· The US Navy revealed an operation last month involving drone boats that tracked Iranian ships.
· The drone boats photographed Iranian speedboats, which constantly harass ships in the Middle East.
· A Navy official said on Friday that the integration of unmanned systems helps monitor the region.
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US forces sent naval drones to keep tabs on Iranian warships and gunboats around key Middle Eastern waters for several days last month, the US Navy revealed on Friday as Washington looks for ways to deter Tehran from consistently harassing foreign military and commercial ships in the region.
The operation, which consisted of a dozen different unmanned platforms and manned ships, saw US assets track vessels belonging to Iran's two maritime forces — its regular navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) — over several days in September. US Naval Forces Central Command, or NAVCENT, said that the mission occurred "during routine patrols" in and around the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
"This operation bolstered presence in and around a critical chokepoint that in recent months has seen Iran unlawfully seize internationally flagged merchant ships," NAVCENT said in a statement, adding that unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were all included.
One USV known as the Arabian Fox MAST-13, which is similar in looks and size to a standard speedboat, captured photographs of Iranian fast-attack boats, drones, and helicopters. These fast-attack boats, which are armed with guns, routinely come out to monitor foreign activity in the area and are often called out for harassing American military ships and internationally flagged commercial vessels. In May, for instance, drone video shared by the US Navy showed a dozen of these speedboats swarm and seize a Panama-flagged oil tanker.
Looking for more ways to surveil and patrol the Middle Eastern waters, the US Navy has turned to a fleet of drone boats — operating both above and below the surface — for the job.
In August 2022, the US Navy said it prevented the IRGC from trying to capture one of its USVs in the in the Persian Gulf. The following month, an Iranian ship managed to briefly seize two American drone boats and even tried to hide them by placing them under a tarp. Tehran eventually released the systems the next day following US military intervention, and nothing of the sort has happened in the year since.
"We have been operating UAVs and UUVs in the region for years," said Capt. Joe Baggett, director of maritime operations for NAVCENT and US 5th Fleet, in the statement. "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."
An unmanned US Navy drone boat, a MAST-13, sailed through the Strait of Hormuz for the first time in April with the Iranians watching closely as it did.
Other images from the September operation that were released by the US Navy on Friday showed an IRGCN warship and an Iranian Navy frigate. The IRGCN ship was photographed by a MARTAC T-38 Devil Ray USV, which looks similar to the Arabian Fox, while the frigate was captured by an Aerovel Flexrotor — a small UAV that is capable of vertical take off and landing.
Service members from the US Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard, as well as aircraft and ships — including the guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul, across seven different task forces participated in last month's operation, according to NAVCENT.
"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 NAVCENT and US 5th Fleet, adding that all these systems will help support the transit of goods around the Strait of Hormuz, which is considered to be one of the world's most important oil chokepoints and where scores of Iranian harassment incidents have taken place in recent years.
"This enhanced maritime security serves as a deterrent against malign activity and strengthens regional stability, which is good for everybody," Cooper said.
Beyond the naval drones, the Pentagon has also dispatched a collection of fighter jets and warships to provide a firepower boost and added means of deterrence in the region. This includes the recent deployment of over 3,000 US sailors and Marines with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, the commander of US Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), said this week that the added American military presence in the region — a mix of naval and airpower — "has deterred Iran from taking any actions against maritime shipping."
"My view is that deterrence is temporal," Grynkewich said at a Defense Writers Group event on Wednesday. He explained that the US is trying to message that the surge in forces is in response to a specific threat but even if the American force presence were to shrink and Iran steps up its activity again, they'll come right back.
"So my hope is that they've seen that message and that they remain deterred over the longer term, but it has had good effects in the meantime," Grynkewich said, according to a transcript of his remarks.