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US launching new drone task force on Iran’s doorstep – week after exiting Afghanistan

An MQ-9 SeaGuardian unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft system flies over Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) during U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe)
September 08, 2021

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet announced on Wednesday it will stand up a new task force of airborne, sea surface and underwater drones in its area of operations. The task force comes a week after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan and amid a series of mysterious attacks throughout the Middle East that Iran may be behind.

“We want to put more systems out in the maritime domain above, on and below the sea,” 5th Fleet commanding Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said in a statement shared with the Associated Press. “We want more eyes on what’s happening out there.”

The 5th Fleet did not specify what types of drone systems they would use, but the new task force will spread unmanned systems throughout the region to monitor critical chokepoints throughout the waterways of the Middle East, which are crucial to the global energy supply and shipping.

In late July, a drone attack targeting an Israeli oil tanker, M/T Mercer Street, resulted in the deaths of two of its crew members. The attack took place off the coast of Oman. Following the attack on Mercer Street, an explosive investigative team attached to the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) boarded the Israeli tanker and found debris consistent with Iranian drone parts.

The attack on Mercer Street isn’t the only attack in the region suspected of having been carried out either by Iran or with Iranian equipment and support. Other Israeli ships have also been the targets of suspected Iranian missile attacks in March and April of this year.

On Wednesday, Cooper did not directly link the launch of the 5th Fleet drone task force to any specific threat from Iran, but said, “We’re very aware of Iran’s posture and we’ll be prepared to deal with that appropriately. I’m going to leave it at that.”

Cooper also gave some indication that the new drone task force may be part of an effort to test U.S. drone capabilities.

“I think that environment really suits us well to experiment and move faster,” Cooper said. “And our belief is if the new systems can work here, they can probably work anywhere else and can scale them across other fleets.”

The U.S. Navy has been experimenting with drone swarm technologies, incorporating back airborne drones and unmanned surface vessels like the Sea Hawk and the Sea Hunter.

In April, the U.S. Navy conducted its Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) drills for 2021, which saw a swarm of both manned and unmanned aircraft and surface vessels working together on a variety of at-sea tasks, including guiding a missile to its target without the use of any active sensor systems.