Special Briefing via Telephone with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Combined Maritime Forces (Excerpts)

May 11, 2022


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you so much, Vice Admiral.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For our colleagues who are dialing in on our simultaneous Arabic translation line, we have received a number of good pre-submitted questions from them in advance, and I’ll incorporate those into our question queue. 

And so our first question will be one of those pre-submitted questions from our colleague Sandeep Grewal from Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News.  And Vice Admiral, Sandeep asks:  “Do you see a gradual shift in the U.S. Navy’s posture from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, and would this affect the regional coalition and relations with the Gulf allies amidst the ongoing Iranian threats?”  Over to you, Vice Admiral. 

VADM COOPER:  Thank you for the question.  Let me just first say that the U.S. Navy remains highly engaged and deeply committed to this region.  Let me just offer a few tangible examples of what this commitment and this engagement looks like. 

First, earlier this year we completed the largest maritime exercise, a thing called IMX 22.  We brought together 60 nations over the course of a month, a large exercise that clearly based on the number of nations represented an opportunity for those nations to join from around the world.   

Recently, as I said from the outset, we established Combined Task Force 153.  This is the first time in 13 years that we established a new combined task force in the Combined Maritime Forces, a 34-nation partnership which is the largest in the world. 

As I mentioned earlier, we established the world’s first unmanned and artificial intelligence task force and we conducted the largest maritime unmanned exercise in the world with 10 regional partners.   

In the last couple of months, we expanded the membership of two of our large partnerships that I mentioned.  IMSC, the International Maritime Security Construct, at the beginning of the year had eight members.  It now has nine with Romania joining.  I expect more members to join both IMSC and CMF over the course of this year. 

And then if I look at 2021, the U.S. Navy conducted 33 exercises with our partners in this region.  We’re already on track in 2022 to exceed that.  Thus, for me, I think this is a great signal of our commitment on a practical basis.   

And then when I look into the future, what I would tell you is we’re already planning for IMX 23 and I expect the level of that exercise to once again be the largest maritime exercise in this region.   

All these taken together, I can confidently tell you that we are highly engaged and deeply committed to the region.  And this is why you see us focusing hard on strengthening partnerships and accelerating innovation, as I mentioned before.  So thanks so much. 

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you, sir.  Our next question comes from the live queue and it goes to Jared Szuba from Al-Monitor.  Operator, please open the line.  

QUESTION:  Hi, sir.  Thanks for doing this.  We’ve seen reports the Iranian Government has purported – released purported imagery of its Noor 2 satellite in the region.  Just wondering if you assess that this poses a security risk to your forces there in Bahrain or in the region in general and what measures you might be taking to address this issue.  Thanks. 

VADM COOPER:  Yes, thank you for the question.  Obviously, I’m not going to talk about matters of intelligence or specific security.  What I will say is, as everyone can appreciate, on a daily basis, we play – we pay very close attention to what’s happening around the region in terms of maritime security.  It’s our number one focus.   

And the reason we do this is because our goal here is to make sure that we maintain and sustain the free flow of commerce throughout the region.  And to do that, we need to focus on maritime security.  So that’s really where our focus is.  In terms of what other nations are doing, we certainly acknowledge that, but our focus is keeping the main thing the main thing, which is maritime security.  


QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for this opportunity.  I would like to ask you about the importance of the unmanned operations, especially taking into consideration what we’ve heard during the past month.  Some statements were a sort of accusations that the U.S. is not taking enough measures to protect the maritime security breach – to protect the maritime security of the Red Sea and more particularly when we talk about security breaches from Iran. 

VADM COOPER:  This is an excellent question.  Let me frame the big picture with these unmanned systems.  First, unmanned systems with artificial intelligence allow us to simply put more eyes out on the water that I said before that we just have not had in the past.  And this is important because the waterways across the Middle East are dynamic and they’re vast.  It’s 8,000 kilometers of coastline when you stretch from the Suez Canal all the way around the Arabian Peninsula up into the North Arabian Gulf, so that is a large volume of water.  So having better awareness of what’s happening in these waters simply allows us and enables us to better respond if someone warrants our attention. 

So I’ll give you a couple examples of how unmanned systems and artificial intelligence have been serving us well.   First, we’ve had these drones, these USVs, remain out at sea for more than a hundred straight days.  This is unimaginable previously to have platforms with these capabilities at sea for so long with no fuel requirement and no maintenance.  It’s just not possible for a crewed ship to be out that long without significant logistics support. 

We’ve also seen that combining these drones with artificial intelligence allows us to map the waters around them and really establish a pattern of life, which then allows you to better detect smuggling or other malign activities such as illegal fishing or anything else unusual, which I think gets to your point of how these systems allow us to maintain maritime security in a more vibrant manner.  And they do this by sending the information that they detect either by radar or by camera using artificial intelligence back to a command center, where a human being decides what to do.  It’s very strong and powerful and is working well.  And so this process of using artificial intelligence really has just allowed us to expand how far we can see.  And so we’re excited about this and we’re working with just about every regional partner who is also excited about this, and I think there’s tremendous opportunity as we go forward.   

Obviously, now, if I could just –  

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Oh, go ahead.   

VADM COOPER:  If I could just build upon that, as we look to the future, we’ve set a big goal, and that goal is to have 100 of these advanced unmanned surface vessels into navy fleets across the Middle East waters, working in close cooperation with our regional partners, by the summer of 2023.  And these vessels will operate alongside our cruise ships and really enable us to have a clear picture of what’s happening above, on, and below the water.  And so this is exciting.   

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  So our next question – we’ve got time for a couple more questions.  Our next question is a pre-submitted question from our colleague Monalisa Freiha from Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper, and she asks:  “Sir, it seems that there has been a decline in the hijackings and piracy that Iran and affiliated militias were carrying out in the Gulf waters.  Were there any specific procedures taken that you can point to that you believe led to this?”  Over to you, sir.   

VADM COOPER:  Well, thank you for that.  In the two large coalitions that we lead, both Combined Maritime Forces and International Maritime Security Construct, I believe that the efforts of all the sailors from many countries who are serving in these two coalitions have contributed to a decrease, as you describe, in piracy that we’re seeing throughout the region.  I’m very pleased with the efforts that we have seen and continue to see.   

In the case of the Combined Maritime Forces, we have a dedicated task force called Combined Task Force 151 who is leading this effort.  They’re doing a tremendous job each and every day, and their presence throughout the region is both a deterrent to piracy and helps really reinforce the importance of maritime security.  The International Maritime Security Construct, which has the mission of deterrence and reassurance in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, also contributes to this strong maritime security network that we have.  So both of these play a complementary role and I think, most importantly, we’re doing it as part of a large coalition, a large partnership.   

Thus, let me go back to my earlier point:  This is why we take these successful demonstrations of our application of maritime capability and are really looking to strengthen our partnerships as we work together to look to the future.