The United States military continues to develop new technologies to counter the growing threat from Iran, especially the threat of armed drones targeting military assets in the Middle East.
The idea – and hope – is that new technologies will succeed to deter Iran and compensate for the smaller military footprint the U.S. has in the region, after withdrawing thousands of its forces from Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf region in the past three years.
New technologies under development include a simulator to train soldiers to respond to drone attacks. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) hopes the simulator will be ready in the near future, so it can be tested at the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center in Saudi Arabia early this year.
As part of its Iran-focused deterrence strategy, the U.S. strengthened its air and maritime defense systems in the Middle East over the past year.
Last year, at the annual IISS Manama Dialogue forum in Bahrain, Brett McGurk, the U.S. National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said the U.S. is focused on deterring “imminent threats” from Iran and its terrorist proxies in the region.
“The United States is now actively building and enabling an integrated air and maritime defense architecture in this region,” McGurk said. “Something long talked about is now being done, through innovative partnerships and new technologies.”
Speaking at the Manama conference, CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla said that more than 100 remotely piloted aircraft would be deployed in the Gulf region by 2023.
Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, or the U.S. 5th Fleet, in Bahrain, explained in May that the U.S. Navy will use unmanned vessels and artificial intelligence technology to boost its overall capabilities in these areas.
“Integrating new unmanned systems with artificial intelligence puts more eyes out on the water that we simply had not had in the past,” said Cooper. “We are doing this in lockstep with our regional partners. We established operating hubs for our unmanned systems here in Bahrain and also in Aqaba, Jordan, last year. And then, in February of this year, we conducted the largest unmanned maritime exercise in the world, where 10 nations brought more than 80 unmanned systems to evaluate and operate them in regional waters.”
The focus on technology is meant to reassure the U.S. Middle Eastern allies that it is still a better security partner than alternatives like China or Russia, despite reducing its number of forces in the area. It is also meant to convey that the U.S. military’s solutions are more advanced than those offered by other world powers.
Saudi Arabia recently received Chinese President Xi Jinping with great pomp and fanfare, prompting concern in the Biden administration that Saudi Arabia is moving closer to China.
“We’re still structured as a war-fighting headquarters, but the experimentation is our comparative advantage – that’s what we offer,” Brig.-Gen. John Cogbill, CENTCOM deputy director of operations, told Al-Monitor.
The U.S. military hopes to sharpen its advantage by leveraging non-military resources.
“It’s really about creating an ecosystem around our problems so you can leverage non-DOD resources and capabilities in order to help us do our mission better,” Cogbill said.
Under the technological strategy, much of the deterrence of Iran is supposed to come from unmanned surveillance of Middle Eastern seas, skies and desert-smuggling routes. For that purpose, CENTCOM launched three new experimental units, including the Navy’s Task Force 59, the Air Force’s Task Force 99 and the Army’s Task Force 39.
The Navy’s Task Force 59 (TF59) was established in September 2021 and, within a month, had begun to deploy “unmanned, unarmed, camera-laden sea drones linked by artificial intelligence into the Persian Gulf,” according to Al-Monitor.
According to U.S. Navy officials cited by al-Monitor, the surveillance is already beginning to have an effect and making the Iranians “nervous.” Since its establishment, TF59 has conducted exercises with Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“Task Force 59 is about developing relatively low-cost and operationally sustainable ways to turn the sensitive waterways around the Gulf into a panopticon, robbing Tehran of the ability to threaten commercial shipping or to smuggle weapons with impunity,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said.