Maritime security in the Middle East matters. We currently face challenges and must address those challenges by pursuing new opportunities now and into the future. As CNO’s NAVPLAN states, “our naval power is amplified by sailing and integrating with like-minded navies.” This is a core mission focus in U.S. 5th Fleet today. We are strengthening and expanding our alliances and strategic partnerships to bolster regional deterrence.
In February, more than 60 nations and international partners joined forces during International Maritime Exercise/Cutlass Express (IMX/CE) 2022—the largest naval exercise in the region. This level of representation not only demonstrated global resolve in preserving the rules-based international order but also global recognition that maritime security in the Middle East is essential. As demonstrated when the merchant vessel Ever Given inadvertently blocked the Suez Canal in March 2021, an open and secure maritime environment is critically important for global trade.
The oceans of the world have long served as a path to new frontiers and new opportunities far beyond national borders. Instability in regional waters can have far-reaching consequences elsewhere. Today, 90 percent of the world’s trade travels by water, meaning the security of maritime trade routes is vital not just for the United States but for all nations.
Waterways in the Middle East are particularly dynamic and unique. With 5,000 miles of coastline and three critical chokepoints, the regional maritime environment is vulnerable to destabilizing behavior from both state and non-state actors. Actions such as piracy and smuggling threaten the free flow of commerce and therefore regional security and stability. Iran also poses a significant regional challenge, which manifests in three main forms: (1) nuclear forces development; (2) ballistic missile, cruise missile, and aerial drone proliferation; and (3) proxy forces.
Iranian proxy force threats are well understood throughout the region. The United States strongly condemns the recent Houthi attacks that have caused civilian casualties and threatened regional partners and U.S. forces stationed nearby. Demonstrating our support to the United Arab Emirates, the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) visited Jebel Ali in February to partner with the UAE’s highly capable maritime forces. Our commitment to strategic partnerships in the Middle East is unwavering.
Iran’s attack last July on the commercial ship Mercer Street is another reminder of the serious threat Iran poses in the region. Iran used a one-way unmanned aerial vehicle to attack the vessel and crew transiting the Arabian Sea, killing the ship’s Romanian master and a British security guard.
Other destabilizing maritime activities observed in nearby waters include illicit narcotics and arms trafficking. As a result of increased patrols, U.S. and international forces seized more illegal drugs during counternarcotics operations at sea last year than the previous four years combined. The U.S. Navy also seized 8,700 illicit weapons in regional waters last year, three times more than in 2020.
Given the size of our shared maritime environment, no navy acting alone can protect against all threats. Therefore, the key to addressing these challenges is to work together in a coordinated, multinational way. Combined Maritime Forces, the 34-nation partnership headquartered alongside U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, forms the world’s largest standing naval organization. Egypt joined CMF last year and we expect to add new members this year.
International maritime forces are at their best when working with and through one another to address common challenges. This includes protecting commercial shipping transiting the Bab al Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz. The eight-nation International Maritime Security Construct fills this role by conducting patrols in these important trade routes. Established in 2019 in response to Iranian attacks on merchant shipping, it looks forward to welcoming additional nations to the partnership this year.
We are also engaging regional navies to develop a focused, partnered effort for persistent and sustainable maritime security in the Red Sea, a strategically important waterway. Any destabilizing activity in these waters threaten vital maritime traffic and coastal infrastructure. Though partnered navies do not intercept every illicit shipment or prevent every threat, our coordinated efforts do remove significant amounts of weapons and narcotics from the streets and battlefields. These same efforts also serve as a significant deterrent for smugglers and malign actors. Therefore, we must enhance our deterrence posture by not only strengthening regional partnerships but also accelerating innovation.
Current technology is limited in detecting maritime threats. We need more eyes above, on, and below the sea to have greater visibility and awareness of what is happening in the maritime domain. To sustainably enable increased vigilance and detection capabilities, we must rapidly drive the discovery and use of new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence. U.S. Fifth Fleet launched a new task force last fall to accelerate innovation in this area. Task Force 59 currently operates unmanned surface systems from Bahrain and Jordan. In the coming weeks and months, we will expand our collaboration with regional partners.
International Maritime Exercise/Cutlass Express (IMX/CE) 2022 was the largest unmanned maritime exercise to date. It featured extensive use of unmanned systems in various operational scenarios designed to challenge the technology in a dynamic environment. We assessed 14 different operational concepts for integrating unmanned systems and artificial intelligence. Ultimately, we will transition these concepts into real-world operational capability.
The military is on the cusp of an unmanned technological revolution, which is why I predict maritime security in the region will look very different in 10 years and perhaps unrecognizable in 30. Ideally, we will develop an unmanned network alongside our international partners that will deny malign actors anonymity in the maritime environment and strengthen our collective capabilities to deter destabilizing activity. Increased awareness and vigilance are powerful enablers of regional maritime security and global prosperity.
To be clear, our Navy’s mission here in the region is focused on deterrence. Should deterrence fail, we maintain a high level of readiness. We continue to exercise on, above, and below the sea with joint and regional partners. In the last few days, for example, we conducted complex live-fire exercises with Air Force F-16 Falcons, an AC-130 Gunship, and the guided-missile destroyer USS Gridley (DDG-101), maintaining our readiness to fight and win should the need arise.
Although threats to maritime security in the region are very present, there is great reason for optimism. Regional navies are working more closely today than at any point in the past. The United States is steadfast in its commitment to working by, with, and through our maritime partners to safeguard these regional waters. Our shared commitment to maritime security and stability across the region binds us.
Decades of international cooperation with the U.S. military have served as a cornerstone of this regional security and stability. The integration of new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence presents tremendous opportunities to partner in new and promising ways. Modernizing our fleets to harness these technologies will help us continue protecting critical trade routes. We look forward to deepening our military ties and mutually strengthening and expanding maritime cooperation.