Monday, January 23, 2012

Iran-US Standoff: The Crisis in the Strait of Hormuz - II

Maintaining political stability and the free flow of oil to the global economy have been the primary objectives of U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf for almost half a century. The U.S. Navy has been one of the primary instruments of that policy, in both peace and war. These twin objectives have not changed much in the last several decades.

Before examining the nature of deployment of US forces in the area, it is necessary to throw light on a relatively less known but a significant battle that took place between the US and Iranian Navies in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War.

Operation Praying Mantis

On 14 April, 1988 one of the US naval ships a guided missile frigate, USS Samuel B Roberts struck a mine while deployed in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will, the 1987–88 convoy missions in which U.S. warships escorted re-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers to protect them from Iranian attacks. The explosion blew a 25-foot (7.6-meter) hole in the Roberts's hull and nearly sank it. The crew saved their ship with no loss of life, and Roberts was towed to Dubai on 16 April. After the mining, U.S. Navy divers recovered other mines in the area. When the serial numbers were found to match those of mines seized along with the Iran Ajr (Japanese-built landing craft used by Iran to lay mines) the previous September, U.S. military officials planned a retaliatory operation against Iranian targets in the Persian Gulf.

Three days after the mine blast, forces of Joint Task Force Middle East executed the American response -- Operation PRAYING MANTIS. During a two-day period, the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force units of Joint Task Force Middle East destroyed two oil platforms being used by Iran to coordinate attacks on merchant shipping, sank or destroyed three Iranian warships and neutralized at least six Iranian speedboats. 

Operation Praying Mantis exposed the weakness of the Iranian naval forces in the event of a conventional conflict. Iran too, must have learnt a lesson or two from this battle. Iran would try and avoid an overt encounter with the US forces. Instead, Iran may adopt irregular warfare in the form of ‘hit and run’ using fast patrol boats and/or try to ram explosive-laden boats against US vessels. The US on its part needs to maintain constant vigil and frustrate Iranian attempts at mine-laying and neutralize speed boats approaching US ships or other commercial vessels in the area. The US given its sophisticated Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability would be able to effectively counter threats posed by Iran’s diesel submarines. (It is worth mentioning that in the early 1980s, the U.S. Navy began development of a new mine countermeasures (MCM) force, which included two new classes of ships and minesweeping helicopters. The vital importance of a state-of-the-art mine countermeasures force was strongly underscored in the Persian Gulf during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, and in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 when the Avenger and Guardian ships conducted MCM operations. Meanwhile the Iranian semi-official FARS news agency reported that its navy’s sub-surface vessels possessed capabilities to confront enemy’s threats and that its submarines were capable enough to ambush and hit enemy vessels, especially the US aircraft carriers traversing the Persian Gulf.

US Deployment in the Persian Gulf

The Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya. It shares a commander and headquarters with US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT).

In the light of the impending crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, the top US commander on the ground heading the CENTCOM, Marine Corps General James N Mattis warned that additional troops may be required to deal with Iran. In response to the commander’s warning, Pentagon is reported to have quietly approved deployment of additional troops in the Gulf region.

Officials said that the deployments were not to be construed as a buildup to war, but rather was intended as a quick-reaction and contingency force in case a military crisis erupts in the standoff with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The new deployments include two Army infantry brigades and a helicopter unit, a substantial increase in combat power after nearly a decade in which Kuwait chiefly served as a staging area for supplies and personnel heading to Iraq.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson joined the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Arabian Sea recently, giving commanders major naval and air assets in case Iran carried out its recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.

US Navy officials have been saying that Iran might be able to temporarily block tanker traffic through the strait using anti-ship missiles, mines and other weapons, but U.S. commanders say they would be able to re-open the waterway quickly if need be.

U.S. officials are divided over how much to publicize the deployments. Regional allies tend to dislike public discussion about their cooperation with Washington. But the Pentagon wants Iran's rulers to know that the U.S. still has adequate forces available in the event of a crisis.

They include the Army's 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade, which shifted to Kuwait from Iraq when the last U.S. forces left last month. The brigade, which has more than 4,500 soldiers and is equipped with tanks and artillery, has been designated a "mobile response force" for the region, according to Col. Scott L. Efflandt, the brigade commander.

According to a US Navy Spokesperson, the U.S. also have deployed a marine expeditionary unit and a group of landing warships, including the Makin Island groups and the USS New Orleans and Pearl Harbor amphibious transport dock ships, to the Persian Gulf.

The sailors, marines and airmen aboard the ships will be reinforced by a general support battalion and attack helicopters. They are to replace U.S. warships and Navy troops who have been patrolling the area for the last 10 months.

A National Guard brigade from Minnesota has been in Kuwait since August, and a combat aviation brigade arrived in December. Another major unit is heading to Kuwait shortly, though officials would not provide details.

Despite the buildup in Kuwait, the total number of U.S. troops in the region has declined with the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and the drawdown of U.S. troops that began last summer in Afghanistan.

Sometime in the beginning of this year, Iran’s Army Chief Ataollah Salehi is reported to have warned the US aircraft carrier John C Stennis against returning to the Gulf. The carrier had left the area prior to the commencement of Iranian naval exercises. The state news agency IRNA quoted army chief Ataollah Salehi as saying that "Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf." In response, the Telegraph reported that Britain, America and France delivered a pointed signal to Iran, sending six warships led by a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier through the highly sensitive waters of the Strait of Hormuz. USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered carrier capable of embarking 90 aircraft, passed through the Strait and entered the Gulf without any incident on January 21-22, 2012. HMS Argyll, a Type 23 frigate from the Royal Navy, was one of the escort vessels making up the carrier battle-group. A guided missile cruiser and two destroyers from the US Navy completed the flotilla, along with one warship from the French navy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Iran-US Standoff: The Crisis in the Strait of Hormuz

Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions aimed at hindering the weapons program is fast becoming a casus belli for the United States. While Israel views a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat, the states of the Gulf consider a nuclear Iran to be a major threat to the region’s stability. The year 2012 could be tumultuous and prove suicidal for Iran if it proceeds to carry out the threats – both of acquiring nuclear weapons and closing the Strait of Hormuz. While it may be early to say in what manner the US, its Western allies and Israel would respond if evidence emerges that Iran in fact has been able to cross the nuclear threshold, certainly a military action would be imminent if Iran closes the Strait to shipping.

The Geography

The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow, strategically important strait between the Gulf of Oman in the southeast and the Persian Gulf. On the north coast is Iran and on the south coast is the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman.

The strait at its narrowest is 54 kilometres (34 miles) wide. It is the only sea passage to the open ocean for large areas of the petroleum-exporting Persian Gulf. About 14 tankers carrying 15.5 million barrels (2,460,000 m3) of crude oil traverse the strait on an average day, making it one of the world's most strategically important choke points. This represents 35% of the world's seaborne oil shipments, and 20% of oil traded worldwide in 2011.

Ships moving through the Strait follow a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), which separates inbound from outbound traffic to reduce the risk of collision. The traffic lane is six miles (10 km) wide, including two two-mile (3 km)-wide traffic lanes, one inbound and one outbound, separated by a two-mile (3 km) wide separation median.

To traverse the Strait, ships pass through the territorial waters of Iran and Oman under the transit passage provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although not all countries have ratified the convention, most countries, including the U.S., accept these customary navigation rules as codified in the Convention. Oman has a radar site Link Quality Indicator (LQI) to monitor the TSS in the Strait of Hormuz. This site is located on a small island on the peak of Musandam Peninsula.

The navigable waters of the Strait of Hormuz are roughly 20 miles wide at their narrowest point. Commercial and naval maritime traffic, transits two designated shipping lanes inside Omani waters. Each lane (one into the Gulf, one out) is two miles wide and is separated by a two mile-wide buffer. (Almost the entire strait south of Qeshm and Larak islands is deep enough to support tanker traffic, so there is certainly room to shift the traffic further from the Iranian coast.)
Tehran has long been aware of the geo-strategic importance of its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. The threat of mining the Strait or targeting tankers with anti-ship missiles is an important constituent of Iran’s strategy. By threatening shipping in these waters, Iran may be able to engage in psychological warfare and in fact has to some extent succeeded in pushing the prices of crude upwards (Crude for February delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose as much as 98 cents, or 1 percent, to $101.69 a barrel, the highest price since Jan. 12, and was at $101.56 at 10:56 a.m. London time).

Iran’s Strengths and Weakness

In the light of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, the question is whether Iran possess the military capability to keep the Strait of Hormuz closed?

It must be in borne in mind that there is considerable difference in closing the Strait and keeping the Strait closed for a considerable length of time. This is not a question of semantics. Strategic experts all across the spectrum have expressed varying opinions on Iran’s capabilities on this issue. Just what is the composition of the Iranian forces? Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in his paper which was included in the US Institute of Peace’s book “The Iran Primer” states that Iran is comparatively a weak conventional military power. Iran’s defence budget is relatively small and further it is barred from procuring military hardware from the West. According to Cordesman Iran spends about $12 billion to $14 billion on defence. This is very small compared to the expenditure incurred by the Gulf States on defence.

Iran has in its arsenal about 300-odd combat aircraft and out of which nearly 60% have little or no mission capability because of most of the aircraft are of the Cold War era procured during the time of the Shah and are obsolete.

Anthony Cordesman’s assessment of the Iranian navy is most relevant to the present discussion.

Iran’s 18,000-man navy and 12,000- to 15,000-man Naval Guards pose the most serious threat to other Gulf States and the U.S. Navy. Iran’s Navy oversees operations in the Caspian and the Gulf of Oman. The naval branch of the IRGC oversees Gulf operations. Both have serious limitations. They lack modern surface vessel combat capability and depend on four obsolete frigates and three obsolete corvettes from the shah’s era with limited modernization and uncertain combat readiness. Iran is apparently building a prototype Mowaj-class corvette/destroyer, which is not yet operational.

The navy does, however, have three Russian Kilo-class submarines—which some reports indicate can lay smart mines and fire long-range homing torpedoes. The IRGC has four to seven North Korean/Iranian-made Yono and Nahand-class midget submarines, and is producing four more. It also has small, semi-submersible craft. The navy also has an aviation branch with three aging P-3F maritime patrol and airborne command and control aircraft, three Falcon aircraft modified for electronic warfare and intelligence, and anti-submarine and mine warfare helicopters.

The IRGC has a wide range of mine warfare and smaller, more modern missile patrol boats armed with Chinese and Iranian-made anti-ship missiles. It also has land-based anti-ship missile batteries, including HY-2s with ranges of approximately 100 kilometers, which can be directed to a target by an aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle. (China has anti-ship missiles with 200-280 kilometer ranges, but it is not believed these have been sold to Iran.) U.S. experts note that Iran can attack targeted ships with C-701, C-801, C-802 and Iranian-made anti-ship cruise missiles from its own shores, islands, and oil platforms using relatively small mobile launchers.

The navy and IRGC cannot close the Gulf for an extended period, but they could severely restrict shipping through the Gulf for five to 10 days. IRGC naval forces can operate from bases along the Gulf coast, bases near Strait of Hormuz shipping channels, Gulf islands and in the Gulf of Oman. Its anti-ship missile vessels include 13 Kaman-class and 38-meter Thondor (Hudong)-class vessels with C-802 anti-ship missiles, and 9 C-14 and 10 Mk-13 smaller patrol boats with short range Chinese anti-ship missiles. Iran has made and deployed at least 25 Peykapp II-class missile boats and 15 of its own Peykaap I-class coastal patrol craft. The IRGC also has some 100 other, smaller patrol boats, many of which are small enough to be difficult to detect reliably by radar. A number of Iran’s patrol boats are armed with torpedoes and short-range or man-portable anti-air missiles.

The Iranian Navy and IRGC regularly exercise laying mines. The navy can use submarines and five aging mine warfare ships. But all IRGC patrol vessels and many Iranian commercial vessels can lay mines. U.S. Navy intelligence estimates that Iran has the Chinese EM52, a rocket-propelled anti-ship mine, and that the Iranian purchase of three Russian KILO-class submarines probably included modern magnetic, acoustic and pressure-sensitive mines. Iran also produces its own mines, although these may still be limited to less advanced designs. U.S. experts estimate that Iran had at least 2,000 mines by 2004. This is a key threat. The United States normally deploys limited mine warfare capabilities in the Gulf. And Gulf naval capabilities include only five Saudi mine layers and some helicopters with uncertain readiness and training. The Marines and IRGC could use patrol boats, small craft and commercial vessels to raid key offshore facilities in the Gulf, attack key petroleum facilities on the cost, strike at shipping vessels, or raid shore facilities such as desalination or power plants. Iran could also use marines and specially trained IRGC forces to seize ships and infiltrate land targets. It has amphibious ships, but some exercises include activities that train small craft with teams of IRGC fighters in ways suitable for raids on offshore or coastal targets.

Finding and destroying all of the active elements of the naval branch of the IRGC and Iran’s smaller surface craft would be difficult. While Iran’s smaller craft have limited ability to stay at sea, they can be remotely located and used in a war of attrition to launch sudden raids with anti-ship missiles, using direct fire weapons, or drop mines. The IRGC and some elements of the Iranian Navy regularly practice the use of small craft, commercial vessels and amphibious vessels in moving forces that can defend and seize targets in the Gulf and on its coast, and support the deployment of medium to long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles and operations of small craft and missile patrol boats outside regular peacetime bases.

Possibly the most effective tool that the Iranians have is their mine warfare capability. The Iranians have an extensive (and underrated) naval mining capability, which can be launched from boats, planes, mini-submarines and even from the shore. Mines are the poor man's most lethal naval weapon. Since the end of the Second World War, mines have seriously damaged or sunk four times more US navy ships than all other means of attack combined.

Iran's naval mining capability looks like the wild card in such a conflict. There is no command and control structure in mine warfare that the US type of "shock and awe" strategy could effectively attack and destroy.
According to Christian Koch, Director of the International Studies Research Program at the Gulf Research Center, Iran’s objective was to increase the sense of insecurity. He says the most serious threat posed by Iran is in the form of asymmetrical warfare that employs irregulars or proxies to engage in acts of terror and sabotage. He further adds that Iran doesn’t need to close the Strait of Hormuz to wreak havoc; it could target oil fields, power plants and other critical and vulnerable installations located in the Gulf.

The Iranian Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may not be able to close the Strait for an extended period of time; these forces by the use of unconventional means of warfare may be in a position to hamper normal shipping for a period of a week or two. This period however, would be critical as it could result in sky-rocketing of crude prices, thereby impacting the global economy. However, considering the fact that the US would be able to augment its force levels in the region in a short time-span and the continued vigil maintained by the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, Iranian attempts at hampering shipping could very well be thwarted.