Arabian Peninsula, with about half now available for deployment, Hawkins said. After that, “it will grow, the inventory will grow.”
A similar program, called Task Force 99, is based in Qatar and monitors air traffic through aerial drones, while a land-based unit called Task Force 39 maintains a fleet of unmanned ground vehicles.
For decades, the US military has maintained a heavy presence in the Gulf to safeguard the transit of oil tankers and container vessels, amid historical tensions between crude producer heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But in recent years, with fractures growing in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US, other international powers, such as Russia and China, have sought to burnish ties with Riyadh, Tehran, Abu Dhabi and other major players.
US officials, however, maintain they remain deeply invested in the region but want more partners to buy in on strengthening security in and around the Gulf, as the American military downsizes its forces in the Middle East.
Deterring Iran, which experts say is responsible for many attacks on ships and energy infrastructure, including by the Yemeni Houthi rebels it allegedly arms, is a primary focus, General Michael Kurilla, head of the US Central Command, said in a recent press briefing.
“We don’t have the enormous number of planes, ships, troops, and air-defense systems we had in the region just five years ago,” he said. “Instead, we’ve got to cultivate deep, abiding partnerships that can serve as a hedge against threats in the region while deterring Iran from its worst, most destructive behavior.”
Excluding Libya, the latest update of S&P Global Commodity Insights’ Energy Security Sentinel report showed incidents targeting energy infrastructure and shipping in the Middle East had fallen sharply since the first quarter of 2022.
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But the UK Maritime Trade Operations on March 17 reported shots fired between two ships near Yemen’s port Hodeida. The vessel and crew were safe, it said.
It was the first reported attack since Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed on March 10 to resume diplomatic ties in a deal brokered by China, which had raised hopes of improved energy security for the 5,000 ships that use the shipping lanes every year to deliver crude oil from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, LNG from Qatar, off and on the world’s largest exporter of the fuel, along with other commodities vital to the global economy.
Before the Yemen incident, reported attacks were on oil tanker Campo Square on Feb. 10 in the Arabian Sea, oil products tanker Pacific Zircon in November 2022 off the coast of Oman and VLCC tanker Nissos Kea on Oct. 21 in “close proximity” to two drone strikes near Yemen’s Ash Shihr oil terminal.
“We’ve seen a recent uptick in attacks by Iran,” Hawkins told S&P Global. “Threats to commercial shipping, which have recently manifested in unwarranted and dangerous attacks by Iran, certainly have our attention. We are working very closely with regional maritime partners, including the shipping industry, to enhance our vigilance in international waters, increase information sharing and improve coordination.”
The unmanned drones, which are up to 38 feet long, collect data on shipping movements through sensors, which is then processed through artificial intelligence programs. Of the planned 100 platforms, 20 of them will be provided by the US and 80 from partner nations, Kurilla said.
“They’re allowing us to identify normal and abnormal vessels of interest,” he said. “So think of these as indication and warning sensors, much like scouts out there, to then use our manned assets more efficiently.”
The shipping industry is well aware of the unmanned surface vessel fleet in the waters over the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, and there have been no accidents or concerns, Hawkins said. Some 5,000 vessels transit between Suez and the Persian Gulf every year, according to estimates by Minerva Bunkering, the world’s largest physical bunker supplier.
Since January 2021, US and international forces have interdicted more than 15,000 illegal assault weapons and $1 billion of illicit drugs through use of more resources, including Task Force 59 and other security partnerships, Hawkins said.
Other operations have seized disguised explosives, dual-use chemical fertilizer, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, cruise-missile rocket engines, medium-range ballistic missile components and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, he said.
The goal of maritime security doesn’t change even if Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume diplomatic relations, the commander added.
“Iran is a top regional threat. But it’s not the only threat,” Hawkins said. “Others include smuggling, piracy, or anything that is contrary to rules-based international order and the security of regional sea lanes essential to the global economy.”