Pentagon combines sea drones and AI to monitor Gulf region

Iran’s recent seizure of U.S. Navy unmanned boats shed light on a pioneering Pentagon program to develop networks of aerial, surface and underwater drones to patrol large areas, combining their surveillance with artificial intelligence.

The year-old program operates numerous unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, collecting data and imagery to send back to collection centers in the Gulf.

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

In the first, a ship from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hooked a line to a Saildrone in the Gulf and began towing it, only releasing it when a patrol boat and a navy helicopter American rushed to the scene.

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

Two US Navy destroyers and helicopters quickly descended and persuaded the Iranians to abandon them the next day, but only after removing the cameras from them, according to the US military.

The Iranians said the USVs were on international shipping lanes and had been recovered “to avoid possible accidents”.

The US Navy said the USVs operated well off shipping lanes and unarmed.

vice admiral Brad Coopercommander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, called the Iranian actions “flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”

US forces “will continue to fly, navigate and operate wherever international law permits,” he added.

A year at sea

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

Aerial and underwater drones are fairly well developed and proven, but unmanned surface boats are much newer and yet essential for the future, 5th Fleet spokesperson Tim Hawkins Told AFP.

Since early last year, the US Navy and its regional partners have deployed both slow USVs like Saildrones and battery-powered speedboats like the Mantas T-12.

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

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

“Having circumnavigated Antarctica in 2019 and then having passed through the eye of a category four hurricane last year, there really is no maritime environment that our drones can’t operate on,” said Saildrone’s spokesperson. Susan Ryan.

Focus on Iranian activities

In the Gulf, Hawkins would only say that they collect information to “enhance our vigilance over the surrounding seas and strengthen our regional deterrence posture.”

But Iranian activities are probably the main target.

Iran also patrols the area and has docked and seized foreign commercial vessels and harassed US Navy ships in several tense clashes in recent years.

The US Navy has sought to prevent Iran from shipping weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and other groups, and also helps enforce sanctions against Iran.

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

Artificial intelligence helps identify unusual activity, like unseen vessels, in USV data that human observers might miss.

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

no secrets

Hawkins said it was not clear why only after a year in the program did the Iranians suddenly decide to try to recover Saildrones.

Nothing the United States does is secret, he noted.

The program was announced last September, and in February the 5th Fleet hosted International Maritime Exercise 2022, which brought together 10 nations and more than 80 USVs to be tested in the Gulf.

Even so, the United States chose to place Task Force 59 in the tension-filled Gulf instead of another less difficult region, and the activities apparently disturbed Tehran.

The US military says part of the program is developing tactics and doctrine for operating USVs, including learning how to deal with a country like Iran trying to catch them offshore.

Currently, the United States operates them with nearby manned surface ships to deal with interference.

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

“If it’s the sovereign property of our nation, they have to hand it over,” the official said.

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