Facing sanctions, Iran has once again threatened to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, the only way into and out of the Gulf for oil tankers.

What to do when international talks begin falling apart? Send a fleet of unmanned submersibles in preparation for a waterway showdown. As US talks with Iran over their nuclear program began to sour and the possibility of sanctions against the country rose, Iran responded by threatening to cut off the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway and the only way into and out of the petroleum-rich Persian Gulf. The US responded in turn, the LA Times reports, by sending dozens of SeaFox unmanned submersibles to the region to seek out and destroy mines in the strait.

Each SeaFox is outfitted with an underwater television camera, homing sonar, an explosive charge, and is controlled through an optic fiber tether. None of the submersibles, however, return from a successful mission as they end, not only with the destruction of the mine, but the craft itself, each costing about $100,000. The SeaFox can sniff out both submerged and surface mines.

The SeaFox is the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) made by the German company Atlas Elektronik. It measures about 4 feet long and weighs just under 100 pounds. Their small size enables them to be deployed from helicopters, small rubber boats, or dropped from minesweeping ships. Its maximum operational depth is about 300 meters and it can run for around 100 minutes without having to return and recharge.

The Navy purchased the mine-sniffing submersibles in May at the request of Marine Gen. James Mattis, the top ranking US commander in the Middle East. They represent a supplement to a larger military force buildup in the region that includes four minesweeping ships, four MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters, and several aircraft carriers. Tensions and armament are both swelling in the region, marked by a bill drafted by Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee to halt the passage of tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. “We take the control of the Hormuz Strait. If we are supposed to be sanctioned, we will not allow a drop of oil to pass through the strait,” said Arsalan Fathipour, Chairman of Iran’s parliament.

Of course, we've heard this talk before, but whether or not the moves from both countries are, as some warn, the portents of a third World War, or simply a political chess match played out in the Gulf, the water drones are yet another indication that the era of robotic warfare has arrived.

[image credits: Atlas Elektronik]
images: Atlas Elektronik

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.