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Drones Catch Pirates—and Smugglers

Unmanned surface vessels have come of age and significantly increased seizures in Middle Eastern waters, restraining crime and terrorism.
A British military support ship thwarted a pirate attack on a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden recovering hostages and arresting Somali pirates in this 2009 action. Courtesy Photo, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet.

A British military support ship thwarted a pirate attack on a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden recovering hostages and arresting Somali pirates in this 2009 action. Courtesy Photo, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet.

Drug and weapons seizures in waters around the Arabian Peninsula have flared up following the adoption of new technology in combination with old practices. 

“If I just looked in 2021, we had about $100 million with the seizures which was, actually, more than the previous four years combined,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces. So far this year, seizures have reached $750 million, dwarfing last year's figure.

The uptick came after the deployment of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) keeping constant watch and the creation of a hotline to report tips. 

“This last summer we established a new rewards program: we run a tipline so that anyone could call into this multilingual line and identify a potential threat,” Cooper told journalists.

USVs combine unclassified hardware with artificial intelligence, according to Cooper. The 34-nation partnership securing waters around the Arabian Peninsula has deployed hundreds of these devices, especially in the pirate-infested waters off Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen. 

These systems automatically track suspicious movements using artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the tipline received more than 300 reports in the last 90 days, according to Cooper. Still, this intelligence has produced surprising results on another front. 

“We've seized about 9,000 weapons in the recent past, including cruise missile motors and engines, including surface-to-air missile motors and engines,” Cooper said. 

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Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces.
We've seized about 9,000 weapons in the recent past, including cruise missile motors and engines, including surface-to-air missile motors and engines.
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper
Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces

Terrorists operating in the area, especially the Iran-sponsored Houthis in Yemen, have seen their arms deliveries disrupted by the wide coalition. 

Results have encouraged further development of these technologies. These devices are currently purely observational, relaying information to manned vessels that act to stop illegal flows. In the future, armed devices will be adopted, reducing reaction times, leading to more seizures, according to Cooper.

Once illegal shipments are destroyed, Cooper clarified that individuals arrested are handed over to the respective countries with authority over the waters where they are found.