The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy support ship "Shahid Baziar" towing a US Navy Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel in the Gulf.

Pentagon combines maritime drones and artificial intelligence to guard the Gulf region

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps support ship Shahid Baziar tows the U.S. Navy’s Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface ship in the Persian Gulf. – Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO

Paul HANDLEY

Iran’s recent seizure of U.S. Navy drone boats has shed light on the Pentagon’s pioneering program to develop networks of air, surface and underwater drones to patrol large regions, combining their surveillance with artificial intelligence.

A year ago, the program uses a slew of unmanned surface ships, or USVs, in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula to collect data and images to send back to collection centers in the Persian Gulf.

The program ran without incident until Iranian forces attempted to hijack three seven-meter Saildrone Explorer USVs in two incidents, August 29-30 and September 1.

In the first case, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ship caught a Saildrone in a bay and began towing it, releasing it only when a US Navy patrol boat and helicopter rushed to the scene.

In the second case, an Iranian destroyer picked up two Saildrones in the Red Sea and brought them aboard.

Two US Navy destroyers and helicopters quickly descended and persuaded the Iranians to surrender them the next day, but only after their cameras were removed, the US military said.

The Iranians said the USVs were on international shipping lanes and were picked up “to prevent possible accidents.”

The US Navy stated that the USVs were operating off sea lanes and were unarmed.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Central Command, called Iran’s actions “egregious, unreasonable and inconsistent with the behavior of professional naval forces.”

The US military “will continue to fly, swim and operate wherever international law allows,” he added.

– A year at sea –

The drones are operated by Bahrain-based Task Force 59 of the US 5th Fleet, created last year to integrate drone systems and artificial intelligence into operations in the Middle East.

Airborne and underwater drones are fairly well developed and tested, but surface drones are much newer and still necessary for the future, 5th Fleet commander spokesman Tim Hawkins told AFP.

Since last year, the US Navy and regional partners have deployed both slow-moving USVs like the Saildrone and battery-powered fast boats like the Mantas T-12.

Fitted with solar panels and sail wings, the Saildrone is equipped with multiple sensors and cameras and is designed to last up to a year at sea, transmitting data via satellite.

San Francisco-based Saildrone operates approximately 100 ships worldwide for clients including the Pentagon, major oceanographic institutes, meteorological agencies and groups studying fisheries and pollution.

“Having circumnavigated Antarctica in 2019 and then passed through the eye of a Category 4 hurricane last year, there really is no marine environment that our drones cannot operate in,” said Saildrone spokesperson Susan Ryan.

– Focus on Iranian activities –

In the Persian Gulf, Hawkins would only say that they are gathering information to “increase our vigilance regarding the surrounding seas and strengthen our regional deterrence posture.”

But Iranian activity is probably the main target.

Iran also patrols the region and has seized and seized foreign commercial and US Navy ships in recent years in several tense encounters.

The US Navy has sought to prevent Iran from supplying arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and other groups, and is also helping to impose sanctions on Iran.

The key, according to Hawkins, is to take the information collected from all kinds of unmanned sources, in the air, on land and at sea, and make sense of it quickly.

AI helps identify unusual activity, such as undetected vessels, in USV data that human observers might miss.

“You need artificial intelligence to choose what deserves more attention,” he said.

– Not a secret –

Hawkins said it was not clear why, only a year into the program, the Iranians suddenly decided to try to get back a few sailing drones.

He noted that everything the US does is not a secret.

The program was announced last September, and in February the 5th Fleet hosted International Maritime Exercise 2022, which brought together representatives from 10 countries and more than 80 USVs to test in the Persian Gulf.

However, the US has decided to deploy Task Force 59 in the tension-filled Persian Gulf rather than in another less challenging region, and the move is obviously worrying Tehran.

The US military says the program is aimed in part at developing tactics and doctrines for operating IFVs, including learning how to deal with a country like Iran trying to take them from the sea.

Right now the US is using them with manned surface ships in the vicinity to eliminate jamming.

“You can’t just go and pick up things in the ocean that have a country’s flag on them,” one US official said.

“If it is the sovereign property of our people, they should give it away,” the official said.

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