Analysis |  Abandon the Middle East?  The navy's AI drone fleet says otherwise

Analysis | Abandon the Middle East? The navy’s AI drone fleet says otherwise


For more than a decade, Washington’s Arab partners in the Persian Gulf have feared that the United States is slowly abandoning the region. This view ignores strong evidence that the US commitment to security remains high, even given the recent US-Saudi dispute over oil prices. Nonetheless, the 50-year-old Carter Doctrine, which underpins US security engagement in the Gulf region, needs to be updated and reaffirmed.

The 1980 doctrine held that the United States would intervene to prevent any outside force from gaining control of the region. It was understood that this included repelling any attack on Gulf Arab states, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

But the specter of tank columns crossing the desert is not the stuff of 21st century Gulf security nightmares. Concern now focuses on precision-guided missile, rocket and drone attacks; attacks by non-state actors and terrorist groups; and “grey-zone warfare,” including cyberattacks and new forms of sophisticated sabotage.

Due to setbacks such as President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 “red line” against the Syrian dictatorship’s use of chemical weapons and President Donald Trump’s refusal to respond to the missile attack Iran’s 2019 attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, Washington’s Gulf partners are unsure what would trigger US action.

President Joe Biden’s administration appears to be taking its security role in the Gulf more seriously. This month, after Saudi Arabia discovered credible threats of imminent Iranian missile and/or drone attack, US warplanes were dispatched and flew near Iran in an aggressive display of deterrence. A spokesperson for the National Security Council said categorically: “We will not hesitate to act in defense of our interests and our partners in the region.

This decisive action should have received more attention than in the region. Even less appreciated is a massive new maritime security effort launched by the United States in the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and adjacent waters.

To secure energy flow and commercial shipping, as well as general maritime security, the United States is developing and deploying a state-of-the-art surveillance system known as the Digital Ocean. In particular, it will help protect the three crucial maritime choke points in the Middle East: the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandab at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

Led by Fifth Fleet Task Force 59, this operation integrates submarine, airborne and, thanks to recent advances in technology, surface unmanned systems, all in real-time coordination. Artificial intelligence evaluates the information collected by cameras, radars and other sensors to create a three-dimensional and constantly updated surveillance image of all ships operating in large marine areas. When the AI ​​systems detect something unusual or inexplicable, the information is immediately shared and further studied by other drones and evaluated by humans. The US systems are controlled by operators in California and linked by satellite.

While the United States is leading the effort, it is not sailing alone. According to Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the Fifth Fleet, the goal is to have 100 unmanned surface vessels patrolling Gulf waters by the end of summer 2023, 20% of the United States and 80% regional and international partners. It is precisely the type of security development that demonstrates not only the depth of American engagement in the region, but also the willingness of allies to share the burden.

Eventually, the system will be used in sensitive waterways around the world. But the fact that it is being introduced in the Gulf first is a clear demonstration of US seriousness about regional security. Yet despite these enormous political implications, Digital Ocean remains largely unknown to local audiences, and largely unrecognized by analysts and opinion leaders who regularly criticize Washington for supposedly turning its back on the region to focus on the China and the Pacific.

The willingness of the United States to stand up to Iran this month was a reassuring immediate response to an imminent threat. But Washington should also consider the long term – clarifying exactly how the Carter Doctrine works in the 21st century and what kinds of threats would trigger US military responses. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to know exactly when the United States will step in to defend them.

Updating the Carter Doctrine, along with long-term deterrence efforts like Digital Ocean, would completely debunk the dangerous misunderstanding that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and abandoning its Arab partners in the Gulf.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

The Iranian regime is already a big loser at the World Cup: Bobby Ghosh

Energy security is the global priority for 2023: Javier Blas

Is the US-Saudi rift permanent? These 3 events will tell us: Hussein Ibish

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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