A series of recent tests by the US Navy of a laser weapon system is sending a message to Iran and its proxies about the use of attack drones in the Middle East.
In mid-December, the USS Portland destroyed a floating target while sailing in the Gulf of Aden, using a solid state laser.
The US Navy enjoyed success on an earlier test of the same system in May 2020 when it downed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as drone, in the Pacific Ocean.
The system, called the Laser Weapons System Demonstrator (LWSD), is considered a next-generation follow-on to the US military's previous laser technology, according to a US Navy statement on December 15.
Portland is part of the amphibious group that began operating in the US Navy's 5th Fleet region in September, the statement said.
The 5th Fleet is responsible for an area of operations encompassing about 6.5 million sq. km of water and includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.
While high-energy laser weapon systems can be expensive to develop and deploy, they offer commanders a relatively cheap alternative to other anti-aircraft systems once they are up and running.
Each shot from a laser-based system can be cheaper than bullets or anti-air missiles, provided a ship can generate the electrical power needed for the system, making it effective against low-cost threats -- such as the drones Iran have employed in the region.
The US military's latest technology serves as a warning to Iran and its allies amid an uptick in the use of drones in attacks.
Drones in bullseye
Forensic evidence has tied Iran to a host of drone attacks in the region.
Satellite imagery and evidence collected at sites targeted by explosives-laden drones, including facilities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have linked Iran to the attacks.
Evidence of Iran's role in these types of attacks began after the disruptive September 14, 2019, attacks that knocked out two Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq.
A United Nations report concluded that the assault, which roughly halved Saudi Arabia's oil production, was not launched by the Iran-backed Houthis, who had initially claimed responsibility.
US defence officials said surveillance satellites captured images of Iran preparing drones and missiles at launch sites on its territory before the attack, National Public Radio reported.
And an inspection of the wreckage of the drones used in the attack later revealed that components recovered from the scene matched those of drones manufactured in Iran.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have long accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with sophisticated weapons.
In one recent incident, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on December 23 that it shot down a bomb-laden drone targeting Abha airport in the south of the country, causing debris to fall nearby but leaving no casualties.
Meanwhile, Iraq's air defences Tuesday (January 4) downed two explosive-laden drones as they approached the Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts US forces.
Iran hides its hand
In early August last year, the Pentagon also announced that investigations into a July 29 drone attack on the Mercer Street tanker in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman produced clear evidence that Iran was behind the incident.
A British security guard and the ship's Romanian captain were killed in the attack.
The world sees Iran's drone threats to commercial navigation in the Gulf and Arabian Sea and its targeting of Saudi oil infrastructure as "acts of retaliation and harassment", security analyst and former Iraqi military officer Majid al-Qaisi said in October.
They serve as "security and political pressure messages" from Iranian leaders to the international community to reconsider the sanctions imposed on their country and to influence the negotiations over its nuclear programme, he said.
The Iranians are actively involved in the smuggling of missiles and weapons to their proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon so they can attack international targets and interests and continue their malign activities, al-Qaisi said.
They also are supplying these proxies with drones, he added, as UAVs are difficult to track and destroy.
Iran "is developing the expertise of its proxies in manufacturing and operating these aircraft because [proxies] lack the sufficient capability to produce them on their own", said al-Qaisi.
Proxy war is a strategic policy for the Iranian regime, he said, noting that this type of conflict is characterised by plausible deniability -- meaning it is easy for Iran to deny a direct role.