U.S. Navy seizes thousands of Chinese, Russian-made weapons in North Arabian Sea

U.S. Navy seizes weapons in North Arabian Sea from unmarked vessel thought to be from Iran

Cache believed to have originated in Iran, bound for Yemen

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Weapons that the U.S. Navy described as coming from a hidden arms shipment aboard a stateless dhow are seen aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The U.S. Navy announced Sunday it seized the arms shipment … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, May 10, 2021

The U.S. Navy recently seized a cache of weapons aboard a stateless vessel in the North Arabian Sea, Pentagon officials said Sunday, marking another mission by American forces to foil illegal Iranian weapons shipments to rebel groups in Yemen.

The Navy’s Fifth Fleet said the two-day operation on May 6 and 7 involved the seizure of “dozens of advanced Russian-made, anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers,” along with the other arms and military equipment. Crews aboard the U.S. guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey discovered the weapons after boarding the ship in international waters for a routine flag verification, officials said.

“Monterey provided more than 36 hours of over watch and security for its boarding teams and the interdicted vessel throughout the two-day operation,” the Navy said in a statement Sunday. “After all illicit cargo was removed, the dhow was assessed for seaworthiness, and after questioning, its crew was provided food and water before being released.”

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“The U.S. Navy conducts routine patrols in the region to ensure the free flow of commerce for legitimate traffic, disrupt the transport of illicit cargo that often funds terrorism and unlawful activity, and safeguard the rules-based international order,” the Fifth Fleet said.

The Navy said that the original source and destination of the weapons are still under review, and the material is still being inspected by U.S. authorities. But a U.S. defense official told The Associated Press on Sunday that initial signs suggest the unmarked vessel set sail from Iran and was headed to Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels are battling government forces backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

Iran for years has sought to get around a United Nations arms embargo by covertly shipping weapons to the war-torn country. The U.S., which maintains a major naval presence in the North Arabian Sea, has previously seized caches of weapons and other military equipment aboard stateless vessels headed for Yemen.

President Biden earlier this year formally ended American support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations in Yemen amid strong bipartisan opposition in Washington to U.S. involvement in the conflict. More than 130,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen since 2014, according to international estimates.

In addition to backing the Houthis in Yemen, Iran also backs militias operating in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

US officials in Mideast to reassure jittery allies over Iran

US officials in Mideast to reassure jittery allies over Iran

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Senator Chris Coons of Delaware talks to the journalists during a press briefing in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, May 3, 2021. Top Biden administration officials and U.S. senators crisscrossed the Middle East on Monday, seeking to assuage growing … more >

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By ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Top Biden administration officials and U.S. senators crisscrossed the Middle East on Monday, seeking to assuage growing unease among Gulf Arab partners over America’s re-engagement with Iran and other policy shifts in the region.

The trips come as the U.S. and Iran, through intermediaries in Vienna, discuss a return to Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that former President Donald Trump abandoned three years ago. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, excluded from Obama-era nuclear negotiations, have repeatedly pressed for a seat at the table, insisting that any return to the accord must address Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for regional proxies.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a key Biden ally dispatched on overseas diplomatic missions, told reporters in the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi that he hoped to allay the sheikhdom’s “understandable and legitimate concerns” about the return to the landmark deal and to create “broader engagement” with Gulf partners.

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Coons said “close consultation” with the UAE about the ongoing talks in Vienna was “important, expected and happening,” adding that he hopes the Emiratis “may not just be notified, but actually help.”

What that means remains unclear, as Gulf states now watch with resignation as negotiations gain traction in the Austrian capital. When asked to elaborate, Coons balked at the suggestion that the UAE’s input had acquired any greater significance in talks with Iran over the last five years.

“I did not in any way mean to suggest that there was some deal in the works where the Emiratis would be securing anything,” he said. “Vienna is the place where the United States government, the administration, is negotiating.”

Regional tensions are rising. To pressure the Biden administration to lift sanctions and come back into compliance with the deal, Iran has steadily violated the accord’s limitations on nuclear enrichment and stockpiles of enriched uranium. The long shadow war between Israel and Iran has intensified, with suspected Israeli attacks on Iranian ships in volatile Mideast waterways and at Iran‘s Natanz nuclear facility.

In a tour intended to boost “long-standing political, economic, cultural, and security ties,” several senior Biden administration officials are touring Arab capitals, with Brett McGurk from the National Security Council and Derek Chollet from the State Department, among others, stopping in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Amman and Cairo this week.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. joined the flurry of diplomatic activity in the region this week, jetting to Oman, Qatar and Jordan for talks on a political solution to the war in Yemen. In an interview with The Associated Press from Amman, Murphy credited the influence of the Biden administration on recent steps in the region to defuse tensions, such as a Saudi cease-fire initiative floated to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and secret talks between archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, Biden announced the end of U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

However, Murphy warned, “so long as we’re still sanctioning the hell out of the Iranian economy … it’s going to be hard to push the Houthis to a cease-fire.”

Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers “is very important, perhaps critical to peace in Yemen,” he added, and without it, “the Iranians are going to see Yemen as an opportunity to make mischief against the United States and our allies.”

The visits follow the Biden administration’s decision to plow ahead with Trump-era arms sales to Gulf countries, including a $23 billion transfer of F-35 combat aircraft, Reaper drones and other advanced weapons to the UAE, despite objections from Democrats wary of states’ entanglement in the devastating war in Yemen, authoritarian policies and ties to China.

Coons, chairman of a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped introduce legislation last year designed to block the sale of fighters to the UAE. He said Monday that he discussed those concerns with Emirati officials during his two-day visit.

“In a number of robust conversations with senior (Emirati) leaders, I’ve been reassured I think appropriately,” Coons said, without elaborating. “But I need to return to Washington to hear from our administration … exactly how this is being resolved and addressed.”

The senator also has become known for his sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia‘s human rights record and tactics in Yemen, where U.S.-backed Saudi coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians. The Trump administration, which cultivated close ties to the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, approved a nuclear cooperation deal to share technology with the kingdom for its nuclear power venture, including plans to build several civilian reactors.

The cooperation has sparked concerns among some U.S. senators skeptical of Saudi Arabia‘s intentions.

Although Coons declined to share what he knew of the kingdom’s nuclear technology plans, he said the disastrous war in Yemen has “left us with concerns about our ability to trust the Saudis with technology that they acquire from us.”

He added: “Iran is not the only concerning player.”

Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

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Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein, right, meets with visiting Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) more >

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Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iran’s foreign minister on Monday praised Baghdad‘s efforts aimed at bolstering regional stability, saying he hopes they would lead to “more negotiations and understandings” in the region.

Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke to reporters during a visit to the Iraqi capital, which earlier this month hosted the first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries and at least one still-raging war.

Zarif also extended Iran’s condolences after a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients over the weekend killed 82 people. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

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Riyadh has been trying to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have increasingly launched missiles and bomb-laden drones at the kingdom to targeting crucial sites and oil infrastructure. Ending that war could be a bargaining chip for the Iranians as they seek sanctions relief from nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We welcome Iraq’s vital role in the region and we hope that day after day that strengthens Iraq’s role for the stability of the region,” Zarif said during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Fouad Hussein.

“We thank the Iraqi government for exerting its efforts,” Zarif said, without confirming the Saudi-Iran talks were indeed held in Iraq. “We hope that these efforts will lead to more negotiations and understandings in the region.”

All foreign powers will eventually leave, Zarif added, but “we will stay here and we should base our relations on good neighborhood, no interference and mutual respect.”

Iraq, which has ties with both the U.S. and Iran, has often borne the brunt of Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Hussein said Iraq’s foreign policy is to build “balanced relation with everyone and calm things.”

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia have confirmed the talks took place, though Iranian officials have alluded to them and welcomed them.

Iran-Saudi relations worsened considerably in 2016, when Riyadh removed its diplomats after protesters attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for its execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Those posts have remained closed. At the time, Iraq offered itself as a possible mediator between the two countries.

During his Iraq visit, Zarif is scheduled to meet top officials, visit the holy Shiite city of Najaf and also the Kurdish region in the north.

The visit coincided with a firestorm within Iran set off by a leaked recording of Zarif speaking in an interview to a well known economist. Zarif took no questions from journalists after giving his brief statement in Baghdad and did not address the issue.

Israeli-owned ship docked in Dubai after mysterious blast

Israeli-owned ship docked in Dubai after mysterious blast

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The Israeli-owned cargo ship, Helios Ray, sits docked in port after arriving earlier in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. The ship has been damaged by an unexplained blast at the gulf of Oman on Thursday. (AP Photo/Kamran … more >

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By ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Sunday, February 28, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – An Israeli-owned cargo ship that suffered a mysterious explosion in the Gulf of Oman came to Dubai‘s port for repairs Sunday, days after the blast that revived security concerns in Mideast waterways amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Associated Press journalists saw the hulking Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray sitting at dry dock facilities at Dubai‘s Port Rashid. Although the crew was unharmed in the blast, the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

It remains unclear what caused the blast, but the incident comes amid sharply rising tension between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has sought to pressure President Joe Biden’s administration to grant the sanctions relief it received under the accord with world powers that former President Donald Trump abandoned.

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From the shore, AP journalists could not immediately see damage to the vessel. The dock blocked the view of the vessel’s starboard side down to the waterline and the port side could only be seen from a distance. The blue and white ship was anchored near Dubai’s storied floating hotel, the Queen Elizabeth 2. An Emirati coast guard vessel was seen sailing behind the ship, with Dubai police and Emirati armed forces vehicles parked nearby.

Emirati officials did not respond to requests for comment on the vessel docking in the country.

Friday’s blast on the ship, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo vessel, recalled a string of attacks on foreign oil tankers in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied any role in the suspected assaults, which happened near the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil chokepoint.

Several Israeli officials hinted that they believed Iran was responsible for the explosion on the ship. In a speech at an army base on Sunday, Israeli military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi accused Iran of carrying out “operations against civilian targets,” a charge the army later confirmed was in reference to the suspected ship attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz echoed concerns about Iran‘s threats against Israel, adding in a speech that the army was “working to build up our forces and is preparing itself for any scenario, including one in which we would need to take operative action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.” In an interview with Israeli Kan TV the day before, he said the circumstances of the explosion pointed toward Iranian involvement but stressed it needed to be investigated further.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for firing a ballistic missile and nine bomb-laden drones at “sensitive sites” in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh the night before. The group’s military spokesman Yahia Sarei added that another six explosive drones targeted “military positions” in the southwestern cities of Abha and Khamis Mushait. The Saudi interception of the missile set off an apparent explosion over Riyadh that startled residents and scattered shell debris, without causing casualties.

The Helios Ray had discharged cars at various ports in the Persian Gulf before making its way out of the Middle East toward Singapore. The blast hit as the ship was sailing from the Saudi port Dammam out of the Gulf of Oman, forcing it to turn to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for inspection.

Iranian authorities have not publicly commented on the ship. The country’s hard-line Kayhan daily, whose editor-in-chief was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alleged the Helios Ray was “possibly” on an “espionage” mission in the region, without offering any evidence to support the claim. The Sunday report speculated the ship may have been “trapped in an ambush by a branch of resistance axis,” referring to Iranian proxies in the region.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

Iran’s repeated vows to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing have raised alarms in Israel, particularly as the Gulf sees an increase in Israeli traffic following the country’s normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain.

___

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Malak Harb in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Ilan Ben Zion and Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

Gen. Sean Gainey, Joint Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Office commander, leads U.S. drone defense

General leads U.S. charge against enemy drone attacks: ‘This threat can touch anybody, anywhere’

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Brig. Gen. Sean Gainey, left, and Brig. Gen. Eric Sanchez stand during a change of command ceremony at Fort Shafter in Honolulu on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. Gainey assumed command of the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command from … more >

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By Mike Glenn and Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A surprise drone attack that took out nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and blindsided global markets last year is just the kind of thing that keeps Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey up at night.

Gen. Gainey, commander of the Defense Department’s new Joint Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Office, is the Pentagon’s point man in countering the rapidly growing threat from foreign drones, responsible for coordinating a crucial 21st-century anti-drone strategy across the country’s military services.

With allies, major rivals such as China, and even hostile powers like Iran closing the gap with the U.S. on drone technology, the Army general and his 60-person team face one of the most daunting challenges confronting American national security today.

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“This threat can touch anybody, anywhere,” Gen. Gainey told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview this week.

“We’re trying to get after the whole spectrum, from training through material solutions,” he said. “We have to ensure our soldiers have the best capability against that threat.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Gen. Gainey detailed his office’s approach to protecting American military forces stationed around the world from enemy drone attacks. He described the growing momentum behind the idea of consolidating anti-drone capabilities across the services, rather than relying on the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Space Force to mount and maintain their own programs.

Gen. Gainey assumed his new post in January, just four months after a swarm of low-flying drones slipped past Saudi Arabia’s sophisticated air defense systems and devastated two state-owned oil processing plants at Abqaiq and Khurais. Houthi forces in Yemen, battling a Saudi-backed coalition in that country’s civil war, claimed responsibility, but Washington and Riyadh both saw the hand of Iran in the attack.

Not only did the September 2019 attack temporarily cut the oil production in one of the world’s biggest suppliers by half, it showed the world what some believe is the future of combat — and demonstrated how America’s once-inarguable advantage in drone warfare may be eroding.

Dozens of countries across the globe — from major international powers such as China, Russia, Israel and the United Kingdom to nations such as Nigeria, Belarus and Indonesia — either have armed drones in their military arsenals or have invested heavily in programs to develop them.

A South Korean think tank estimated in 2017 that the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had stockpiled upwards of 1,000 drones that analysts fear could be used to deliver chemical or biological weapons across the divided peninsula. Iran’s Defense Ministry, whose experience with drones dates back to the 1980s war with Iraq, last month took the wraps off a large arsenal of new drones for the army and air force, drones that Tehran says have the range to hit Israel.

Turkey unveiled its first armed drone in 2015 and has quickly become an international leader in the sector, according to New America’s “World of Drones” project. The country’s unmanned aerial vehicle technology came into sharp focus this week when Turkish-backed Libyan government forces reportedly used drones to target rival Libyan National Army vehicles that were carrying a Russian-made missile system at the al-Watiyah airbase.

The Turkish-made drones were able to disable the missile system before it could be put into action. In a major victory for the embattled Tripoli regime, government forces later captured the base.

Such an attack is just one example of how militaries can no longer simply focus on the offensive capabilities their drones can offer and instead need to devote time, money and resources to fending off enemy attacks.

Uniting the force

Pentagon officials have been brainstorming ways to defeat drone attacks since at least 2017, with each service buying its own system. That includes the Army’s Raytheon-built Coyote, a radar-guided drone that attacks other “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or UAVs; and the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS), a version of which successfully engaged an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019.

Appointing a single office to take charge of the counter-drone mission, Maj. Gen. Gainey said, means there’s likely to be less redundancy. It’s an argument that others in the defense community are making.

“There is inefficiency of cost and effectiveness today by the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, the Marines and soon to be the Space Force of all having primary separate weapon systems to integrate, early warn, track and intercept with separate command-and-control systems,” according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

Streamlining the system so everything can work together is among the most critical missions of the Pentagon’s new anti-drone office. Next month, officials expect to have chosen weapons and radar systems to accomplish three standing missions: protect fixed locations like military bases; provide anti-drone overwatch for mobile units; and choose a hand-held system that can be used by an individual soldier on the ground.

“We know there’s no ‘silver bullet’ to get after the UAV problem. It takes a layered approach of different systems that you integrate,” Gen. Gainey said.

Picking one system over another is only one part of the mission for the office. Also, Gen. Gainey’s team is focusing on requirements, training and especially integration among the services.

Like the internet and GPS, drones can trace their origins to the military but now have applications in virtually every setting. Goldman Sachs estimates a $100 billion opportunity for unmanned aerial vehicles in the commercial market.

But, the ease with which combat-capable drones can be obtained by relatively impoverished forces — such as Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels — means they can serve a dual purpose as weapons. There have been reports that Islamic State units in Iraq and Syria have used cheap, off-the-shelf drones to deliver grenades into enemy positions.

Even relatively primitive militaries could potentially wreak havoc by employing huge numbers of small, cheap drones to confuse and overwhelm an enemy force. A recent RAND Corporation report delved into the concept of using a swarm of drones to create a “targeting mesh” in contested airspace, overwhelming any defense by the sheer force of numbers.

“Preliminary research suggests that if the cost of the UAVs, including launch, can be kept low enough, it will be possible to pursue a strategy of pure saturation, replenishing the mesh at a rate faster than the enemy can attrit it, until the enemy exhausts its on-hand inventory of interceptor missiles,” reads a key finding of the report.

Those strategies underscore how drone warfare has quickly gone from being borderline science fiction to a hard reality.

“The threat is out there,” Gen. Gainey said.

Trained as an air defense artillery officer in the Army, Maj. Gen. Gainey has spent most of his military career contending with attacks from the air. Before the creation of the Army-led anti-drone office, he had been working on the subject for more than a year in the Pentagon as a member of Joint Chiefs of Staff directorate focused on evaluating and developing force structure requirements.