The 1980 Doctrine stated that the US would intervene to prevent an outside power from taking control of the region. It was clear that this included repelling attacks on the Gulf Arab states, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
But the specter of tank columns rolling across the desert isn’t the stuff of 21st-century Gulf security nightmares. Concern now focuses on precision-guided missiles, missiles and drone strikes; attacks by non-state actors and terrorist groups; and “grey zone warfare”, which includes cyber-attacks and new forms of advanced sabotage.
Due to setbacks, such as President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 “red line” against the Syrian dictatorship’s use of chemical weapons, and President Donald Trump’s refusal to respond to Iran’s 2019 missile attack on Saudi Arabia Aramco facilities, Washington’s Gulf partners no longer know what would trigger US action.
President Joe Biden’s administration appears to be taking its security role in the Gulf more seriously. This month, after Saudi Arabia discovered credible threats of an imminent Iranian missile and/or drone strike, US fighter jets scrambled and flew near Iran in an aggressive show of deterrence. A spokesman for the National Security Council stated bluntly: “We will not hesitate to act in defense of our interests and partners in the region.”
This decisive action should have received more attention than in the region. Even less appreciated is a massive new maritime security effort being pioneered by the US in the Gulf, Arabian Sea and adjacent waters.
To safeguard energy flow and commercial shipping, as well as general maritime safety, the US is developing and deploying an advanced surveillance system known as Digital Ocean. In particular, it will help protect the three critical maritime bottlenecks 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 Task Force 59 of the Fifth Fleet, this operation integrates underwater, airborne and – thanks to recent technological breakthroughs – surface unmanned systems, all in real-time coordination. Artificial intelligence assesses the information gathered by cameras, radar and other sensors to create a three-dimensional, constantly updated surveillance image of all ships operating in vast sea areas. When AI systems detect something unusual or inexplicable, the information is immediately shared and further investigated by other drones and assessed by humans. The US systems are controlled by operators in California and connected by satellite.
While the US is leading the effort in the effort, it is not sailing alone. According to Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander of the Fifth Fleet, the goal is to have 100 unmanned surface craft patrolling Gulf waters by the end of the summer of 2023, 20% of which will be from the US and 80% from regional and international partners. It is precisely the kind of security development that demonstrates not only the deep commitment of the US to the region, but also the willingness of allies to share the burden.
Ultimately, the system will be used in vulnerable waterways around the world. But the fact that it is being introduced first in the Gulf is a clear demonstration of the seriousness of the US with regard to regional security. But despite these huge political implications, Digital Ocean remains largely unknown to the local public and largely unrecognized by analysts and opinion leaders who regularly criticize Washington for supposedly turning its back on the region to focus on China and the Pacific.
The US’ readiness to confront Iran this month was a reassuring immediate response to an imminent threat. But Washington should also look at the longer term — clarifying exactly how the Carter Doctrine functions in the 21st century and what types of threats would provoke US military responses. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to know exactly when the US will step in to defend them.
Updating the Carter Doctrine, along with longstanding deterrence efforts such as Digital Ocean, would thoroughly debunk the dangerous misconception that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East and abandoning its Arab partners in the Gulf.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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