The US Navy is sending unmanned submersible drones to the Persian Gulf to help find and destroy sea mines as part of an American military build-up aimed at stopping Iran from closing the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the event of a crisis, according to a report in the LA times.
The deployment of mine-clearing drones comes as US officials grow concerned that Iran may respond to the West’s tightening sanctions on its banking and energy sector by launching or sponsoring attacks on vulnerable oil tankers or platforms in or around the strategic strait.
Last month, officials in Tehran threatened to close the narrow waterway between Iran and Oman, a choke point for a fifth of the oil traded worldwide, using sea mines, speedboats and coastal missile batteries against military or commercial targets.
Planners in the Pentagon have taken this threat seriously, and have increased the US Navy’s presence in the area. Along with the new submersible drones, the Pentagon recently added four minesweeping ships, bringing the total in the area to eight, and four MH-53 minesweeping helicopters. The Obama administration has also previously sent two aircraft carriers and a squadron of F-22 fighter jets to the region and is keeping two Army brigades deployed in Kuwait. The Pentagon has acknowledged those deployments, but has not publicly disclosed sending underwater drones, in what the LA Times describes as a move to avoid alerting Iran.
In a recent unclassified report to Congress obtained by Bloomberg, the US Defense Department said Iran’s “conventional military capabilities continue to improve,” citing its “new ships and submarines.” It noted that Tehran had threatened to close the strait “in response to increasing sanctions and in the event Iran is attacked.”
However, the report focused largely on advances in the accuracy and range of Iran’s medium-to-long range missiles and on its support to terrorist groups in the region. It warned that Tehran “has methodically cultivated a network of sponsored terrorist surrogates capable of targeting U.S. and Israeli interests.”