September 30, 2022 | Flash Brief

U.S., Israeli Navies Conduct Exercise as Iran Steps up Maritime Aggression

September 30, 2022 | Flash Brief

U.S., Israeli Navies Conduct Exercise as Iran Steps up Maritime Aggression

Latest Developments

The naval forces of the United States and Israel conducted a four-day bilateral training exercise, dubbed Digital Shield, this month in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba. The joint exercise comes in the wake of Iran’s attempts to seize American unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, in both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf over the past 30 days. The exercise focused on “enhancing maritime awareness using unmanned systems and artificial intelligence in support of vessel boarding operations,” according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. The USVs used in the exercise improve the ability to monitor the malign maritime activities of Tehran and its terror proxies.

Expert Analysis

“When it comes to maritime security in the Middle East, Iran is an arsonist posing as a firefighter. Tehran’s strategy of exporting terrorism depends on its ability to keep its activities hidden and its adversaries divided. It is not surprising that Iran is concerned about the increasing ability of the United States and its partners to monitor and counter malign maritime activity. Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners should press ahead with efforts to increase combined maritime surveillance and interdiction capabilities.” – Bradley Bowman, FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power Senior Director

Tehran Targets American Unmanned Surface Vessels

On August 29, the U.S. Navy detected an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf towing an American USV. When U.S. forces responded, the Iranian vessel cut the line towing the USV and departed. Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, called the attempted seizure “flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”

Undeterred, only two days later, another Iranian ship seized two U.S. USVs that had been operating in the Red Sea for more than 200 days without incident. Two U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers responded quickly, seeking to recover the USVs. The Iranian crew refused to release them for approximately 18 hours, eventually relenting the next morning.

Iranian Maritime Smuggling

Iran uses the maritime domains in the Middle East to threaten freedom of navigation and smuggle weapons to terror proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen. These proxies use these weapons to conduct both maritime and land attacks. The U.S. 5th Fleet “seized 9,000 weapons being smuggled along routes historically used to unlawfully supply the Houthis in Yemen” in 2021, Vice Admiral Cooper said in April 2022. In March 2022, then-top U.S. commander in the Middle East Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said the Houthis conducted at least 45 cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE thus far in the year.

Important Waters

McKenzie added the Middle East is home to “three of the world’s five most vital transit choke points.” The Red Sea, for example, serves as a primary route between Europe and Asia, with the Suez Canal sitting at its northern end and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait at its southern end. In 2021, the Suez carried approximately 12 percent of global trade, 8 percent of seaborne liquefied natural gas, and 5 percent of the world’s crude oil. When the Suez was blocked by a cargo ship for six days in March 2021, it held up a reported $60 billion in trade. Tehran’s activities in and near these waters threaten global commerce and the core security interests of the United States and its partners.

Related Analysis


Iran Iran Global Threat Network Israel Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy