The Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf is important, congested and contested in equal measure.It’s important as twenty per cent of the world’s oil passes through it.
The war in Ukraine has shown how quickly the international energy eco-system can be upset by disruption and shock.
This narrow stretch of water should never be written off as something that is ‘over there’.
Neither should ensuring the free flow of trade through it be seen as ‘meddling’.It’s congested because at only 21 nautical miles across it’s the same width as the English Channel and carries a similar amount of traffic.
In maritime terms, 21 miles is narrow.
If it doesn’t sound it then add Iranian and Omani overlapping territorial waters, a traffic management scheme through the middle with lanes only a few miles wide, 20 million barrels of oil passing through it in tankers every day, container ships servicing multiple ports around the world in transit and any number of small vessels operating there and hopefully that paints a picture.
If it doesn’t, go to www.marinetraffic.com and centre the live map on Hormuz.The Strait is contested for a number of reasons but mainly because of its proximity to Iran.
The Iranians consider it theirs to control and act accordingly.
For example, for decades it has been nearly impossible to pass through it in a warship without being ‘welcomed’ by them, normally in the form of a swarm of small attack vessels rushing at you in close formation before veering off at the last minute.
As predictable and tiresome as it has become, as a warship captain, you can never be sure if this one is ‘the one’.
The risk of escalation caused by miscalculation remains high.As a major global chokepoint it is noteworthy as one of only three (out of thirteen) for which there is no alternative.
Suez, Panama, Malacca, South China, Gibraltar etc all have alternatives – as ships diverting around the Cape of Good Hope when the Ever Given container ship blocked the Suez Canal showed.
Such diversions usually burn time and money but the implications are not as severe as closing off a significant piece of sea with only one way in and out.
The Bosporus, the only way in and out of the Black Sea for major shipping, is another such chokepoint.But strait closure isn’t the way to think of this.
Iran has the weaponry to close Hormuz in the short run at least, but this would be unbelievably escalatory and ultimately not in their own interests.
This issue should be considered in terms of what happens when boardings, diversions or mining increase threat levels to the point where shipping insurance becomes unaffordable.This is what must be guarded against now.
Twenty vessels have been attacked by Iran since 2021, and this is ramping up.
On 12 August, the UK Maritime Trade Organisation posted: “UKMTO have been made aware of an increased threat within the vicinity of Strait Of Hormuz.
All vessels transiting are advised to exercise caution and report suspicious activity to UKMTO.”Political and diplomatic efforts to minimise Iranian harassment and seizures have naturally increased.
In the meantime, the US Department of Defense, through the US Navy and Marine Corps, has set about providing a military solution.On July 20 the US announced that it was despatching “a portion of the BATAAN Amphibious Readiness Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU) comprised of the USS Bataan, USS Carter Hall, and its associated personnel and equipment into the USCENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR), in addition to the recently approved forces comprising F-35s, F-16s, and a guided missile destroyer, the USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116).”Sending in extra ships is a reassuringly normal US response to an increasing threat although these days, any request by CENTCOM to allocate resources will be met by a stern counter from their opposite numbers in the Pacific Command (PACOM).Either way, what happens next is of interest.
It has been reported, although not confirmed yet, that the plan is to put teams of 15-19 US Marines on transiting ships to provide protection.
If true, this is a clever and expeditious solution to an increasing problem that for once, doesn’t look like a sledgehammer trying to crack a nut.On 5 July the US Navy arrived just in time to stop two attempted seizures, one of which involved the merchant vessel being fired upon before they arrived.
In both cases, the Iranian military vessels departed as the US warships arrived.
This time two years ago, HMS Montrose achieved something similar.
The problem is that whilst the strait itself is narrow, it is long, and the surrounding areas are large.
This is obvious, but warships can only be in one place at a time.
The Iranians, meanwhile, have home advantage and therefore time to plan and intercept vessels where the warships are not.
As with every situation like this, the Offence only need to get lucky once.The Defence, however, needs to be alert across as wide an area as possible.
By putting US Marines on transiting vessels, this is what they seek to do.There are practical implications to this task, starting with deciding which vessels get chosen for protection.
The complexity of merchant shipping is such that the flag a ship flies often bears no relationship to where it is registered, who owns it or the nationality of the crew.Once you have decided who to protect, you need to get your protection team aboard, and off at the other end.
This requires a degree of planning that tanker scheduling won’t make any easier.
Neither will merchant ships want to be put in waiting areas before making their transit.
Relationships with commercial shore authorities will need to be first class and in my experience, military-civil liaison of this kind is difficult.Finally, there are the legal implications of operating under US Rules of Engagement but on a non-US, civilian ship.As a side note, when this sort of activity has been undertaken in the past by ex-military security types, notably during counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, then it can quickly descend into an unregulated mess.
For those who want to see bad people getting shot at, that’s fine.
For those who have to ensure that these activities are legal and regulated, less fine.Practical issues aside, as a deterrent, this is a sound idea.
As the counter-piracy efforts showed, aggressors lose a lot of swagger when there is a chance the target might shoot back.
From a communications perspective, if I were running the operation I would go to some lengths to keep the identity of the protected vessels unknown – leaving that element of uncertainty in the disruptor’s mind.
It will be interesting to see how that plays out.It will also be interesting to see if the UK will assist.
We have a strategic interest in keeping the oil flowing through the strait and a political/military interest in assisting the US.
The practicalities outlined above, and our limited resources make it unlikely that we will see Royal Marines fast roping onto merchant vessels anytime soon, but sending people to assist in US Headquarters would be a normal and helpful fallback option.
In the meantime, the US Navy has provided an eminently sensible interim asymmetric solution to an asymmetric threat, backed up, as it should be, by an increase in good old-fashioned fighting power.
I expect an initial flurry of Iranian activity with some of their ‘imaginative’ rhetoric thrown into the mix, followed by a gradual decrease in attempted seizures over the next six to twelve months.
The next Tanker War will probably be over before it really got going.Strategic predictions in the region remain as difficult as ever.
Nevertheless, as current planners focus on Russia and future planners on China, we are reminded that there is a country in the middle that maintains diplomatic and military relationships with both, borders an essential international chokepoint and has a proven track record of malfeasance.Iran should not be forgotten.Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer.
He commanded a frigate and saw service in the Persian GulfBroaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism.
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