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09/03/23: Gulf nations summon sea drones to curb illicit trafficking

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — All Gulf Cooperation Council countries plan to expand the multinational fleet of unmanned surface vessels in the Middle East, possibly tripling their situational awareness in countering drug and arms trafficking, according to a top U.S. Navy commander in the region.

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At a news conference last month, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who oversees U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, commended the full and active participation of all six GCC states in increasing the patrol units of maritime drones. The council’s members are Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.

“Bahrain and Kuwait have publicly committed to acquiring these systems. Every other country in the region is to some degree along that path of [further] acquisition,” Cooper said. “If you’re a country in the region that can see 20 miles off the coast, given the existing sensors and ships that they have, you can imagine what could be achieved by [employing more] USVs with radars and additional optics. You could see 60 miles, essentially tripling your domain awareness on any given day.”

Such an increase would enable GCC members to surveil more of the waters of the Persian Gulf, with Iran situated on the other side at varying distances between 35 miles at the narrowest point and 200 miles at the widest.

U.S. naval officials last year proclaimed the goal of creating an unmanned fleet of 100 platforms by the end of 2023. Regional and international partners are envisioned to contribute systems to the notional fleet, the thinking goes.

At the briefing, Cooper further emphasized a growing trend in illicit drug and weapons trafficking by criminal and terrorist organizations. Over the course of only two months, five major seizures at sea conducted by U.S. and allied maritime forces resulted in the capture of more than 5,000 weapons, 1.6 million rounds of ammunition, $60 million worth of illegal drugs, 7,000 proximity fuses for rockets and 2,000 kilograms of propellant used for rocket-propelled grenades, he said.

In addition, the Middle East also faces a high degree of oil and gas traffic at sea, which USVs can help protect.

“These threats require a type of platform that can conduct maritime surveillance, find and identify targets while also gathering data without colliding with other vessels,” Adam Watters, program manager for maritime domain awareness solutions at Saildrone told Defense News at the IDEX arms fair here last month.

The U.S. military has been experimenting for some time with the combination of artificial intelligence tools and long-endurance USVs to conduct these types of missions. One of the systems under consideration is Saildrone’s 33-foot Voyager platform, most recently deployed in the U.S. Army’s 2023 AI-enabled target identification exercise, Scarlet Dragon.

Saildrone says that due to an increase in the demand for its services, it is scaling up the production of both the Voyager and the 65-foot Surveyor systems for the year ahead. The week prior to IDEX, two of Saildrone’s Explorer drones also sailed in the first unmanned vessel exercise in the Arabian Gulf between the US Navy and the UAE Navy.

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