The United States is rmodernizing its military assets in the Middle East, establishing a new pattern of military deployment. This modernization coincides with the conclusion of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan that lasted for nearly two decades.
These new military assets, along with unmanned assets (e.g. drones, artificial intelligence applications, and laser-fitted weapons) are in line with the growing non-conventional threats across the region. However, this does not necessarily mean abandonment of conventional assets such as missile defense systems that are being simultaneously developed. Restructuring of the US assets is envisioned to attract regional partners from the Middle East and beyond.
With this development, the Middle East seems to be serving as the experience-stager and theater of operations for these types of smart weapon systems. In mid-November 2022, the US Central Command announced the launch of the US navy Task Force 59 (TF-59), the first of its kind in the world. This announcement comes a year after a prior declaration of starting creation of the force. TF-59 is part of the fifth Fleet of the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and is considered the second wing of the US Task Force 99, a drone unit created and deployed in Qatar, whose missions intervene with operations of the four task forces operated by Combined Maritime Forces, including CTF-151 and CTF 153 –the latter is a recent task force which focuses on international maritime security and capacity building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. By launching TF-59, the Central Command has achieved comprehensive defensive coverage in the region.
Operating these assets was accompanied by other pilot tests and activities over the past couple of years, including simulations of the use of laser weaponry to counter naval and air drones, the first of which was carried out in May 2002 and the second in November 2021 from aboard the USS Portland in the Arabian Sea and Bab Al-Mandab. These tests, which are being developed by Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, among others, are envisioned to give rise to products that will go into operation over the next two years.
The operation of the TF-59 was carried out in tandem with the arrest of an Iranian vessel carrying missile fuel in the Sea of Oman on 8 November. Perhaps the seizure of the Iranian vessel speaks volumes of the added value of TF-59. The missile fuel shipment, i.e. 70 tonnes of ammonium perchlorate, was carried on a traditional dhow and hidden inside a shipment of 100 tons of urea. Analysis of the ship route, its shipment, and weight raised suspicion around it. Naval drones moved besieging the vessel whose crew were surprised to find they were encircled by an unmanned force. Following this, as per remarks of US Central Command Commander General Erik Kurilla to the Manama Dialogue, “US Coast Guard ship USCGC John Scheuerman and guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans intercepted the vessel, which was later dumped at sea.
With such smart forces, there will be no need to deploy a large military force for purposes of rapid intervention and monitoring of hostile and large-scale smuggling activities. US reports indicate that a force, comprising only 14 officers and headquartered in the NAVCENT in Bahrain, track these movements along the Sea of Oman to the Arabian Sea to Bab Al-Mandab.
According to the US official declaration “TF-59 will deploy over 100 unmanned vessels”, which would mean a reduction of the deployment cost which the United States used to bear along with regional allies. When it comes to cost, these smart assets are much cheaper than conventional manned assets. Additionally, they will likely reduce human intervention and increase accuracy as regards identifying the nature and intensity of threats in hard-to-reach or suspected locations that are inaccessible or difficult to reach.
Given risk indicators and threats to navigation in the region, significance of TF-59 can be assessed in view of the following points:
o While TF-59 provides an added value to early warning, monitoring, and rapid action operations, thereby undermining many threats that otherwise could have been difficult to reach, strategic military capabilities are correspondingly growing in the region. For instance, in tandem with the operation of TF-59, the Houthi movement was testing a new naval missile on Al-Hudaydah coast and intensified its drone strikes, which are usually employed to suspend operation of oil facilities in Shabwah and Hadhramaut. So, arguably, no matter how much threats are reduced, the viability of Yemen as a vulnerable state and a focal point of conflict would mean continuation of such threats, which can’t be merely addressed by filling defense gaps because the involved actors will work on developing their capacities for deterrence purposes.
- Targeting of the Israeli-linked oil tanker Pacific Zircon by Iran in a drone strike is believed to have come in response to the interception and dumping of the Iranian vessel. Following the Pacific Zircon accident, a team from the Central Command headed to Tel Aviv in an attempt to contain the situation, fearing the resumption of the “shadow tanker war” that erupted between Tehran and Tel Aviv over the last year. As such, modernization of military capabilities in the region doesn’t guarantee preventing such confrontations. Apart from Tel Aviv’s position and its responsiveness to the US calls not to regress to such confrontations, Israel is already involved in modernizing a similar smart fleet in what came to be known as “Naval Iron Dome”. During the recent war on Gaza, the Palestinian factions used naval drones, which drove Israel to develop the Naval Iron Dome. If any indicator, these dynamics give the impression that the region isn’t likely heading to stability and pacification but rather more deterrence and counter-deterrence operations.
- From a logistical and tactical point of view, TF-59 is undeniably an added value. It also lessens the cost burden and promotes partnerships between regional partners in managing and coordinating the deployment, which is a critical factor. However, conventional military capabilities and expertise of regional armies can’t be waved aside, given growing threats facing the region, including non-conventional as well as strategic ones. Remarkably, two weeks after West Virginia was boarded in the Arabian Sea, B25 bombers were seen flying above the Arabian Gulf and roaming the skies of the Middle East. Perhaps, we are, for the first time, speaking of a US nuclear umbrella in the Middle East.