The 1980 doctrine stated that the US would intervene to prevent an outside power from gaining control of the region. This was understood to include repelling all attacks on Gulf Arab states, such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
But the specter of tank columns rolling through the desert is not the stuff of 21st-century security nightmares in the Gulf. Concern now focuses on precision-guided missile, missile and drone attacks; attacks by non-state actors and terrorist groups; and Gray Zone Warfare, including cyberattacks and new forms of sophisticated 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 the 2019 Iranian missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities , Washington’s golf partners no longer have any idea what would trigger the US action.
President Joe Biden’s administration appears to be taking its security role in the Gulf more seriously. This month, after Saudi Arabia detected credible threats of an imminent Iranian missile and/or drone attack, US warplanes scrambled and flew near Iran in an aggressive display of deterrence. A spokesman for the National Security Council bluntly stated: “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 undertaken by the US in the Gulf, Arabian Sea and adjacent waters.
To secure the flow of energy and merchant shipping, as well as general maritime security, the US is developing and implementing a state-of-the-art surveillance system called Digital Ocean. In particular, it will help protect the three key 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 Fifth Fleet’s Task Force 59, this operation integrates underwater, airborne and – thanks to recent technological breakthroughs – surface unmanned systems, all in real-time coordination. Artificial intelligence evaluates the information gathered by cameras, radar and other sensors to create a three-dimensional, constantly updated surveillance picture of all ships operating in vast areas of sea. When AI systems discover something unusual or inexplicable, the information is immediately shared and further examined by other drones and evaluated by humans. The US systems are controlled by operators in California and connected via satellite.
While the US is leading 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 vessels patrolling Gulf waters by the end of summer 2023, 20% by the US and 80% by regional and international partners. It is precisely the kind of security development that demonstrates not only strong US commitment to the region, but allies’ willingness to share the burden.
After all, the system is used in sensitive waterways around the world. But the fact that it will be introduced first in the Gulf is clear testimony to the seriousness of the US when it comes to regional security. Yet despite these huge political implications, Digital Ocean remains largely unknown to the local public and largely unacknowledged by analysts and opinion leaders, who regularly criticize Washington for allegedly turning its back on the region to focus on China and the Pacific .
The US willingness to confront Iran this month was a reassuring immediate response to an imminent threat. But Washington should also look longer term — by clarifying exactly how the Carter Doctrine works in the 21st century and what types of threats would trigger US military responses. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to know exactly when the US will intervene to defend them.
Updating the Carter Doctrine, along with long-term deterrence efforts like Digital Ocean, would thoroughly debunk the dangerous misconception that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East and abandoning its Arab Gulf partners.
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This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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