A U.S.-led task force said it plans to deploy over 100 unmanned vessels in the Persian Gulf, days after an Iranian drone attack allegedly targeted Pacific Zircon, a tanker operated by Israel-owned firm.
“By this time next year, Task Force 59 will bring together a fleet of over 100 unmanned surface and subsurface vessels operating together, communicating together and providing maritime domain awareness,” U.S. Central Command Commander General Erik Kurilla said.
Launched in September 2021, Task Force 59 was created in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, to integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence (AI) into Middle East operations following a series of drone attacks blamed on Iran.
In addition to the unmanned vessels, the U.S. is “building an experimentation program here in the Middle East to beat adversary drones with our partners,” Kurilla said without elaborating.
The CENTCOM chief called the development of “adversary drones” the greatest technological threat to regional security.
Attack on Pacific Zircon
On November 15, the Liberian-flagged, Singaporean-owned and Israeli-affiliated Pacific Zircon was allegedly hit by Iranian drone attack. Singapore’s Eastern Pacific Shipping Company said the ship “was hit by a projectile approximately 150 miles off the coast of Oman.”
Officials identified the drone as a HESA Shahed 136, similar to Iran-made loitering munitions used by Russia in Ukraine.
“Upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran likely conducted this attack using a UAV, a lethal capability it is increasingly employing directly and via its proxies throughout the Middle East and proliferating to Russia for use in Ukraine,” U.S National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.
Iran opposes deployment of drone boats
Responding to the deployment, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the pervasive presence of unmanned vessels by extra-regional countries has doubled the region's problems.
"We consider the presence of [extra-regional] forces in the region to be a threat to the peace and stability of the region, and we believe that they have become a threat to the Persian Gulf region and the Oman Sea, as well as energy security in the region," Amir-Abdollahian said at a joint press conference with his Omani counterpart Sayyid Badr Albusaidi in Tehran.
Former head of CENTCOM General Frank McKenzie had said Iran “can strike effectively across the breadth and depth of the Middle East. They could strike with accuracy, and they could strike with volume.”
“Iran’s strategic capacity is now enormous,” he said. “They’ve got overmatch in the theater – the ability to overwhelm.”