The Future-Seeking, Team-Building 5th Fleet Is Busier Than Ever
The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Persian Gulf forces explains how they epitomize the Pentagon’s new strategic approach to the Middle East.
In recent years, the United States has stepped up its efforts to promote a Middle East security order in which cooperation is more widely preached and effectively practiced among like-minded nations. Nowhere has this multilateral approach to regional security been more credible and fruitful than in the maritime domain.
Shared security threats focused on Iranian aggression, coupled with a mutual desire to unlock great economic opportunities, have prompted an increasing number of Arab states and Israel to cooperate more closely at sea. Yet no factor has been more instrumental to this cooperation than U.S. leadership with U.S. Central Command’s renewed focus on partnerships.
For example, earlier this year, the Bahrain-based U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet led the largest international maritime exercise in the Middle East to date. It included more than 60 nations and international organizations, all working together to improve capabilities and interoperability.
In November 2021, the United States launched a naval exercise in the Red Sea in which it trained side-by-side with Arab and Israeli navies to help ensure freedom of navigation. Though the drill was historic, it was a logical consequence of the increasing closeness in Arab-Israeli relations following the Abraham Accords in September 2020, which saw the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalize their ties with Israel.
But beyond these two exercises, for more than two decades, the United States has led the mission of maritime security in the region through the Combined Maritime Forces—a coalition comprising 34 member nations that seeks to foster familiarity and improve coordination on counterterrorism, counterpiracy, and maritime interdiction operations—and since 2019, the 11-member International Maritime Security Construct, which was created to deter and respond to Iranian threats to the freedom of commerce and navigation.
The United States is deeply invested in a leadership role in Middle East maritime security for two main reasons. First, vital American interests are at stake in that critical part of the world. The region’s waters host many of the world’s most important trade routes that fuel the global economy. About 27 percent of international oil travels through the Strait of Hormuz and 20 percent of all global commerce depends on the Suez Canal. This means that disruptions in the region can easily be felt at home and abroad, hence the critical need to prevent them.
Second, with the demand for greater U.S. resources in Asia to meet the rising challenge of China, the United States must use its robust regional partnerships to share the responsibilities of maritime security. And those partnerships can only be nurtured and developed through consistent U.S. leadership and involvement.
That’s why the 5th Fleet has been incredibly busy lately. It has expanded the Combined Maritime Forces and the International Maritime Security Construct this year by establishing a Red Sea task force and welcoming India, Romania, Seychelles, and Latvia as new partners. In addition, it has dramatically increased joint patrols, training, and exercises in regional waters; it is on track to more than double its exercises in 2022 with more than 70.
This hub-and-spokes system has yielded record results. For example, the United States seized three times more illegal arms last year during interdictions at sea than in 2020. U.S. forces also helped the British navy confiscate weapons components for the type of cruise missiles launched in attacks against Saudi and Emirati citizens earlier this year. There have been important successes in the area of drug interdictions, too. In 2021, U.S. and coalition navies seized more illegal drugs in value than the previous four years combined. With significant seizures in 2022, U.S. and partner forces are now on course to interdict more than $1 billion worth of drugs over two years.
But the United States is not taking its relationships for granted. Instead, it is strengthening and broadening them through the integration of new technologies that could revolutionize naval operations. By integrating unmanned systems with artificial intelligence, American and regional forces are putting more eyes out on the water to expand how far operators can see.
Every partner and every sensor can add new information to a “Digital Ocean” that enables artificial intelligence to swiftly recognize abnormal activity and send the information to a command center where a human decision-maker determines what to do. This vast, integrated network of manned and unmanned sensors—from seabed, to surface, to space—isn’t decades or years from now. The 5th Fleet and its regional partners are using this technology today.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Kingdom recently conducted a drill in the Gulf where maritime drones with cameras and sensors were used to locate and identify objects in the water. The drones relayed images to command centers in near-real time, which would have been unimaginable months ago. By rapidly fielding these new technologies, the 5th Fleet is on the cusp of building an unmanned fleet in the Middle East with significant contributions from regional partners. These nations recognize the value of improving their visibility at sea. Moving forward and harnessing these systems together are leading America and its regional partners to rapidly achieve safer seas and improve maritime security for all.
Through partnership and innovation, the United States has a strategic opportunity to turn an old vision into reality: a more multilateral regional security order, where the United States doesn’t have to do it all but serves as leader and facilitator. The U.S. Navy is ready to play those roles, but to secure the buy-in and full cooperation of regional partners, it must stay the course.
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper is the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Combined Maritime Forces. Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security Program.
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