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Western allies join US' experimental drone task force in Middle East

Task Force 59 is now fully operationally capable, Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper told an audience of Navy personnel in Washington on Tuesday.
MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Western allies of the United States have contributed new military staff to the Fifth Fleet’s experimental Task Force 59 in Bahrain in recent months, US Navy officials said on Tuesday.

France, the Netherlands and Germany have recently sent military attachés to join the task force’s headquarters to work alongside personnel from the US, UK and Canada, Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper told attendees at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

The unit, which has been experimenting with commercially available unmanned drones to help the US Navy surveil the region’s waterways since October 2021, is now fully operationally capable, Cooper announced Tuesday.

In December, the Navy’s surface forces chief Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener approved a plan for the Fifth Fleet to place junior officers — lieutenants and lieutenant commanders — in charge of squadrons of unmanned vessels paired with manned ships over the coming months.

“When you start to connect two or three [surface drones] with an escort, you essentially can create a radar barrier about 100 miles wide,” Cooper said on Tuesday, adding, “You’re going to see everything.”

Cooper said data from the task force’s roughly 20 AI-linked sea drones can already be displayed on the main screen in Fifth Fleet’s Maritime Operations Center in real time.

Why it matters: Washington has sought in recent years to sway European allies to take on a greater naval role in the Middle East as the Pentagon seeks to deter Iran while focusing its own forces in the Pacific.

The Pentagon’s current tech-enabled approach to deterring Iran may prove more palatable than the aggressive conventional shows of force led by the Trump administration.

Speaking at the symposium on Tuesday, the Pentagon’s Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday reiterated the goal of enabling top US allies not only to be interoperable with the US Navy, but interchangeable.

Task Force 59’s experimentation aims to test commercially available devices that Navy officials say can help deter Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) via surveillance, while testing emerging US technology in rough environments further afield from the Pacific.

Navy officials claim the drones fielded by TF-59 are already beginning to have a deterrent effect on IRGC activity.

Over the weekend, the Fifth Fleet used a guided missile destroyer and two Saildrones to demonstrate techniques developed by TF-59 to members of Task Force Sentinel, multinational naval unit set up by the United States in 2019 to patrol the Bab al-Mandeb Strait in response to Iranian attacks on commercial shipping.

It was the second such exercise bringing TF-59’s findings to the US-led International Maritime Security Construct. “It worked,” Cooper told the audience on Tuesday.

What’s next: Task Force 59 has already conducted exercises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar and Australia and operates out of bases in Bahrain and Aqaba, Jordan.

Cooper said he expects additional basing hubs to be established in the region in the future, and for Middle Eastern navies to acquire and deploy roughly 80 US commercially made surface and underwater drones by this summer.

“So far Bahrain and Kuwait have publicly acquired these systems, and all the other countries in the region are in some form of their own acquisition, mostly of the systems that we operate,” Cooper said Tuesday.

The Navy is still considering Starlink among a number secondary options to layer on top of the mesh network for linking TF-59’s drones, Fifth Fleet spokesperson Cdr. Tim Hawkins told Al-Monitor.

Gilday on Tuesday said the Navy plans to replicate TF-59 elsewhere in the US Navy around the world and eventually to introduce large and medium unmanned surface vessels.

Know more: Read Jared Szuba’s report on how US Central Command is reinventing itself as a hub for tech innovation in the field.

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