Maritime Security Dialogue: FIFTH Fleet Mission and Operations Update

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Seth G. Jones: Hi. I’m Seth Jones, senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. On behalf of CSIS and the U.S. Naval Institute, we’re proud to bring you the next event in our Maritime Security Dialogue Series. This series is made possible through generous support of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Today’s guest is Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander, United States Naval Forces Central Command; commander, Fifth Fleet; and commander, Combined Maritime Forces. Vice Admiral Cooper is a 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy – and while we support all the services here, congratulations on your football victory this past year – and he earned a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from the National Intelligence University. His ship commands include the USS Russell DDG 59 and USS Gettysburg CG 64.

Vice Admiral Cooper served in a variety of executive, military assistant, and special assistant roles in the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters, and other organizations.

I also want to thank retired Vice Admiral Peter Daly, chief executive officer and publisher of the U.S. Naval Institute, and he’ll engage Vice Admiral Cooper in a moderated discussion on the priorities and operational imperatives of the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility.

We’ll be accepting audience questions for Vice Admiral Cooper throughout the event and we encourage you to submit them through the link on our website.

So with that, over to you, Pete, and to Vice Admiral Cooper.

Vice Admiral Peter H. Daly (Ret.): Well, thank you, Seth, for that introduction and, of course, it’s really a special treat to have the Fifth Fleet commander here with a live interview with a big audience online.

And, Admiral Cooper, just to kick off here, I thought it’d be interesting – you’ve got these three very demanding jobs. You’re the operational Fifth Fleet commander, you’re the CMF for the maritime partnership with allies and friends, and you also are that Navy component to CENTCOM. Those are three big jobs, and you’ve got a theater that’s very challenging.

So maybe just to kick off here you could give us an overview of what the key challenges and focus areas are for you in your area of responsibility.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper: That sounds terrific. First, Pete, for you, thanks for having me and, Seth, thanks for the kind introduction. Really grateful. It’s a wonderful privilege to be here.

You know, first, I just have to tell you, you know, every success that we have is going to start and end with people, and the sailors and the Marines and members of the Joint Force, our civilians, and our Bahraini civilians are doing just really extraordinary work each and every day. I have an enormous amount of pride. I know that you and members of the audience would share in that same pride.

And maybe if I just offer a couple of comments on, you know, where I see the regional threats and our challenges, what are we doing about them, and then where do I see the opportunities in the future.

On that first point of regional threats and challenges today, Iran is the most serious threat that we see in the region. It manifests in many different forms. The other is the nuclear component of this. And on the conventional side, significantly, there’s a growth in the Ballistic Missile Defense Force. There’s a growth in and capability growth in cruise missiles and a growth in both capabilities and numbers with Iranian UAVs and the proliferation of those UAVs around the region.

There’s also increased proxy activity. You see this manifested everywhere from Lebanon to Iraq and Syria, as well as Yemen. And then at kind of a different level there’s the prevalence of COVID and then at an entirely different level, again, there’s smuggling both in terms of drugs and arms. We’ll talk about all these.

So what are we doing about them? Of course, the nuclear side of this is being handled via diplomatic channels. That’s well-publicized. On the conventional threats that I talked about in terms of the ballistic missile side, the cruise missile activity, and UAVs, we believe that the best way to get after this is through enhancing our integrated deterrence.

You’ve heard the leadership of DOD talk about this. In our particular case, it’s down two specific lanes – strengthening partnerships in the region, which are already strong, and then accelerating innovation, and I’ll talk in some detail about this later on. I look forward to future questions. We think those are the right ways to get after this.

On the COVID side, we have a whole series of measures that are in place that we feel good about. Obvious, COVID is everywhere. We’re handling it appropriately. We haven’t had any significant operational issues at all. It’s had no impacts on us.

On the smuggling side, we’ve had a recent increased focus on counter smuggling, both in terms of weapons and drugs. You’ve seen this manifest in several different interdictions. Just in the last month, big drug interdiction and big weapons.

I mentioned the drug piece, in particular. It is a very partnered effort, and they’re both partnered, drug in particular. This last year, we interdicted more than $200 million worth of drugs, probably at the street value more than a billion dollars, and which exceeded the previous four years combined. So, you can kind of get a sense of what we’re doing there and how that looks.

If I look then to where are we – that’s what we’re doing about it – where are the opportunities? I think it lies in those two lanes of strengthening partnerships and accelerating innovation. On the partnership side, I think it’s useful to understand: where are the partnerships today? So, we have two very large integrated partnerships – one, the Combined Maritime Force that you mentioned, a 34-nation maritime force. It’s the largest in the world. Shared values of enforcing the international rules-based order. It’s been around for about 20 years. It’s evolved over a period of time.

Just this last year, we inducted Egypt as the latest member, crucial for all the reasons we might appreciate, surrounding the Suez Canal. And this organization is focused entirely on maritime security both in the Arabian Gulf as well as outside the Arabian Gulf, as well as the counter piracy mission. That’s going well. So that’s the big one.

The second one is the International Maritime Security Construct. Eight-nation construct organized about 30 months ago to offer a deterrent posture – increased deterrent posture in both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab. They’re doing fantastic work.

In both of those cases we expect to grow members in the coming year. We’ll let individual countries talk about who and when they want to talk about that. But I think that’s a good sign.

And then the last piece on partnerships is really unique. It’s Israel. So in just the last 16 months, the two significant events that have occurred are the Abraham Accords being signed in September of 2020, and then just earlier – later this last year in September 1st, Israel’s shift from the U.S.-European Command to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibilities. And then combine that with the belief that not just among Israel but nations in the region that Iran is the regional threat.

It presents an opportunity that, I think, is just unique and, frankly, we just couldn’t have imagined it even two years ago.

So I just left Israel on Monday and had good discussions with the chief of navy and chief of defense charting our way ahead in 2022 and beyond. I think those opportunities and those partnerships are really rich and vibrant, and we’ll look to seize upon that.

And then, finally, just a quick discussion on China. It’s a subject that’s always out there. Obviously, that is a global threat and global challenge. My perspective is, and while we acknowledge the economic side of what China is doing, you know, my role is to make sure that the U.S. Navy is always the partner of choice in the region and we are. I feel good about that.

But to circle back, clearly, this is about Iran and the regional threat there, building and strengthening that partnership network we have, accelerating that innovation. We’ll talk a little bit more about this, I’m certain, but just four months ago we stood up Task Force 59, and that task force has exceeded our every expectation in terms of speed and efficiency.

Vice Adm. Daly: The one on unmanned?

Vice Adm. Cooper: This is the unmanned and artificial intelligence task group–

Vice Adm. Daly: Right.

Vice Adm. Cooper: – task force, and they’re doing terrific work. We’ve got two hubs today, one out of Bahrain where we’ve worked with the Bahrainis both unilaterally and bilaterally, another hub in Jordan, again, unilaterally and bilaterally, and we’re really resetting benchmarks of what we thought was possible.

I’ll give you an example. The drones that we have operating out of Aqaba have been at sea for 33 straight days, you know, really redefining what persistence means in the maritime environment. So, we’re really excited about that, at the end of the day, bringing this all together. Those two – working down those two lanes, the partnership lane and the innovation, I think, is really where we need to go.

Two weeks from now – this is not about words, this is really about action – we’ll be commencing exercise IMX22 – International Maritime Exercise ’22. It’s our largest exercise, biennial exercise, 60 nations participating. Pretty remarkable. Ten of those nations are bringing unmanned platforms. It’ll be the largest unmanned exercise in the world.

So with that, sir, thanks for the kind introduction. Look forward to taking the Q&A.

Vice Adm. Daly: Well, that was a terrific overview. Thank you. And, you know, just – you mentioned the China thing briefly. I noticed that just today the foreign minister of Iran is in China and so, presumably, they’re working on political and economic cooperation.

But could you go a little bit deeper? Have you seen signs of, or the potential for, more military cooperation?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. I think I those pieces are all there and we’ve seen them to a relatively small degree, I think the two countries that wouldn’t surprise anybody. You know, to give you some sense of, you know, where the U.S. Navy is versus the PRC Navy in the region, we, clearly, are the number-one partner of choice. In 2021, the PRC Navy conducted one exercise with one regional partner. We conducted 33. We’re just in a completely different position.

Of course, we won’t take any of those for granted but, going forward, we’ll look to expand on that. So I think you get a sense of just kind of the relative balance in the region.

Vice Adm. Daly: Got it. And can you go a little bit deeper, too, on the interactions that you’re having with the Iranian navy – the IRN – and then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy? Just are these interactions and the nature of these interactions professional? What are you seeing out there?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Sure. Yeah, a couple comments. You know, first, I think, just broadly speaking, the overwhelming majority of the interactions we have with Iran are safe and professional and, of course, we are interacting with them on the sea and above the sea every day.

There are exceptions to that over periods of time and those will get called out where they are unsafe or unprofessional. I think if I take a step back and just look historically, it looks, largely, the same as it has over a several-year period. No more, no less. About the same.

What is different, though, is a dramatic uptick in the UAV activity in the region, both in terms of their capability, their profiles, and the density of activity. It is significantly different. You know, the most recent example of that in real terms was the attack on the Mercer Street back in late July where they utilized a one-way UAV to attack that vessel. Of course, two people were killed.

Vice Adm. Daly: Yeah. So, that leads into, maybe, a deeper question on Task Force 59. It’s impressive what you’re doing out there, and I didn’t know about the Aqaba and the persistence of the drones there. It’s wonderful to have that all the way over in the Red Sea consistently and persistently.

One of the tough things about unmanned that larger Navy is working on and, of course, they’re doing, you know, build a little, test a little, and getting informed by your experiences out there with – for CONOPS and C2.

So could you go a little bit deeper? You know, I’ve heard recently that the Navy’s concern about unmanned is that they really want to make sure they’ve got the C2 – the command and control – nailed down. Are you seeing the ability to do that or is that even in your charter to get to that?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. A couple thoughts.

First of all, just this week I had an opportunity to clutch in to the Navy’s big unmanned task force – the CNO talked about this in September – standing it up from an enterprise perspective. We’re clutched in actually every day with the staff. But it was good to be able to get together and have face-to-face meetings on where we are and then, more broadly, where is Navy going on unmanned.

You know, kind of down my lane a couple of pieces here. So if I just walk back in time, we stood the task force up in September. By October, operating bilaterally with the Bahrainis, as I mentioned – in November, with the Jordanians, and the reps and sets you get out of having an organization that is focused only on this, you know, cannot be understated.

We’re really moving quite quickly. Integrated with that is artificial intelligence, how is that getting used, because, of course, having more sensors out on the water with the purpose of increasing maritime domain awareness and, thus, our deterrent posture, which are the two reasons to have MDA in our deterrent posture has brought a lot more information to us. The only way to sort that out and be able to use it in a meaningful way is through artificial intelligence.

I’ll use the example of the drones we have out in the Red Sea most recently. They use AI and machine learning to map patterns of life and when something is different it slews a camera over, takes a picture of it, sends it via satellite back to you, and then the human can make a decision are we going to do something about that. You know, we just couldn’t do that in any other way other than having a really large man presence out there, which wouldn’t be possible.

So that’s that piece of the AI machine learning. In terms of C2, no particular concerns. It is part of my charter. You know, I follow the model of if you get C2 right you probably can get just about everything else right, and I think we’re in a really good position on that.

Vice Adm. Daly: OK. Well, you know, one of the things that sometimes we’re not perfect at is the connection between the operator and the acquisition side and, you know, to do co-development, and it sounds like this is a perfect test case for that.

So we have a lot of industry folks that are tuning in for this and a lot of others, and could you just describe what’s the level – I mean, do we have companies that have people forward working with you in real time, and do you have program offices and people who are working in the systems commands working onsite forward with you day to day? How does that lash up?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Well, if I walk back to July when we brought a team from 14 different organizations together, I mean, we, frankly, brought the world’s leading experts, not just inside the military but –

Vice Adm. Daly: Broader.

Vice Adm. Cooper: – the broader private sector on unmanned and artificial intelligence and machine learning. Boy, that really postured us for success. We came out of that in much better position and greater trajectory, and with some speed that we would have anticipated.

That group has, largely, stayed intact, which has really helped us propel. So these are – when you bring that level of talent together each and every day in the resourcing and the talent, you’re going to get a different outcome and I think that’s, in part, what we’re seeing.

On the company piece of this, I view this as a little bit of fleet to factory. So some – what’s different here is off-the-shelf technology and with a focus on USVs – unmanned surface vessels. Of course, we’ve been doing it in the air for 20 years, but the USV technology piece has not always been there. It’s there now. We’re taking advantage of it.

So we do have members of the companies that are producing in respect to drones – Saildrone on the West Coast, MARTAC on the East. They’re out with us operating in a contractor-owned contractor-operated model. It’s serving us well and we’re moving quickly. We’re really happy with it.

And I’ll tell you, high kudos to industry for the – I mean, this is American genius at its very best and we’re super proud of. And I’ll tell you, the pace that we’ve been able to move at is going to result in IMX – us validating about 14 different CONOPS – unimaginable a few months ago – and then shifting it into a more operational mode into the future. You know, all of this kind of speaks to what we’ve been able to achieve and where I see us going is beyond our wildest expectation, and I give credit to everybody involved.

Vice Adm. Daly: Now, that’s excellent to hear that that’s happening, and I dare say that the observations and the lessons that you get are going to inform big Navy’s efforts.

Vice Adm. Cooper: Well, that’s a key point. There is an aspect of what we’re doing and it’s an important aspect for the here and now for what we’re doing in the region for maritime domain awareness and increasing our deterrent posture.

But I use this example all the time. If I can take two 80-knot drones and put them off the coast of Bahrain with satellite communication, exquisite radar, 360-degree day and night optics, and control them and expand their maritime domain awareness two or three times, could I take 20 or 30 of those and put them off another island in the Western Pacific and just bring extra lethality, increase that domain awareness in game-changing activity. So I’m pretty excited about that.

Vice Adm. Daly: I assume that part of that, at least, is tapping into other resources that may be commercially available, such as AIS – automatic information system. That’s a commercial system that provides, if people are participating, information. I mean, one of the things that was always a challenge was the number of – you know, when the sun came up in the morning in the Gulf the number of vehicular tracks and just keeping track of that.

So is it fair to say that you’re able to maintain a much more coherent picture with unmanned or at least that’s the goal?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Both. We can do it today and the goal is to advance it in the future and, really, from seabed to space is that – in multiple domains.

Vice Adm. Daly: Excellent. So just to shift a little bit, you know, one of the things that’s been a subject of some discussion has been the competition for scarce assets and, of course, as you well know, you compete – Central Command competes with the other combatant commanders for assets.

And it just so happens that today in your theater there’s no amphibious-ready group and there’s no deployed Carrier Strike Group. I think the Carrier Strike Group that was maybe destined for you has been held up in the Med, the Ionian Sea, hanging there.

So how does that work for you? Are you able – are you happy with the number of aircraft and ships you’re getting, the quality of the forward-deployed crews and air crews, and are you getting enough support out there – deployed assets?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Let me talk about the quality first. I’ll tell you, the sailors that are coming into theater and the Marines that are coming into theater are top tier. They’re at the top of their game. They’re well-trained. I think the processes that we’re using on both coasts coming into theater are setting us up for success.

And in terms of the forward-deployed force that’s out there, they’re at the top of their game. We’re seeing minesweeper readiness at high levels, which is not something we’ve seen over the previous years. We’re seeing patrol craft readiness at high levels, in just the last couple months completing live-fire evolution. So the team is operating at a really high level that we should all feel good about.

In terms of the numbers, I have sufficient numbers today to accomplish the missions I’ve been asked to do. If I’m asked to do more I’ll ask for more resources. We know that’s a fairly simple process. That decision will be made at higher echelons. I think we’re advantaged in a couple of regards. One, just from a Navy perspective, we’re an agile force and forces are available relatively closely.

You mentioned the Carrier Strike Group in the Mediterranean. Were there to be a crisis in the region that we needed them, you know, that would be a decision from senior leadership, but they’re close and they’re agile and they can be moved quickly.

We’re also heavily advantaged by the partnerships I talked about. So just this last year, we had the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, who functioned as the CTF 50 commander, who, for those not aware, is traditionally a U.S. Carrier Strike Group commander. Pretty significant. They did this for months on end, and then just a couple of months ago we had the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth. So it’s a team sport with a large, partnered effort, and today I feel like we’re in a good position.

Vice Adm. Daly: Thanks. Speaking of carriers, it seems like – just as an observer of this from the outside in, it seems like we’ve been leaning more towards the carrier in the North Arabian Sea. We’ve developed the – you know, the port – you know, going into port at Duqm in Oman and, you know, just seems like we’re a little less inside the Gulf and a little more outside the Gulf, and has that presented any different operational challenges for you? Is it working for you and do you have – you know, you’ve still got Fujairah, you’ve got Duqm, which is newer – how’s that all working out?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. So the next character that comes into a theater you would anticipate that we would operate both in the North Arabian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea. No concerns about bringing a CSG presence into the Arabian Gulf at all.

I think if you look back historically, the higher uptick in presence in the North Arabian Sea was, really, as a result of the Afghanistan mission and getting the platform closer to where aircraft could be launched in service in country. That’s really, I think, what drove that, at least in the very recent past.

You know, as I look ahead, Duqm and the logistics hub is very – is helpful, particularly, because we need some place to be able to hub maintenance and logistics in a transit from Suez through the Bab al-Mandab and headed east toward the Western Pacific. Duqm offers a tremendous facility to be able to do that, and when you stand at the head of the – to give you the sense of sense of Duqm, when you stand at the head of the pier and you look down and you look at aircraft carrier, it looks like a postage stamp. This is a gigantic facility, and I’m very excited for the opportunities that the Omanis have given us in that regard.

And then I look into the Gulf. Bahrain has been and continues to be a place to bring aircraft carriers into. In the future, there could be other places. There’s always been Jebel Ali. We’ll see what that looks like. But I think, you know, sitting here today, there’s no reason we couldn’t bring an aircraft carrier into the Gulf.

Vice Adm. Daly: OK. I thought I would now shift. I’m starting to get some – I see on my iPad here I’m starting to get some questions from the audience and I’m going to start to fold those in. And the first one is from Perry Bingham, BAE Systems, Surface Ship Programs. He says, look, the LCS 1 class is going to be coming into Fifth Fleet over the next couple of years. How do you see their mission in the Arabian Gulf in comparison to the ships they’re replacing – the patrol coastals – and what hurdles and opportunities do you see, you know, with respect to operations and maintenance?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Sure. A couple thoughts here. First, we expect that in 2022 we’re going to get a Freedom-class LCS in Fifth Fleet. Planning is underway for that. We’ll see what the timing looks like. But I think we’re in a much better position today than we were last year, and I’m very familiar with all the nuances from my last job at SURFLANT.

Vice Adm. Daly: Right.

Vice Admiral Cooper: You know, really, no comparison between a PC and what an LCS will bring. You have the aviation component both from the helicopter and fire scout. You have more kinetic strike ability from the platform, greater range and endurance, and the Navy, over a period of time, has bought the logistics and sustainment component of this that’s already pre-positioned out in Bahrain. So we’re ready to receive today. I think we’ll receive this year. I’m confident of that. And so, I think, all told, I think we’re pretty well-positioned here.

Vice Admiral Daly: Good. Good. Thank you.

The second question is from Katherine Zimmerman at AEI, and she also talks about TF 59, and she said, TF 59 seeks to improve maritime awareness and deterrence. But are there efforts on the other side to disrupt proliferation of assets on the other side and could you talk about that a little bit?

I mean, I know we have one system in – directed energy system that’s deployed out there now. I believe that later this year Preble is going to come out with a laser. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Yeah, just a little bit. So just in the last couple of weeks we had a directed energy prototype engagement with Portland on a surface target. You saw the pictures of that. That was terrific. I suspect there will be more of that in the future. On the what else are we doing, the short answer is no, not going to talk about it for all the reasons everyone would appreciate. But this is an area that we’re working on pretty vibrantly.

Vice Adm. Daly: Yeah. Got it. But suffice to say that you see the other side of that coin and you’re working it.

Vice Adm. Cooper: Clearly. Clearly.

Vice Adm. Daly: Got it.

OK. Another one. A question from Peter Ong, Naval News. He said the Coast Guard is building their new cutters and, of course – you know, of course, people may not be aware, but for a long time the Coast Guard has had Island-class cutters. They’re WPBs. They’ve been doing Hero of the Soviet Union work out there in PATFORSWA, the Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, and I was always impressed by what those young lieutenants – those Coast Guard lieutenants – were doing with those Island-class cutters, and now we’re in the process – we’re kind of midstream on flowing new fast-response cutters in. Could you tell us about that mission, how that mission set is currently, how you see it changing, and then how is the transition going?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Sure. We just had the Coast Guard commandant out a couple of months ago to take a look at this. The United States Coast Guard is indispensable to what we’re doing each and every day. They’re really terrific work. Both the cutters and the advanced interdiction team that are out on Navy ships predominantly doing this – the counter smuggling, counter drug, counter arms. They’re out there today and, actually, as I left the hotel this morning they were onto somebody. We’ll see how that goes.

But six Coast Guard cutters out there. Two are the new FRCs. We have two. The next two are en route. They’ll be stopping to Fifth Fleet ports of visit near you here in the coming weeks, and then we’ll get the last two end of this year, early next year.

What do they do for us? Really, they’re just at the next level of capability – much longer endurance, greater capability, maintenance training. The whole piece is just at a completely different level, and, as you mentioned, you know, the crews are just amazing. These are really young commanding officers who are doing great work and the crews are doing great work.

Vice Adm. Daly: Right. Do we lose a little bit – when you bring those bigger hull forms in like the LCS 1 Freedoms, and they’re not big ships but they’re bigger than a PC and now these FRCs are bigger than the Island-class that are replacing, do you have an accessibility issue, like, when you get up there in the northern Gulf and some of the shallow water issues, or do you see it mostly as a positive because of the extra capability of just –

Vice Adm. Cooper: For sure it’s a net positive. There are a couple – there will be a couple of constraining operating areas. They’re quite limited. But, overall, it’s a big net positive.

Vice Adm. Daly: OK. Super. Super.

Well, the next one is a question from Joe Kunzler, Oak Harbor Navy Leak. So he’s up in Whidbey Island, and, of course, he’s interested in P8s and Growlers. But I would like to ask you, for the P8s – and this is my part, not Joe’s part – how is that airborne intel working and, specifically, how are you using the capabilities, which are awesome for the P8, and there’s been a lot – of a couple years ago, at least, a lot of attention on the broad area maritime surveillance demonstrator. How is that working and are you using them together?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. BAMS-D is still out there going strong, and we typically do use them together in partnered efforts and we’ll shift around the region. You know, the focus – as you might imagine, the focused areas of operations are typically in and around the Strait of Hormuz and in around the Bab al-Mandab. P8s are flying in these regions every day in their ISR mission – intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

They’re doing terrific work, and as many people have talked about, you know, just a gigantic step up from the P3, which is a terrific platform. But the P8 community should take a lot of pride. They’re doing terrific work. It’s a platform that could not be replaced today and they’re very much contributing to all the aspects of maritime domain awareness, that deterrent posture that we maintain.

Vice Adm. Daly: And I’m guessing this is another area where we’re mining the lessons learned because it was a key part of the P8 CONOPS that they would be able to work in tandem with a platform like BAMS and, ultimately, with the with the Triton MQ-4C. So I was just wondering if those lessons learned, are we getting the most out of that? Do you see signs that they’re really getting a lot out of that?

Vice Adm. Cooper: I see it every day. If you walked in our maritime operations center and looked to the right, you’d see these – you’d see the folks managing this, left seat, right seat. They’re right next to each other. It’s well-integrated.

Vice Adm. Daly: Perfect. Perfect. OK.

Next up is Ian Busch, General Dynamics NASSCO. He said, recently, Iran appears to have taken a page from the U.S. Navy with the use of hybrid commercial ships such as the IRINS Makran and the IRGC Saviz. How do those ships complicate operational realities in the region?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Yeah. I don’t – while there are more of them and they may look different, that doesn’t really change our calculus. You know, on one hand, the United States Navy is going to remain consistent and, you know, sail and fly wherever international law allows. They have a different look and some different capabilities. But they can easily be accounted for both tactically and operationally.

Vice Adm. Daly: OK. This question from Commander Suzanna Brugler, U.S. Fifth Fleet, who’s asking her boss how do you anticipate the recent creation of the bipartisan Abraham Accords Caucus in the U.S. Congress will impact your partnership? And you really talked about that earlier as a game changer.

But she said, what is the overall reception amongst the GCC nations to the Accords? Because, you know, people assumed for years – this is my editorializing – but they assumed for years maybe this – you couldn’t put these two together. Could you go a little deeper on the acceptance within the GCC?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, give you – I’ll just give you a couple of data points here. So this large exercise that we have, IMX22, starts here in a couple of weeks. Israel is participating in the exercise.

We’ve been talking about this for months. We had – as navies around the world do, you have a(n) initial planning conference, a mid-planning conference, and a final conference, and everyone knows who’s participating and with 60 countries in there everyone knows who else is participating and they’re all still in. I think that says a lot.

Vice Adm. Daly: It does.

Vice Adm. Cooper: It really does. So that lays a foundation. And if I just look at a couple of events recently in Bahrain, just a few months ago, we co-host – we hosted the Bahrain foreign minister and the Israeli foreign minister. You know, these are things just not imaginable in the past.

But the foundation, I think, is set from that at a broad level, and then down in the maritime the exercise, you know, that I mentioned we had in the Red Sea with U.S., Israel, Bahrain, and UAE, again, these things would not have been imaginable before the Abraham Accords. But they lay a strong foundation and some good brick work for going forward.

Vice Adm. Daly: Good. So nobody’s – they’re all working together?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Well, I think – you know, here’s another aspect that’s unique. Everyone has a shared perspective – when I say everyone, certainly, among the chiefs of Navy – I would say the chiefs of events – that the UAV threat is significant. We could – it’s easy to partner there. It could be easy to partner on interdiction. This affects everyone. Easy to partner on maritime domain awareness. And so those are the areas that we’ll be pursuing.

Vice Adm. Daly: And you mentioned earlier how almost eye watering it was to see the technologists and the people that you got together for the unmanned and the technology that applies to that problem set, including AI. Are the Israelis a part of that technology contribution?

Vice Adm. Cooper: They are.

Vice Adm. Daly: They are? OK.

Well, here’s one from this character, Sam LaGrone, who’s the editor in chief of USNI News. He said, could you talk about the risks to your command and the regional stability of the ongoing manipulation of AIS and other public ship-tracking data that might be manipulated to give false impressions of ship positions in your AOR? Former Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Donegan said it was a top threat – a top cyber threat for the region.

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. It’s something we watch every day. It is a concern. It was a concern, is a concern. I suspect it will be a concern as we continue to go forward. You know, so as part of this partnered effort, you know, we continue to maintain a very close relationship with all regional trade organizations – UKMTO, the United Kingdom’s Maritime Transport Organization, and other countries’ maritime transport organizations.

I think they’re the key to get to ground truth on this, and they’ve been great partners. Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, all have these, and working with them has been important because getting to ground truth is important in these matters.

Vice Adm. Daly: You know, there’s been a lot of discussion here in the U.S. about supply chain and supply chain disruptions, and, of course, you’re on the end of a very long logistics chain as are the ships and aircraft that are deployed into your theater and operating full time in your theater that you’ve already talked about, like the cutters, the PCs, and the minesweepers, just to say a few. And then you’ve got your helicopters, your P8s.

Have you seen any degradation as this – has this manifested itself or do you see this as pretty solid right now and just – because that’s on the minds of a lot of people here who are seeing empty shelves?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Sure. By and large, I haven’t seen a significant change. I give full credit to a large number of uniformed and civilian logisticians who are working this hard because I know it’s more difficult than it may have been in the past.

But, largely, when you get out there, I haven’t seen a significant impact, although there probably are a couple of instances where things may have gone a little slower. But that could happen for any number of reasons over time anyway. That’s where we stand today.

Vice Adm. Daly: Well, good.

I’ve got a question here from Lieutenant Kyle Cregge. He’s at USD and he said, as the PLAN expands its reach into the Indian Ocean, specifically with port visits and, potentially, even basing in places like Gwadar, Pakistan, how does this change your outlook there?

I mean, not to get all into the unified command plan, but you do have quite a big chunk out in the big IO that you control and it’s right at that – it’s right – it’s wedged in between different COCOMs and different numbered fleets. So has this increased activity on the part of China out in the IO changed your thinking about distribution of assets and how you operate?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Yeah. A couple of thoughts there. First of all, I think within about the last six months you’ve heard both the CNO and then Admiral Paparo talk about the number of fleets having flexibility in when they – where they operate beyond just these imaginary UCP lines. So I think, going forward, we’ll see some opportunities where high-capacity fleets can operate a little differently.

On the matter of Pakistan, I was just in Pakistan a couple of months ago. We talked about this issue. Again, the Navy’s activity with the Pakistani navy is completely incomparable with what the China – China may do a port visit.

Here’s what we’re doing with Pakistan. We’ve got a Pakistani captain who will take command of one of the three CMF task forces next week. We’ve had a significant uptick in the number of port visits into Pakistan here in the last six months with more to follow in the coming weeks and months.

Good communication is established with the Pakistani navy leadership at the headquarters level and at the fleet level, a pretty significant presence of Pakistani officers on my staff. You know, we’re just in a completely different position. And on the other side of the coin, I think you see PRC trying to get a port visit. These are just two – apples and oranges when you compare what that relationship looks like.

Vice Adm. Daly: Right. This question from J. Scott O’Meara, Brigadier General, retired USMC, Booz Allen. He said he’s interested in how TF 59 is collaborating with NAVWAR’s Project Overmatch, and you talked about a lot of the collaboration that’s going on in theater and the fact that you’ve gotten excellent support. I guess this is asking do you have a direct reach into Overmatch?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Great teaming effort. We had – NAVWAR’s team came out. When I talk about when we had our initial summit to stand up the organization back in July, they participated in it. So, we’ve been with them from the start. And Admiral Small and I are back and forth on this, and good teaming effort.

Vice Adm. Daly: Good. Good. Another question here. This is from Seth – Dr. Seth Jones. Russia has expanded its power projection capabilities and presence in and near the Middle East with a continuing naval base in Syria, naval operations in the Sudan. With tensions rising between Russia and the U.S. and other regions, what are the primary threats that you see, Admiral, from Russia in the Central Command AOR and is this is something you find yourself – you know, that’s changing your day?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. You know, as you pointed out, the real presence in the region is in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria. So I’m not seeing that – you know, that’s not affecting my life on a daily basis nor is anything else they’re doing right now in the region. They, typically, have one ship in the region, if that.

If I take a step back again, what’s the Russian partnership with regional navies look like, last year they had a cumulative number of three exercises. You know, again, we did 33. So it’s a real disparity in where the Navy is involved and what we’re doing and what the Russians are doing. Could that change in the future? Perhaps. But right now, not losing sleep over it.

Vice Adm. Daly: Got it. Thank you. Here’s a message from Jerry Meyerle at CNA. He said, could you comment on the outcome of the Pentagon’s Global Posture Review and its implications for Fifth Fleet and your partners?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. So I think – let me walk back just a couple of months ago. Secretary Austin came to the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, and for those who aren’t familiar with it who may be familiar with the Shangri-La Dialogue – the national security forum for Asia – this is the same type of forum for the Middle East.

All the premier national security leaders in the region come to it. And at that conference, he, you know, rearticulated our resolve, our commitment to the region, and our desire to cooperate more in this integrated deterrence posture which I talked about earlier.

And so my two cents on this is, as we continue to strengthen all the partnerships I talked about before in new and different ways and advance the technology piece and the innovation, we’re going to find ourself in a good position.

Fifth Fleet headquarters is not going anywhere. I would anticipate that CMF – the number of CMF partner nations will expand. I think the number of IMSC partner nations will expand. So I think we’ll find ourselves in a pretty good position in that regard.

Vice Adm. Daly: And you just said that you didn’t see the Fifth Fleet headquarters going anywhere. Am I correct that now that we’ve changed our posture with Afghanistan and we’re out of Iraq, mostly, I think you’re the senior officer in theater.

Vice Adm. Cooper: It is, the position is the senior officer residing in theater. And to your point, the Iraq mission has evolved into one of advise and assist and enable. I have a two-star general in charge there, superstar, John Brennan. But, yeah, it’s a dynamic region. It always has been very dynamic but just in a very short time. You know, the rank structure and command distribution just looks a little bit different.

Vice Adm. Daly: Well, I’ve got another one here from Captain Jim Singleton, retired Navy, DOD CIO. He said, what is the level of PLA navy influence in your AOR? And I think he really hits this pretty hard. And he also asks about the interaction with Iran. But in terms of – you know, we talked earlier about this. The foreign minister is there. They’re having their talks.

Are there any – could you at least cite an example or two where you see – well, let me just ask you this straight up. How many times have PRC ships come into the Gulf? Have you seen that, and are they calling at Iranian ports? And do you have reason to believe that there’s at least a military exchange at some level?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Certainly, at some level. Their presence is, largely, around their base in Djibouti and confined in that area. There’s relatively minimal interaction. And, now, could that change? Certainly. They maintain a near-continuous presence with a naval – with a NETF – naval expeditionary task force. But that’s where we are today.

Vice Adm. Daly: Got it. Got it. This one’s from this guy named Admiral Tim Keating, who’s a USNI member, former combatant commander, multiple combatant commands. NORTHCOM and PACOM come to mind, now INDOPACOM. Do the ongoing discussions with Iran regarding their nuclear programs have any impact on you? In other words, the fact that that’s going on, has that – does that affect your situation?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Well, of course, that – those discussions are all being diplomatically led. It’s had no impact on me –

Vice Adm. Daly: Got it.

Vice Adm. Cooper: – and the way we operate and the pattern in which we operate.

Vice Adm. Daly: Got it.

Vice Adm. Cooper: And good to hear from Admiral Keating. I see his picture on the wall every day.

Vice Adm. Daly: Admiral Keating, I hope you heard that. You’re still remembered in Bahrain.

Vice Adm. Cooper: That’s a bulkhead for others.

Vice Adm. Daly: So here’s one from Charlie Brown, Booz Allen Hamilton. Can the successful model of the Coast Guard, you know, PADFORSWA – Patrol Forces Southwest Asia – do you think – you know, based on your other experience in your career outside your Fifth Fleet mandate, do you see this as something that could be replicated in other theaters? Do you look at this and say, this is something we could use, for instance, in the Pacific?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. Well, I defer to the Coast Guard on where they would see their forces being used, and I think we all know there’s a pretty significant Coast Guard presence in the Western Pacific and a great teaming effort. I operated there with them closely during my ESG command time. They’re there now. What that model looks like, I think, would be up to the Coast Guard. But to be sure, they’re forward and present every day.

Vice Adm. Daly: Well, maybe you could expand on that a little bit, though, because I think one of the things that distinguishes the Coast Guard is they bring different authorities and skillsets that are complementary – with an E – to some of the traditional, you know, naval – U.S. Navy skillsets. And so could you comment a little bit about what they bring that’s different to the fight?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. There’s the daily presence of patrol craft out there that expand our maritime domain awareness. They offer a deterrent posture just patrolling in the region. More specifically, in terms of, you know, kind of the exquisite skillsets, their advanced interdiction team, these high-end professionals that we use on the boardings that we – they execute, particularly with respect to weapons, so that we can understand, you know, kind of down to the detail of what’s happening and the ability to conduct those in an environment that could, potentially, be dangerous. They bring an elevated training perspective to address that.

Vice Adm. Daly: And, you know, we’ve talked – the Coast Guard’s come up several times in our conversation, but could you talk about other services – Army, Air Force, specifically – where you have an intersection with them on a regular basis and are sharing capabilities across from Navy to Army, Navy to Air Force? Where are those robust areas?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Well, we have, we do today, and we will, I think, always in the future have a very close relationship with the air components. So in my capacity as the combined force maritime combatant commander, I work very – I and the staff work very closely with the combined force air component commander for all the reasons, I think, you would appreciate. That’s always been strong, as today.

But frankly, it’s strong with all the components. We have a terrific team. We all work very closely together. You know, we partnered with the Army in a number of different manners and ways. Afghan evacuation, in particular, comes to mind. We are close partnering.

We partner very closely with SOCCENT. It happens to be admiral – happens to be commanded by an admiral named Mitch Bradley. And so I – my characterization is the relationships have always been good. They’re super strong today. I’m very pleased with it.

Vice Adm. Daly: You mentioned SOCCENT. It just reminds me that one of the things that really fundamentally changed when you had – after 9/11 is that so many of the SOF got pulled off to go to Afghanistan and Iraq – eventually Iraq, and, you know, the Blue – you know, you’ve got the Black SOF but you got the Blue or White SOF, depending on how you view it – that were routinely operating with our amphibious-ready groups. They had a presence with the CSGs, and we kind of lost that. And now that we’re out of Afghanistan, mostly, and Iraq, mostly, what do you see?

Are you looking to kind of regenerate the afloat Special Operations capability that we had before? And I’m not saying this as if you’ve got to go back to what you did before. But is this something that’s at least being discussed?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Yeah. Well, beyond me wanting to do it, the Naval Special Warfare Commander is committed to doing it and is doing it every day, back to Blue and that commitment to operating from platforms at sea. If I use just a recent example, the exercise that we conducted with Israel, UAE, and Bahrain was a – was SOF, was a SOFX from the sea hubbed off of USS Portland LPD 27 in the Red Sea. So that’s just one example.

Task Force 59 has a very strong interaction and influence with Naval Special Warfare, and I see this, as you described, just continuing to strengthen over time.

Vice Adm. Daly: Right. I mean, because without getting – going too far back, I just remember the – when we did the reflag tanker operations in 1987 in the Gulf it was the SOF guys on, you know, like, PB, you know, Mark IIIs that were lily padding between those giant afloat staging bases.

I think one was Hercules and the other was, like, the Wimbrown II, and this was just amazing to me to go out and see that. I got a chance to go on those platforms and see that level of integration. It was really eye watering.

And so maybe one of our final questions here, Admiral, is how do you see seabasing, you know, the use of the ESBs out there? It looks like it has vast potential for you, and could you tell us how you’re using that capability today and where you see it going?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Sure. ESB Lewis B. Puller is the expeditionary base we have out there. Wow. Another platform that we are using. I would endeavor to use it to its max potential. We’re not there yet, although we’re doing a lot with it. Everything from using it as a Special Operations Force staging base, easily doable.

You know, for those who aren’t familiar, this is a gigantic ship with a lot of capacity and command and control capability. In just the recent past, we used it to – as a centerpiece to help with the interdiction in the North Arabian Sea.

You know, when you start to get out in the ocean a little further you’ve got to have a command and control platform that can be a host to other platforms and interdiction effort(s). They’ve been doing that.

If I looked further on in 2022, I would anticipate we’d see them as a command and control platform on both sides of the Arabian Peninsula leading operations.

Vice Adm. Daly: But do you see – so I got the fact that the SOF are integrated in your exercise campaigns with the big TF 59 effort and they’re, obviously, doing some operations off of Portland today – the ESB platform the Lewis B. Puller.

But do you see the SOF as part of this new maybe back to the future – and I don’t know if it’s back to the future – that you see SOF going to be deploying on platforms that are deploying into your theater or do you see them coming to you individually for the purpose?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Probably both. There’s a little bit of both. In Bahrain today we have the task force folks there. That hasn’t always been the case for reasons we all appreciate, based on their commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they’re there today, and I would anticipate there’s a little bit of both, as you described it.

Vice Adm. Daly: OK. Well, I think we’re getting close to the end on audience questions and I think we’ve hit them all, and I was just going to ask the admiral if there’s something that we haven’t talked about today that you think – I mean, you did your overview. We took you a little deep on a couple questions.

But is there something we haven’t talked about, Admiral Cooper, that you think should be talked about, about the effectiveness or the overall mission out there in your theater? Is there something we should have talked about that needs to be covered?

Vice Adm. Cooper: Yeah. I think we hit the high points. But if I could just foot stomp the things that, you know, what are we really working on, it’s the fact that we have had great partners in the past. We have them today. But strengthening them in new ways, as I described, really important. This is an incredible opportunity. And then the innovation piece, where we’re taking off-the-shelf emerging technology in unmanned, coupling with artificial intelligence and machine learning and really moving at pace to bring new capabilities to the region.

I think in 2022 we’re going to see continued efforts in this regard into the operational realm and impacting operations. It will be exciting.

Vice Adm. Daly: Well, thank you. And I would like to thank our audience who joined us today. We’ve got – we got through a lot of questions very efficiently, and I’d like to thank our audience who joined us today and also, obviously, I want to thank Admiral Cooper for giving us his time.

I mean, when we set up this Maritime Security Dialogue we envisioned it as – at its best as bringing in the practitioners, the operators, who were not inside the Beltway. And so we’re deeply grateful to you for making it here today, giving us this chance to talk in person, which, I think, is better quality, and then reach so many people online. We truly appreciate it. And also, on behalf of CSIS and the Naval Institute, we want to thank our sponsor, Huntington Ingalls Industry, for their continuing support of this important series.

So thank you, Admiral. We very much appreciate it, and we wish you the best success.

Vice Adm. Cooper: Thanks so much, Pete. Great to be here. Thanks so much for your years of leadership. We appreciate it.

Vice Adm. Daly: Thank you.