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Israel, US wrap up four-day drill in Red Sea with naval drones

Earlier this month Iran attempted to seize two American Saildrone Explorers in area; IDF hails exercise for ‘strengthening cooperation’ in protecting shipping routes

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli Navy vessels sail alongside US naval drones in the Gulf of Aqaba, in an image published by the military on September 22, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli Navy vessels sail alongside US naval drones in the Gulf of Aqaba, in an image published by the military on September 22, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel and the United States on Thursday wrapped up a four-day navy drill in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea that included American naval drones.

During the drill — dubbed “Digital Shield” — Israeli Navy manned vessels from the 915th Fleet and Snapir Unit sailed alongside unmanned systems of the US 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59, according to statements from both militaries.

The Israel Defense Forces said the drill was aimed at “strengthening cooperation” and using “artificial intelligence as part of the operational toolbox.”

According to the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), the drill also focused on “enhancing maritime awareness using unmanned systems and artificial intelligence in support of vessel boarding operations.”

“The cooperation of the forces on manned and unmanned platforms is an innovative opportunity to build an extensive maritime image and to integrate other parties and forces to work together in the maritime arena, with all of them having a common goal, to maintain the security of the region and the various shipping routes,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagri, a senior Navy official, in remarks provided by the IDF.

“Integrating unmanned systems with our partners advances our integration efforts. Ultimately, we are strengthening ties and innovating new capabilities with regional partners to enhance maritime security,” said Lt. Cmdr. William Ricketts of Task Force 59, in remarks published by NAVCENT.

A US Saildrone Explorer is seen during a drill in the Gulf of Aqaba, in an image published by the Israeli military on September 22, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Earlier this month, Iran attempted to seize two US Saildrone Explorers belonging to the 5th Fleet in the Red Sea, the same type of naval drone used in the recent drill, along with a Devil Ray T-38 model.

In footage aired by Iranian state television from the deck of the Iranian navy’s Jamaran destroyer, lifejacket-wearing sailors could be seen examining the two Saildrone Explorers. They tossed one overboard as another warship could be seen in the distance.

In this frame grab from Iranian state television, Iranian navy sailors throw an American sea drone overboard in the Red Sea on September 1, 2022. (Iranian state television via AP)

The 5th Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year. Drones used by NAVCENT include ultra-endurance aerial surveillance drones, surface ships like the SeaHawk and the Sea Hunter, and smaller underwater drones that resemble torpedoes.

The 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes. It also stretches as far as the Red Sea reaches near the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt leading to the Mediterranean, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.

Israel has held several naval exercises with the 5th Fleet, including in April when Israeli missile boats practiced refueling from an American tanker for the first time.

Iran has no coastline along the Red Sea, a crucial international waterway lying between the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa.

In early July, Gantz revealed satellite images he said showed the “most significant” Iranian military maritime activity in the Red Sea in a decade.

Four Iranian military vessels seen in the Red Sea in satellite images revealed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, July 5, 2022. (Defense Ministry)

The region has seen a series of maritime attacks in recent years.

Off Yemen in the Red Sea, bomb-laden drone boats and mines set adrift by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have damaged vessels amid that country’s yearslong war. Near the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz, oil tankers have been seized by Iranian forces. Others have been attacked in incidents the US and Israel blames on Iran.

Those attacks came about a year after then-US president Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which sanctions on Tehran were lifted in exchange for it drastically limiting its enrichment of uranium.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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