The Pentagon combines drones and artificial intelligence to monitor the Gulf region

Washington (AFP) – Iran’s recent seizure of U.S. Navy boats has highlighted the Pentagon’s pioneering program to develop networks of aerial, surface and underwater drones to patrol large areas, linking their monitoring with artificial intelligence.

The year-old program operates several unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, collecting data and images to be transmitted back to collection centers in the Gulf.

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

In the first, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards ship suspended a line with a Seal Drone in the Gulf and began towing it away, only releasing it when a US Navy helicopter and patrol boat rushed to the scene.

In the second, an Iranian destroyer picked up two Saildrones in the Red Sea, and raised them on board.

Two US Navy destroyers and helicopters landed quickly, and they persuaded the Iranians to abandon them the next day, but only after taking their cameras off, according to the US military.

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

The US Navy said US warships were operating well outside the shipping lanes and unarmed.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, described Iran’s actions as “egregious, unjustified, and inconsistent with the conduct of a professional naval power.”

He added that US forces “will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

One year at sea

The drones are operated by the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet Task Force 59, which was set up last year to integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into Middle East operations.

# photo 1

Airborne and undersea drones are well developed and proven, but unmanned surface boats are much newer but essential for the future, a spokesman for the Fifth Fleet, Tim Hawkins, told AFP.

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

Equipped with solar panels and sail wings, the Saildrones aircraft carry numerous sensors and cameras, and are designed to spend up to a year at sea transmitting data via satellite.

San Francisco-based Saildrone operates about 100 ships around the world for clients including the Pentagon, major oceanographic institutes, meteorological agencies, and groups that study fisheries and pollution.

“Having circumnavigated Antarctica in 2019 and then sailed through the eyes of a Category 4 hurricane last year, there really isn’t any marine environment our drones can’t operate in,” Saildrone spokeswoman Susan Ryan said.

Focus on Iranian activities

In the Gulf, Hawkins only said they are gathering information in order to “enhance our vigilance in the surrounding seas and strengthen our regional deterrent posture”.

But Iranian activities are likely to be the main target.

Iran also patrols the area and has arrested and detained foreign merchant ships and harassed US Navy ships in several tense confrontations in recent years.

The US Navy has sought to prevent Iran from shipping weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen and other groups, and has also helped impose sanctions on Iran.

The key, Hawkins said, is to take information gathered from all kinds of unmanned sources, in the air, on land and at sea, and quickly understand it.

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

“You need AI to determine what requires more attention,” he said.

no secret

Hawkins said it was not clear why, a year after the program began, the Iranians suddenly decided to try to recover some of the Celdrones.

# photo 2

He pointed out that what the United States is doing is no secret.

The program was announced last September, and in February, the Fifth Fleet hosted the International Maritime Exercise 2022, which brought together 10 countries and more than 80 USVs for trial in the Gulf.

However, the United States chose to place Task Force 59 in the tense Gulf region rather than another, less challenging region, and the activities seem to have upset Tehran.

The US military says the program is in part about developing tactics and doctrines for operating USVs, including learning how to deal with a country like Iran trying to wrest it from the sea.

At the moment, the United States occupies them with manned surface ships nearby to deal with the intervention.

One US official said, “You can’t go pick up things from the ocean with a country flag on it.”

“If it’s a sovereign property of our nation, they should give it up,” the official said.

Leave a Comment