The US decision to remove its Patriot batteries and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) units from the Prince Sultan airbase near Riyadh, confirmed by satellite pictures published by The Associated Press on the 11th of September, is casting doubts on Washington’s commitment to regional allies facing an increasingly challenging landscape, in which Iran is irremediably perceived as a threat.
Reinforce by the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the changing military posture in Iraq, the growing sense of abandonment is pushing many Gulf countries to find alternative options to secure their national interests. This diversification strategy, recently highlighted by the military cooperation agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia and by China’s successful soft power outreach to many Gulf states (the UAE in particular), is showing the limits of the new US administration’s reset policy in the region, proving detrimental to the renewed great power competition framework embraced by Washington at the same time.
In order to assuage the growing mistrust of long-standing allies in the region, adjustments had to be made. In this context, it is worth noting the US State Department’s approval of a US$500 million agreement for military support service to Saudi Arabia announced on 16 September. The deal, which includes maintenance support services for a wide range of helicopters and a future fleet of heavy transport helicopters CH-47D Chinook, is the first major defence agreement with Riyadh sent to the US Congress since President Joe Biden took the office.
More importantly, on the 8th of September the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) announced the establishment of a new task force that will include airborne, sailing and underwater drones in the 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility (AoR) that includes the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and three of the most important maritime chokepoints in the region: Bab al-Mandeb, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.
From the US 5th Fleet’s headquarter in Bahrain, the newly established Task Force 59 (TF 59) will likely use ultra-endurance aerial surveillance drones such as MQ-9B Sea Guardian and the Vanilla unmanned drones; unmanned surface vessels such as the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk and underwater drones. The TF will be the tenth established under the command of the 5th Fleet and it is fully specialised in unmanned and AI-assisted operations, increasing the patrolling endurance and accuracy against possible swarming threats and existing hostile unmanned operations. The first problem to consider will be the political and military course of action if the US unmanned assets will be attacked or electronically jammed/diverted.
Most of these assets are supposed to give an edge to the US and better detect and contain Iran’s escalating activities in the region, which are increasingly relying on remote warfare. Recent incidents, including bomb-laden drone boats and mines set adrift by the Iran-affiliated Houthis (officially known as Ansar Allah) in Yemen, as well as the use of long-range drones and loitering munitions have shown the full extent of Iran’s transformation into a regional drone power, providing Teheran with a plausible deniability option that prevents dangerous escalations.
The establishment of the TF 59 is aimed at containing and deter Iran from carrying out further destabilisation activities in the region, a goal to attend also through diplomatic channels. Within this framework, much will depend not only on the stalled negotiation in Vienna to revive Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but also on direct talks between Riyadh and Teheran, quietly ongoing since May this year.
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Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region