The Royal Navy and escalating tensions in the Arabian Gulf

Following a series of attacks on four commercial vessels in the Gulf in May, two more tankers were targeted on 13th June. Here we provide a brief analysis of events and the implications for Royal Navy involvement in the region.

What happened?

Against a background of rising tension and complicated long-running conflicts in the Gulf region, on 12th May four tankers were damaged by explosions while at anchor off the port of Fujairah, just outside UAE territorial waters. A subsequent international investigation concluded a “state actor” ran a sophisticated operation using divers from fast boats to place limpet mines on the hulls.

The on 13th June the tanker MV Front Altair, owned by Norwegian company carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha, a flammable hydrocarbon mixture had departed the UAE and was in the Gulf of Oman bound for Taiwan. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) the crew reported she “suspected being hit by a torpedo”. (The pattern of waterline damage did not appear consistent with a torpedo hit which are usually designed to detonate under the hull). Shortly after, the MV Kokuka Courageous, owned by a Japanese Company bound for Singapore with a cargo of methanol from Saudi Arabia, reported a fire had broken out in the engine room. Again limpet mines placed on the ship when stopped and detonated remotely or by a timer appear to be the most likely cause of damage but there remains some uncertainty as to the method of attack. Some of the Kokuka Courageous crew say they “witnessed a flying object” when she was attacked, suggesting she was either hit by either shellfire or a small missile.

MV Front Altair badly damaged by fire after an explosion close to the waterline amidships. The total destruction of the ships does not appear to be the aim of the attacks as both survived and fortunately no sailors were killed or injured. (Photo: IRNA)

A detailed timeline of events was provided by US Central Command:

  • US Naval forces received two separate distress calls at 6:12 am (local time) from the MV Front Altair and a second one at 7 am from Kokuka Courageous.
  • Both vessels were in international waters in the Gulf of Oman about 10 nautical miles apart at the time of the distress calls. USS Bainbridge was about 40 nautical miles away from MV Altair at the time of the attack and immediately began closing the distance.
  • At 8:09 am a US aircraft observed an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Hendijan-class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft in the vicinity of MV Altair.
  • At 9:12 am a US aircraft observed the FAC/FIAC pull a raft from the MV Altair from the water.
  • At 9:26 am the Iranians requested that the motor vessel Hyundai Dubai, which had rescued the sailors from the Altair, turn the crew over to the Iranian FIACs. The Hyundai Dubai complied with the request and transferred the crew of the Altair to the Iranian FIACs.
  • At 11:05 am local time USS Bainbridge approached the Dutch tug Coastal Ace, which had rescued the crew of 21 sailors from the MV Kokuka Courageous who had abandoned their ship after discovering a probable unexploded limpet mine on their hull following an initial explosion.
  • While the Iranian Hendijan patrol boat appeared to attempt to get to the tug Coastal Ace before USS Bainbridge, the sailors were rescued by Bainbridge at the request of the master of the MV Kokuka Courageous.
  • At 4:10 pm, an IRGC Gashti-class patrol boat approached the MV Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the vessel.

Images of the MV Kokuka Courageous provided by the US Navy which supposedly shows an unexploded limpet mine attached to the hull. (Photo: US Centcom)

Asymmetric naval conflict

The US quickly stated that the Iranians (or their proxies) were responsible for their attacks. The UK subsequently made its own intelligence led-assessment which concurred with the US. There are other possible, if less plausible, culprits but not all the facts are in the public domain and it is unwise to second guess the official line. This is not blindly following US bidding, Britain has little interest in involvement in another Arab conflict and still wishes to preserve the Iran nuclear deal.

UK reliance on energy from the Gulf has declined dramatically since its 1990s peak, and its shipping traffic today mainly carries petrochemicals bound for Asia. The primary source of crude oil and natural gas for Britain are now Norway, Algeria, Nigeria and the US but it would be foolish to think interference with maritime trade in the Gulf is no longer our problem. Asian countries consuming Arab oil manufacture a large proportion of the world’s goods and the disruption to shipping has already caused a 4% rise in the global oil price.

There is a clear imperative for the UK and most other developed nations to protect shipping, whatever the view on Trump and Middle East politics maybe. After initially suggesting that merchant ship convoys protected by warships might be required, US Centcom now says there are no plans to start convoys for now. During the “Tanker Wars” of the 1980s, the RN was able to keep three warships at a time dedicated to the ‘Armilla patrol’, engaged in protecting vessels transiting from the oil terminals of the Northern Gulf and through the Straits of Hormuz. Back then a Royal Navy fleet of about 75 escorts (later declining to around 50) could support this enduring commitment. More than 30 years later a single frigate, currently HMS Montrose, is now permanently based in Bahrain which is a sensible policy to maximise the use of limited warship numbers. There is much value in having forces already in place as they do not have to be ‘surged’ to the region and are already integrated with other allied militaries. The newly-opened UK Naval Support Facility in Bahrain is now home to around 500 UK personnel and in addition to the frigate, supports the 4 minehunters and RFA support ship that have been based in the region for many years.

A demand for more escorts on a sustained basis would be a problem, particularly at a time when the RN needs frigates and destroyers to generate a carrier battle group. While the lack of warships cannot be quickly resolved, it is clear that allowing such a decline in strength is completely at odds with the needs of the world’s 5th largest economy which is entirely dependent on maritime trade. Any disruption to the flow of energy and goods by sea will ultimately add costs for the consumer. This is when the true state of your navy will suddenly have greater resonance with the public.

For now, it would appear merchantmen maybe more at risk when at anchor or in harbour than in the open sea. Small boats or mini-submarines deploying frogmen with limpet mines are difficult to counter. Western ground forces have decades of painful experience contending with asymmetric threats but navies have yet to really tested in this new kind of warfare. Use of torpedoes and anti-ship missiles maybe above the threshold for a declared war, instead a less dramatic way is being used to cause disruption with cheap and deniable delivery methods that send a message without the risks of a full-scale conflict.

Because asymmetric attacks could quickly escalate into something much more serious, it demands a navy equipped for the full range of operations. Limpet mine attacks are at the lower end of the threat spectrum but Iran is practised in swarm attacks using small craft and has considerable minelaying potential. Warships venturing into the Gulf may only be a minute’s flying time away from a battery of shore-based anti-ship missiles and the Iranians also possess a fleet of conventional and mini-submarines.

After leaving the UK in October 2018 and a long transit across the Pacific, HMS Montrose arrived in Bahrain in April and went into a maintenance period. The MoD has not issued any information about how she might be tasked to contribute to security in the region in future.

The Sunday Times has reported that around 100 Royal Marines from 42 Commando are being sent to the region, probably used for force protection duties and operating from RFA Cardigan Bay based in Bahrain. The MoD insists “This is a pre-planned training deployment and is in no way related to the ongoing situation in the Gulf of Oman.” It also says that so far the RN has not been providing advisory support, presence or escort to merchant shipping in the Gulf area. It would appear the UK naval response has been low key and diplomacy is being pursued.