The 1980s doctrine required the US to intervene to prevent any extra power from taking over the region. They understood that this included some attacks on Arab Gulf states, such as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
But the specter of column tanks rolling across the desert is not the stuff of 21st century Gulf security dreams. He is now concerned with missile, rocket and drone attacks; attacks by activists and terrorist groups; and the “gray zone of warfare” including cyberattacks and new sophisticated forms of sabotage.
Because of setbacks like President Barack Obama’s failure of his 2012 “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian dictatorship, and President Donald Trump’s refusal to respond to the 2019 Iranian missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, Washington’s gulf allies without already knowing what would trigger US action.
President Joe Biden appears to be taking his administration’s security role in the Gulf more seriously. This month, after Saudi Arabia detected a credible threat of an imminent missile attack and/or an Iranian missile attack, a fighter jet broke stealth and flew near Iran in a show of aggressive deterrence. A spokesman for the national security council made it clear: “We will not hesitate to act to protect our interests and partners in the region.”
This decisive action deserves more attention than in the region. Even less appreciated is the massive new effort in increased maritime security by the US in the Gulf, Arabian Sea and adjacent waters.
For the flow of energy and commercial shipping, as well as for general maritime security, the US is developing and deploying a cutting-edge surveillance system called Digital Ocean. In particular, it will help choke off three fixed maritime points in the Middle East: the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandab at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.
Led by the Fifth Class Task Force 59, this operation integrates underwater, air and — with recent breakthroughs in technology — unmanned surface systems, all in real-time coordination. Artificial intelligence evaluates data collected by cameras, radar and other sensors to create a three-dimensional, continuously updated surveillance picture of all vessels operating in vast marine areas. When AI systems detect something unusual or inexplicable, the information is immediately and further investigated by other drones and evaluated by humans. The US system is controlled by operators in California and linked by satellite.
While the US is focusing its efforts, it is not sailing alone. According to Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of the Fifth Fleet, the goal is to have 100 unmanned surface vessels plying Gulf waters by the end of summer 2023, 20% from the US and 80% from regional and international partners. This very type of security development demonstrates not only the depth of US commitment to the region, but also the willingness of allies to share the burden.
Eventually the system will be used in sensitive waters around the world. What is being introduced for the first time in the Gulf is a clear demonstration of the importance of the US regarding regional security. However, despite these immense political implications, the Digital Ocean remains largely unknown to the local public, and largely unknown to analysts and opinion leaders, who regularly criticize Vienna for re-focusing its region on China and the Pacific.
U.S. readiness to step up this month’s response to Iran’s imminent threat was reassuring. But Washington also needs to look at the longer term – clarifying exactly how the Carter Doctrine functions in the 21st century, and what types of threats trigger the US military to respond to. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to know when, exactly, the US will step in to defend them.
The alignment of the Carter Doctrine, with long-term deterrence efforts like the Digital Ocean, completely undermines the dangerous mistake that the US will withdraw from the Middle East and abandon its Arab Gulf allies.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington.
More stories like this are available at flowerberg.com/opinion