Abandoning the Middle East? Navy’s AI Drone Fleet Says Otherwise


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

The 1980 Doctrine held that the US would intervene to prevent any foreign force from gaining control of the region. It was understood that this included repelling any assaults on Gulf Arab states, such as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

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

Because of setbacks such as President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian dictatorship, and President Donald Trump’s refusal to respond to the 2019 Iranian missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, Washington’s Gulf partners no longer know what would trigger US action.

President Joe Biden’s administration seems to be taking its security role in the Gulf more seriously. This month, after Saudi Arabia discovered credible threats of an imminent Iranian missile and/or drone attack, US fighter jets were scrambled and flew near Iran in an aggressive show of deterrence. A National Security Council spokesperson flatly declared, “We will not hesitate to act in the defense of our interests and partners in the region.”

This decisive action ought to have received more attention than it did in the region. Even less appreciated is a massive new effort in maritime security being pioneered by the US in the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and adjacent waters.

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

Led by the Fifth Fleet’s Task Force 59, this operation integrates underwater, aerial and — thanks to recent breakthroughs in technology — surface unmanned systems, all in real-time coordination. Artificial intelligence assesses the information gathered by cameras, radar and other sensors to create a three-dimensional, constantly updated surveillance picture of all vessels operating in vast marine areas. When AI systems detect anything unusual or inexplicable, the information is shared immediately and further investigated by other drones and evaluated by humans. The US systems are controlled by operators in California and linked by satellite.

While the US is spearheading the effort, it isn’t 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% from the US and 80% from regional and international partners. It’s precisely the kind of security development that demonstrates not just the depth of US commitment to 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 first in the Gulf is a clear demonstration of the US seriousness about regional security. Yet, despite these enormous political implications, Digital Ocean remains largely unknown to the local public, and largely unrecognized by analysts and opinion leaders who regularly criticize Washington for supposedly turning its back on the region to focus on China and the Pacific.

US willingness to stand up to Iran this month was a reassuring immediate response to an imminent threat. But Washington should also look at the longer term — by clarifying exactly how the Carter Doctrine functions in the 21st century, and what types of threats would trigger US military responses. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to know when, exactly, the US will step in to defend them.

Updating the Carter Doctrine, along with long-term deterrence efforts like Digital Ocean, would thoroughly debunk the dangerous misapprehension that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East and abandoning its Gulf Arab partners.

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

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

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