Navy ‘tracks’ Iranian ships with unmanned systems in Strait of Hormuz

Traditionally crewed ships and aircraft teamed up with 12 unmanned platforms to conduct enhanced maritime security operations in the Strait of Hormuz last month.

The exercise involved “tracking” Iranian navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy ships and small boats in the region, according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

“The integration of new, multidomain unmanned platforms into routine fleet operations provides more ‘eyes on the water,’ enhancing maritime domain awareness and increasing deterrence in the region,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet, in a Navy news release Friday.

The operation came after the Navy sent the amphibious assault ship Bataan and dock landing ship Carter Hall, with more than 3,000 sailors and Marines embarked, to U.S. 5th Fleet in July to bolster scurity in the region.

That move was in response to recent attempts by Iran to harass and seize merchant vessels. U.S. Central Command claims Iran has attacked or seized approximately 20 vessels since 2021.

These unmanned platforms can assist keeping navigation safe and promoting the free flow of commerce in the region, Cooper said.

“This enhanced maritime security serves as a deterrent against malign activity and strengthens regional stability, which is good for everybody,” he said.

The Navy did not disclose which type of unmanned platforms participated in the exercise, but said they included underwater, surface and aerial vehicles. Seven task forces were involved.

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Among them was Task Force 59, which was established in September 2021 to foster experimentation and integration of unmanned systems and artificial intelligence with maritime operations. The task force operates more than 100 unmanned vessels, and it has paved the way for similar initiatives involving unmanned systems in Central and South America.

Capt. Joe Baggett, director of maritime operations for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet, noted that the command has operated unmanned systems for years, but said “manned-unmanned teaming” operations will become the norm moving forward.

“Adding our new USVs, and then integrating all of these platforms into fleet operations, is how we expect to fly and sail well into the future,” Baggett said in the release.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told Navy Times’ sister publication, Defense News, in December 2022 that integrating unmanned platforms into maritime operations would require perfecting the technology so they can operate safely and independently, and ensuring that the Navy develops a concept of operations needed to “match the unmanned technology with the manned technology.”

“The third part of that is continue to refine the training and the cultural changes that are necessary so we can train our workforce to be able to integrate those technologies into our warfighting structure, as well as provide the data, the intel and the warfighting capability necessary to support the joint force,” Del Toro said.

The Department of Defense has deployed multiple assets to deter Iranian maritime hostility.

In addition to the Bataan and Carter Hall, the department sent Air Force F-35 and F-16 fighter jets and the destroyer Thomas Hudner to the region in July after Iran tried to seize two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman on July 5.

In one instance, an Iranian ship fired upon one of the merchant vessels, Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters in July. The U.S. Navy destroyer McFaul intervened in both cases and the Iranian vessels subsequently departed the scene.

Last month, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy shined a laser at a Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed with the Bataan.

“These are not the actions of a professional maritime force,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command spokesman Cmdr. Rick Chernitzer said in a statement last month. “This unsafe, unprofessional and irresponsible behavior by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps navy risks U.S. and partner nation lives and needs to cease immediately.”

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