Abandon the Middle East? The Navy’s drone fleet says otherwise


For more than a decade, Washington’s Arab partners in the Persian Gulf have feared that the United States will slowly abandon the region. This view ignores the strong evidence that the US security commitment remains high, even in light of the recent spat between the US and Saudi Arabia over oil prices. However, the 50-year-old Carter Doctrine, the foundation of the US security commitment in the Gulf region, needs updating and reaffirmation.

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

But the specter of columns of tanks rolling across the desert is not one of the security nightmares of the twenty-first century in the Gulf. Concern is now focusing on precision-guided missile strikes, missiles and drones. attacks by non-state actors and terrorist groups; and “gray zone warfare,” including cyberattacks and new forms of sophisticated subversion.

With setbacks like 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 Iran’s 2019 missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, Washington’s Gulf partners don’t know anymore what. That would lead to the US move.

President Joe Biden’s administration appears to be taking its security role in the Gulf more seriously. This month, after Saudi Arabia detected credible threats of an imminent Iranian missile and/or drone attack, American fighter jets took off and flew close to Iran in an aggressive show of deterrence. A spokesperson for the National Security Council declared emphatically, “We will not hesitate to act to defend our interests and our partners in the region.”

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

To secure the flow of commercial energy and shipping, as well as general maritime security, the United States is developing and deploying an advanced surveillance system known as the Digital Ocean. In particular, it will help protect the three critical maritime chokepoints in the Middle East: the Suez Canal, the Bab el-Mandeb 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 underwater, aerial systems and — thanks to recent breakthroughs in technology — unmanned surface systems, all in a real-time format. Artificial intelligence evaluates information gathered by cameras, radar and other sensors to create a constantly updated 3D surveillance picture of all ships operating in vast sea areas. When AI systems detect anything unusual or inexplicable, the information is immediately shared 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 United States is leading these efforts, it is not sailing alone. According to Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander of the Fifth Fleet, the goal is to have 100 unmanned surface ships patrolling the Gulf waters by the end of summer 2023, 20% from the United States and 80% from regional and international partners. It is precisely the kind of security development that demonstrates not only the depth of the United States’ commitment to the region but also the willingness of allies to share the burden.

Ultimately, the system will be used in sensitive waterways around the world. But the fact that it is being introduced first in the Gulf is clear evidence of how serious the United States is about regional security. Yet despite this massive political fallout, the Digital Ocean remains largely unknown to the domestic public, and largely unacknowledged by analysts and opinion leaders who regularly criticize Washington for presumably turning its back on the region to focus on 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 look at the long term — by making clear exactly how the Carter Doctrine will work in the twenty-first century, and what kinds of threats might trigger U.S. military responses. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to know when, exactly, the United States will step in to defend them.

An update of the Carter Doctrine, along with long-term deterrence efforts such as the Digital Ocean, would fully debunk the dangerous misconception that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and abandoning its Gulf Arab partners.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

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

Energy security is the global priority for 2023: Javier Plas

Is the US-Saudi dispute permanent? These three events will tell us: Hussein Ibish

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.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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