During the conflict between Hamas and Israel last May, the terror group attempted to use rockets and an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to attack Israel's maritime assets in the Eastern Mediterranean. The United States, Israel, and their regional partners should expect the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist proxies to increasingly develop, field, and employ weapons in the maritime domain to attack vessels, ports, and offshore energy infrastructure.
To address this growing threat, the US should encourage its Arab security partners and Israel to expand their mutual involvement in multilateral military exercises, especially ones focused on maritime energy security and counterterrorism in the eastern Mediterranean.
The existing Noble Dina exercise presents just such an opportunity.
Israel and its Arab security partners should expand their mutual involvement in multilateral military exercises.
Noble Dina is an Israeli-led multinational annual military exercise that focuses on maritime security in the eastern Mediterranean and has traditionally included Greece and the US. This year's exercise took place in March in waters west of Cyprus and included France and Cyprus for the first time.
The exercise featured an Israeli submarine and the INS Romach, a Sa'ar 4.5-class missile boat housing anti-submarine systems. The Greek navy participated with one "S"-type frigate, a fast-attack missile craft, one Type 214 submarine, a helicopter, and one P-3B maritime patrol aircraft. The exercise also included ships from France and Cyprus. The United States has sent P-8 aircraft to the exercise before (and will hopefully send more aircraft and ships in the future). Noble Dina has honed capabilities related to maritime situational awareness, counterterrorism, port defense, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and search and rescue.
If recent developments are any indication, those capabilities are becoming even more important.
In May and June 2019, six commercial tankers suffered damage from what an international investigation determined to be limpet mines. The US government identified Iran as the party behind the attacks, even releasing video of operatives from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps removing an unexploded mine from the side of a tanker.
More recently, Iran and Israel have engaged in a tit-for-tat shadow war that has increasingly played out at sea.
And as an Israeli military officer remarked last year, "We have to think that whatever Iran has," the Tehran-backed terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, "can also have." Indeed, Tehran has worked overtime to provide both Hamas and Hezbollah with weapons, weapon production capabilities, and other military and financial assistance.
When Hamas fired numerous rockets toward Israel's Tamar offshore natural gas rig in May, it was no surprise. The terror group also attempted to deploy a UUV from Gaza's northern coast, but Israeli forces destroyed it.
In addition to collecting intelligence, Hamas' UUVs, according to some estimates, may be able to carry 30 to 50 kg. of explosives, enabling them to sidle up to targets and then detonate.
Although its attacks failed in May, Hamas will continue to work to field more advanced maritime capabilities, and Tehran will be eager to help.
Meanwhile Hezbollah already possesses more advanced capabilities, including shore-to-sea missiles, not to mention suicide drones and UUVs. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has explicitly identified maritime platforms as potential targets.
So, what's to be done?
Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently introduced the US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act of 2021. Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance the bill.
Among other things, the bipartisan legislation wisely calls for the United States to support "joint maritime security cooperation exercises with Cyprus, Greece and Israel." That's smart, and the existing Noble Dina exercise provides a perfect foundation on which Washington, Jerusalem and Athens can build.
The inclusion of Cyprus and France in Noble Dina this year is a positive step, but planners should not stop there.
Given Cairo's concern about terrorist groups and robust interest in protecting its natural gas interests in the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt should be invited to join the next Noble Dina exercise. The United Arab Emirates also has experience with maritime security and should be invited, too.
Including Arab states such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in Noble Dina can reinforce the 2020 Abraham Accords and build an increasingly unified and militarily capable coalition to push back against Tehran and its terror proxies.
Some may suggest it is too soon for such overt public cooperation between Israeli and Arab militaries. Yet such cooperation could play a positive role in shaping Arab public opinion over time, especially when such exercises are supporting shared security interests.
Any reluctance to adding Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to Noble Dina also ignores the fact that Israel is already working with Arab partners publicly in other military exercises.
In the Greece-hosted Iniochos exercise, in the Nemesis exercise in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone, and in the Sea Breeze exercise currently taking place in the Black Sea, the Israeli military is already training alongside Egyptian and/or Emirati military forces.
By adding Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to Noble Dina and expanding the exercise's scope and complexity over time, Washington, Jerusalem and Athens can secure common interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and strengthen the unity and preparedness of the coalition countering terrorism from Tehran and its terror proxies.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.
Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at FDD.