Iran’s illegal seizure of a British tanker – a failure by the Royal Navy or a failure of strategy?

Late in the afternoon of 19th July, in the Straits of Hormuz, Iran sized the unescorted British-owned tanker MV Stena Impero and it remains in their hands. Many have criticised the RN for failure to protect the ship when in fact the blame lies with its political masters.

The Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt says that the tanker was seized in Omani territorial waters and called this “a hostile act”. Significantly she confirmed that HMS Montrose was at least an hour’s sailing time away from being able to intervene. Assuming what was happening was recognised immediately and the frigate can make up to about 30 knots, that would put her about 30 nautical miles away at the time. The MoD has released screenshots taken from HMS Montrose’s radar screens recording the progress of the ship being taken. The whole incident was visible to OSINT observers online as the tanker was broadcasting her position on automatic identification system (AIS) and could be observed making a sharp turn towards Iran away from her expected track towards Saudi Arabia. It is unclear why the crew did not activate the hijacking feature on AIS or Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Iran has issued a series of patently false statements about their actions, claiming firstly that the Stena Impero collided with a fishing boat and they boarded her to “discuss safety regulations”. They later claimed the IRCG managed to capture the tanker, despite “resistance and interference from a British warship”.

Given the chance, in the previous week, HMS Montrose was able to drive off an attempt by IRCG boats to take the tanker MV British Heritage. After initially being prevented by the Cabinet Office not wanting to ‘inflame the situation’, yesterday the MoD belatedly released a FLIR camera image taken by Montrose’s Wildcat helicopter showing the action.

What should have been very clear to the British Government was that Iran was planning this for some time and even warned they would do it in retaliation for the capture of the Tanker MV Grace 1 in Gibraltar British Territorial waters on 4th July. From a narrow perspective, the action off Gibraltar was legal as the vessel was carrying contraband to Syria banned under EU sanctions. What the Foreign Office seems to have miscalculated was the Iranians would inevitably interpret it as an attack on their economy and retaliate in ways we are ill-prepared for. The decision by a Gibraltar court on Friday morning to keep the ship in custody for another 30 days was probably the final straw. Perhaps a sensible compromise would have been to release the vessel, provided she is not allowed to dock in Syria.

The innocent victim – MV Stena Impero, apparently peacefully at anchor off Bandar Abbas, Iran. British flagged and registered in London, she is Swedish-owned and her 23 crew are Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino, reflecting the complex management chains of modern merchant shipping (Photo: Tasnim News)

There are also questions as to why two 815 NAS Wildcat helicopters based in Oman were returned to the UK in April, despite no sign of tensions in the Gulf improving. The two aircraft were part of a 10-year operation Chobdahar, primarily assigned to anti-terrorism and anti-piracy duties, but could easily re-role to protect merchant ships. Equipped with a .50 Cal M3M Machine Gun, good radar and EO camera, they would be a very useful addition to limited resources available to protect merchant ships. Flying a few Wildcats back via RAF C17s to Oman is probably the quickest option available to bolster defensive capability in the Gulf right now. There are however complex legal and diplomatic issues to navigate when basing operational aircraft in other countries, even in friendly states such as Oman or the UAE. Accelerating the Martlet missile into service on the Wildcat may also be ‘low hanging fruit’ that would deliver effects at the sharp end.

The British Government has now advised UK shipping to “stay out of the area for an interim period”, It is certainly something of a watershed moment when the UK admits it can no longer protect its merchant vessels. With just a single frigate available right now, the RN cannot escort every vessel with British connections transiting the Gulf. The only solution is a formal system of naval escorts assigned to protect merchant ships which will need support from coalition partners. The ‘interim period’ may not be too long as US CENTCOM is has been working to establish Operation Sentinel, a maritime security framework to enable nations to provide escort to their flagged vessels in the Gulf. Bordering on negligence, It is reported that the UK government initially declined to be involved in Op Sentinel. Julian Lewis MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee has said: “It was blindingly obvious that British-flagged vessels should not have been allowed to navigate this waterway unaccompanied.” The decision to sail unescorted when under such threat shows that shipowners were also happy to take risks. Delays to vessels awaiting escort upset the very taught sailing schedules used to maximise efficiency and profit.

The Iranians have chosen a good time to take action. The political situation in Westminster is fragile and remains dominated by leadership debates and Brexit divisions. Theresa May is in her last few days as Prime Minister and looks likely to be replaced by the charming, but devisive figure of Boris Johnson, who notably worsened the situation of UK national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, detained in Iran by his comments when Foreign Secretary.

The RN was not in the best position to respond to events last week with only HMS Montrose in theatre and HMS Duncan, the nearest reinforcement in the Black Sea. There were no other RN warships in the Mediterranean or even the Indian Ocean on hand to be sent. It is however quite possible at least one RN Tomahawk-equipped submarine is in the Mediterranean or Gulf region. An SSN cannot escort merchant vessels but maybe a critical intelligence gathering asset or platform for special forces.

HMS Montrose continues her high-intensity patrol of the Gulf. HMS Duncan is probably still at least a week away and she will relive HMS Montrose, in need of a rest and maintenance period in Bahrain. Plans for Summer leave and a TAPS deployment in European waters are gone for the ship’s company of HMS Kent, now hard at work in Portsmouth preparing to deploy to the Gulf as quickly as possible. This trip normally takes at least 3 weeks, although RN vessels have made a faster passage in the past. RFA Wave Knight stopped briefly in Gibraltar on 19th July on her way to the Gulf where she can support helicopter operations and refuel coalition warships. RFA Cardigan Bay and 4 mine hunters are also in Bahrain but none of these vessels are intended for escorting merchant ships in face of the Iranian threat. A minimum of three escorts are probably needed in the Gulf right now but to sustain this would imbalance the whole RN surface ship programme and leave gaps elsewhere.

It should be remembered the number of escorts deployed to the region since the Second Gulf war in 2003 has fluctuated but been typically just one or two. Even during Exercise Saif Sareea 3 in Oman during October 2018, which included 5,000 UK military personnel, HMS Albion and 5 large auxiliaries the only escort was HMS Dragon. During the 1980s the Armilla Patrol usually comprised 3 escorts so it would be a mistake to think the RN has a always maintained a large presence in the Gulf or was ever in a position to independently take on Iran.

War with Iran is a zero-sum game. Even the most hawkish members of Trump’s administration are unlikely to send US troops to invade the country and there is certainly no public support for British involvement in another Middle East War. A full-scale conflict might degrade the Iranian naval capability substantially for a time but the US and its partners would take losses. Closure of the Gulf, even for a short term would see a spike in world oil prices that would damage the global economy. Even if the conflict did not spark further turmoil across the Middle East, when the dust settled Iran would still dominate the North Coast of the Gulf and some accommodation would have to be reached. For now, robust measures to properly protect merchant shipping, combined with diplomacy and sanctions are the way forward. Besides the pressing environmental need, reducing the world’s dependence on oil and petrochemicals should be the ultimate way to sideline the importance of the Strait of Hormuz.

Royal-Navy-Escort-fleet-snapshot-July-2019

There are those who say the RN is to blame for sacrificing its frigate and destroyer force in order to build the aircraft carriers. While there is a grain of truth in this, obtaining the carriers will prove to be the correct decision in the long run. We are still suffering the tail end of David Cameron’s ‘carrier gap’. HMS Queen Elizabeth and her aircraft are still almost two years away from being operational and it will be 2026 before both ships are ready to deliver their full strategic impact for UK defence. The carriers will undoubtedly come into their own eventually, for example, the arrival of an F-35-equipped RN carrier in the Gulf region would alter the calculations for Iran. Ultimately it is a defence budget that has declined to 1.8% of GDP in real terms that is to blame for lack of frigates, together with the disastrous decision to make 5,000 sailors redundant in 2010.

Recent claims that the RN is “impotent” or “a spent force” are unfounded, on 20th July 2019 there were 27 ships and submarines of the Naval Service committed to operations around the world and 5,928 personnel deployed. In truth, the fleet is large enough to support sustained operations in the Gulf but only if it was the main focus of operations. Instead, the RN is committed to a global reach which includes two other major theatres, each of which is enormously challenging on its own. The European and North Atlantic mission to contain the Russian threat, which now includes a new Arctic strategy. Then there is a plan to have a greater presence in the Asia Pacific in response to Chinese flouting of international law. Besides these, is a wish to operate in the Mediterranean, occasionally the Black Sea and peripheral responsibilities in the South Atlantic and Caribbean. If UK politicians want credible hard-power global influence that is deeper than a ‘light footprint’ presence of one or two vessels in far-flung places, then the RN must be resourced accordingly. This would require a substantial expansion of submarine and frigate numbers.

Even if HMS Daring could be rapidly reactivated or the Type 23 LIFEX programme somehow accelerated, there is simply not enough trained people available to fully crew all 19 escorts. Babcock has limited manpower and facilities at Devonport and cannot deliver the frigates back to the fleet much faster. Inevitable teething problems with HMS Richmond, the first frigate to receive the new engines has also put the programme behind schedule.

If the political will and finance was forthcoming to expand the navy, then increasing the Type 31 frigate order would probably be the fastest way to get hulls into the water, but this might not bear fruit for 3-5 years or more. In the short-term, any new funding would need to focus radical options for building up manpower numbers and improving the availability and fighting capability of vessels we already have. Never mind, we should still get on with it, there is no future scenario where the UK will wish the RN had fewer frigates.