Tag Archives: Strait of Hormuz

The Naval Balance in the Arabian Gulf

USS Eisenhower and a Ticonderoga Class Cruiser

The tension in the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz continues to build with every passing week. With the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran and its oil industry, tensions over Iran’s Nuclear program and threats by Iran to close the Straits it is important to know what naval forces are in the area to counter any Iranian action.

Iranian Alvand Class Frigate

The Iranian propaganda machine continues to promote the idea that its Navy is a major threat, not only in the region but around the world. However despite a number of high publicly deployments to the Mediterranean it is small coastal defense force. It has the capability to disrupt traffic in the Straits of Hormuz and is supported by land based Surface to Surface Missile batteries. However should a real shooting war break out it would be destroyed in short order, although it could inflict some damage on allied shipping if it was able to mount a surprise attack against an isolated ship.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy

Iranian Kilo Class Sub

3 Kilo Class Attack Submarines (Built in Mid 1990s in Russia)

Ghadar Class Submarine

19 Ghadar Class Coastal Submarines (120-150 ton built in Iran)

4 Yugo Class Coastal Submarines (90 ton built in North Korea)

3 Alvand Class (Vosper Type 5) Frigates (All are 40 years old and lightly armed)

1 Jamaran Class (Modified Iranian Built Vosper Mark V)

2 Bayador Class Patrol Frigates (US PF 103 Class) built in 1964

10 Houdong Type Missile Attack Boats (Operated By Revolutionary Guards Corps)

14 Kaman/Sina Class Missile Attack Boats

5 Coastal Patrol Boats

Numerous inshore patrol craft and auxiliary ships many capable of laying mines. The patrol craft could be used in “swarm” attacks against larger surface targets which Allied navies practice to defend against.  The larger Iranian ships are armed with C802 Surface to Surface Missiles.

US and Allied Navies in the Region are Commanded by Combined Task Force 150. 

Arab and Gulf State Navies

Omani Khareef Class Corevette

Oman (Royal Navy of Oman)  Oman has 5 very modern Corvettes. 2 Qahir Class which are British built Vosper Mark 9 and three new ships of the BAE Systems Khareef Class are entering service. These ships displace 2660 tons and are more modern, stealthy and heavily armed than most ships their size in the Gulf. The Omanis also have 8 modern patrol ships or craft and several amphibious ships and a number of smaller craft and auxiliaries.

Saudi Arabian Frigate Al Riyadh 

Saudi Arabia (Royal Saudi Navy) The Saudis boast a modern Navy built around three French Built Al Riyadh Class (La Fayette Class) Frigates, 4 Al Madina Class Frigates and 4 US Built Badr Class Corvettes, 9 Patrol Boats and 3 British Built Sandown Class Mine Hunters and numerous support vessels.

UAE The UAE Navy is small with only 2 small Swedish Built Corvettes and 14 Fast Attack or Patrol Craft, 2 Mine Hunters and numerous small patrol craft and amphibious craft.

Bahrain Bahrain has a former U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry Class Guided Missile Frigate the Al Sabha and a number of patrol and fast attack craft.

Kuwait 10 Guided Missile Fast Attack Craft

US Allies in Gulf (current) 

HMS Daring and HMAS Stuart

Britain: HMS Daring Type 45 DDG

Canada: Frigate HMCS Regina which is relieving the HMCS Charlottetown

France: Frigate La Motte Picquet

 

South Korean Destroyer Wang Geon

South Korea: Destroyer Wang Geon

Australia: Guide Missile Frigate HMAS Stuart

The United States Navy

USS Enterprise

2 Carrier Strike Groups (USS Eisenhower and USS Enterprise) with supporting Guided Missile Cruisers, Guided Missile Destroyers and Attack Submarines. The Navy now has 8 Mine Countermeasure Ships in the region and deployed the USS Ponce as a Floating Base for Special Operations Forces and Mine hunting helicopters. An Amphibious Ready Group with an Embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is also usually deployed in the region.

USS Ponce

Note that Allied ship movements and deployments change frequently and other nations not listed here frequently contribute ships to this mission.  Other US and Allied ships are deployed near the Horn of Africa. It is believed that the Israel Navy maintains a Dolphin Class submarine capable of launching nuclear cruise missiles within range of Iran.

Carrier based and land based US and Saudi Aircraft vastly outnumber and outclass the Iranian Air Force.

Conclusion

I do not believe that the Iranians are foolish enough to actually try to close the Strait of Hormuz, but would attempt to make enough threats to force oil prices up and get nations to attempt to skirt the trade and oil sanctions levied against it. That being said there is no accounting for an unforeseen or accidental incident or series of incidents that escalate the situation into a war. The Revolutionary Guards naval forces are particularly aggressive. There is also the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities that could trigger a regional war and naval battle over the Strait of Hormuz. If war comes it will probably be because a miscalculation that spins out of control.

Tanker Burning and Sinking during 1988 Tanker War

Should a war begin for whatever reason it would still be disastrous. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed or wounded and countries in the region devastated. Iranian Allies in the region especially the Iranian proxy Hezbollah could cause major problems. I don’t believe that Syria is in any shape to assist Iran due to its ongoing civil war but instability in it could give Hezbollah additional room to maneuver in Lebanon and against Israel.

Iranian Frigate Sahand Burning and Sinking following US Attack in 1988

If war was to break out it would be costly and the Iranians would cause damage to the world economy by attacking the oil infrastructure of its neighbors and attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz. However when all is said and done the Navy of the Islamic Republic and its air forces would be devastated in relatively short order.  That does not mean that such a war would be contained or limited. It could become a regional war where Iran launches missile strikes against Israel as well as the U.S. and its Gulf Allies. Terrorist and commando raids could also be part of any Iranian response to an Israeli strike or as part of any offensive operations that they decide to undertake. The fragile world economy could take a big hit with unknown political, social and economic effects.

In spite of how bad it would be I am of the opinion that someone will miscalculate and that war will ensue. Exactly how it will happen I am not sure. But it will not take much to ignite the powder keg that is the Middle East.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Tension in the Gulf: Don’t Miscalculate; Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

“War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” Barbara Tuchman

Iran’s navy chief Habibollah Sayyari briefs media on the naval exercise 

The greatest danger in the current war of words between Iran and the United States is the danger that the Iranians one side or the other will miscalculate the will, resolve and strength of the other.  Teddy Roosevelt made the comment “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Iranians have been shouting loudly and brandishing a small stick and if they are not careful they will bluster their way into a naval war that they cannot win and that will cause significant economic and physical disruption in the region.

The Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guards Naval Forces are about halfway into a 10 day series of exercises in the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and the Northern Arabian Gulf, or what they call the Persian Gulf. Iranian leaders have increased their rhetoric in regard to closing the Strait of Hormuz if more sanctions are leveled against them for their nuclear program.

The bellicosity of the Iranians comes at a time when they are feeling internal political pressure from Iranian young people, as well as external diplomatic and most likely espionage campaigns.  The latter are designed to slow down or halt their nuclear program which most analysts now believe to be designed to produce nuclear weapons.

For what it is the Iranian Navy can threaten the strait and maybe even close it for a limited time. It is possible if they ever launched a surprise attack on an isolated US or Western warship using their “swarm” tactics close inshore to Iran in the constricted waters of the strait or in a narrow part of the NAG that they could sink or cause severe damage to it.  They would probably mine the straits if they could do so before hostilities began or before sufficient forces could be deployed to stop them. Likewise their missile forces and special operations forces could cause some damage and chaos in the Gulf but the repercussions would isolate and devastate Iran.  However closing the strait or attacking a US or Western warship would be the end of Iran’s naval forces and cause more damage to the country than its leaders are willing to accept at least right now. The Iranians would find that they were fighting far more than the United States Navy should this happen and their Russian and Chinese supporters would more than likely do everything possible to dissuade them from trying this.  Since China imports the bulk of its oil from the Gulf it is unlikely that they would support the Iranians.

While such a direct attack is unlikely the possibility of an accidental war caused by miscalculation on the part of one side or the other is always real and should the Israelis strike Iran’s nuclear facilities Iran would certainly retaliate against Israel but also US Forces and installations in the Gulf and probably against the Gulf States and even Iraq.

USS John C Stennis (US Navy Photo)

Regarding how such a campaign would be fought the United States would stand off a safe distance and pound Iranian naval, air and coastal defenses and not allow Iranian surface ships to get close enough to make a swarm attack.  This is a big reason that the USS John C. Stennis transited the straits and entered the Gulf of Oman (GOO).  Operating in the open seas gives the blue water US Navy the edge. The Iranian navy’s ships lack the range and endurance for sustained operations at sea and could not sustain a blockade. US attack submarines would hunt down the Iranian Kilo class subs before they could become a threat and US Naval Aviation assets would sweep the surface assets of the Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard Naval Forces from the sea while destroying Iranian coastal defenses on the islands in and the Iranian side of the strait.  Once the strait was cleared tanker traffic would resume and Iran would be the biggest loser.  History shows time and time again that light coastal naval forces are no match for a professional seagoing navy even if they score an occasional victory.

Much has been made about Iranian claims to have tracked the USS John C Stennis as she transited the straits.  That is nothing new, the Iranians have air, sea and land surveillance of the narrow straits. The fact is that US ships transit the strait and its approaches on high alert and have done so since the Tanker Wars of the 1980s.  Every Iranian move is watched by the US Navy.  Likewise while transiting the strait the ships of both sides communicate with each other regarding navigation.  It is standard practice.

Since I believe that the Iranians despite their rhetoric are far more prudent than some believe and that they will not launch an unprovoked attack. Even if they succeeded in temporarily closing the straits and even scoring some kind of naval victory by sinking a US ship the victory would be extremely short lived. US and other forces would stream to the region and devastate all that is Iran. The costs for the Iranians and their long term goal of regional hegemony would be too great for them to intentionally start a naval confrontation in the Gulf.  However the chances of either side miscalculating and stumbling into war should not be underestimated.

The biggest danger now is the potential for miscalculation but Iran’s long term goal of dominating the Gulf and acquiring nuclear weapons will probably keep them from attempting anything of this sort. That said there are factions in Iran that could try to use the threat of new sanctions to force a confrontation in the straits and for that we must be ready to meet the threat.  Iranian threats should not be disparaged nor their political and military will underestimated. To underestimate an Iran’s capabilities and will are extremely dangerous. At the same time we should not overestimate their capabilities and yield to their threats when they threaten to cut off the flow of oil from the Gulf.

The United States needs to follow Theodore Roosevelt’s advice and remember history as we follow the situation and ensure that whatever Iran does that we will not be surprised or unprepared.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Navy is the Future of National Security

USS HUE CITY CG 66 in the Arabian Gulf 2002.  “I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” John Paul Jones 

“Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”  President George Washington

“A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” President Theodore Roosevelt

“A powerful Navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defense; and it has always been of defense that we have thought, never of aggression or of conquest. But who shall tell us now what sort of Navy to build? We shall take leave to be strong upon the seas, in the future as in the past; and there will be no thought of offense or provocation in that. Our ships are our natural bulwarks.” President Woodrow Wilson

“Events of October 1962 indicated, as they had all through history, that control of the sea means security. Control of the seas can mean peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the seas if it is to protect your security….” President John F. Kennedy

There are a great many debates in Congress and the Pentagon regarding the current and future military budgets in light of the massive budget deficits and economic crisis facing the nation.  Complicating the issue is our massive commitment to land campaigns that contribute little to the long term national security of the United States and its friends. These wars constrain our diplomatic military and economic ability to respond to other crises at home and around the world be they military threats, terrorism or natural or man made disasters.

Until the mid 20th Century theUnited States viewed the land forces when used abroad as expeditionary forces which were employed overseas for relatively short periods of times of combat.  The mission and strategy was to fight the war, bring all or most of the forces home, assist with security as needed and depend on a naval presence to show the flag without a continued large “boots on the ground” presence.   The two times that we have elected to fight protracted ground wars with no definable condition of victory we have come out weaker than we went in.  This was the case inVietnam a war which badly divided the nation and nearly destroyed the military as a viable force.  The present campaign in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq which is close to ending have the potential to do the same.

In the prosecuting the Global War on Terror which was launched in response to the attacks of September 11th 2001 we have for the most costly and historically flawed ways to use an American Army.  In doing so we have had to invest a huge amount of our expenditures simply to maintain a force to keep the status quo in a country that will turn on us as soon as it convenient to do so.

In the process of focusing on these aspects of this war we have forgotten the more crucial long term aspects of national security which can only be addressed by maritime power.  This power includes the military might of the Navy and Marine Corps team but also includes our Merchant Marine and Coast Guard.

Ninety percent of world trade is transported by ship via sea lanes that have choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz,Strait of Malacca, the Bab El Mendeb and the Horn of Africa, and the Strait of Gibraltar.  Likewise other traffic must pass through the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits or around Cape Horn.  Then there are the two major maritime canals the Panama and Suez Canals.  Terrorists, pirates, rogue nations and ascending Naval powers such asChinapose real threats in all of these critical maritime commerce choke points.

Real and potential threats to the choke points: Iranian Naval and Revolutionary Guard Naval forces, Somali pirates, the new Chinese aircraft carrier and a Pakistani Navy that may become an enemy overnight 

Most of the world’s population lives in what are called the littorals, the areas of land adjacent to oceans and major waterways.  Likewise most industry is located in these areas. Most of these populations and industries are also in areas under the same type of threats as the sea lanes and choke points.  Simply put the sea and the littorals are much more important to this country and the world than landlocked Afghanistan.  They also are much more easily influenced by naval power that is not bound to land bases in nations where governments and their policy to the United Statesand our friends can change overnight and which large land armies would have minimal impact.

The United States Navy has been and still is the world’s preeminent naval power. It will likely remain so for the foreseeable future but the navy is strained.  Since 2001 it has shrunk in size, shed some 52,000 sailors and seen its scope of responsibility and operational tempo increase putting greater strain on the ships, aircraft and personnel remaining.  Ships are aging, maintenance was deferred and the planned new construction has not materialized.  The Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruisers are nearing an average age of 20 years, our carriers average 23 years old, many of our submarines are nearing the end of their projected service lives and some other ships are far older.

Ship classes like the Freedom and Independence class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), San Antonio Class Landing Ships (LPD) and the DD-1000 Zumwalt Class are badly over budget, plagued with technical and workmanship issue and are behind in production.

USS Freedom (above) and USS Independence Littoral Combat Ships

The LCS in particular seems like a bad investment, the ships are undermanned and under armed, planned weapons modules are not in production and they are not designed for survivability.  In effect they are large fast ships with almost no offensive or defensive capabilities that would be hard pressed to survive in a fight with any current or future Corvette or Frigate fielded by an opposing naval force. In order to be effective they need heavier armament and larger crews and need a redesign to improve their survivability. It makes no sense to spend more than half a billion dollars each on ships that are not survivable and cannot fulfill their intended missions.  A better choice would be something similar to the Dutch De Zeven Provincien  German Sachsen or the French Lafayette Class frigates which have a heavy armament and good endurance or the smaller and cheaper German Braunschweig class Corvettes.

DD-1000 the Zumwalt Class

The Zumwalts are 14,000 ton “Destroyers” that were designed as a replacement for the battleship.  Originally 32 were planned but the high cost and multiple problems associated with the design. These issues have included such things as seaworthiness due to their hull form and other hull issues, its integrated advanced electro-magnetic propulsion system and its surface and air warfare capabilities.  Their armament has been an issue since the beginning as they cannot meet the standards of the Aegis equipped Cruisers and DDGs and cannot support the Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities of those ships.  Their naval gunfire support capability which was advertised as one of their main selling points is woeful. They are to be equipped with two 155mm long range naval guns designed to use a “smart” munitions. The ships will carry a limited supply of shells for these guns and because of the need for extended range and guidance capabilities the shells will have a smaller charge than their land based counterparts.   They will have only two-thirds of the VLS cells than Ticonderoga class ships meaning that they can carry few missiles of all types.  It is likely that the Tomahawk cruise missile will comprise the bulk of their missile armament but if one wants a ship that’s only significant capability is launching Tomahawks then there are many other ideas which are more economical and can carry far more missiles than the Zumwalts. One of these was the Arsenal ship which was designed to carry 500 Tomahawks on a stealthy platform that requires a small crew and had an estimated cost of 500-800 million dollars.  It was cancelled in favor of the project that eventually turned into the Zumwalt class. The DD-1000 program began with the DD-21 program in 1994 and the first ship may not enter service until 2015. The cost of just two of these ships has grown exponentially to 6.6 billion as of 2011.  The two ships under construction have little place in the current or future Navy and would likely serve as technology test beds.

The Arsenal Ship

While we have increased the numbers and continued the production of the highly successful Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers (DDG) and Wasp class Amphibious Assault ships (LHD) it is not enough to compensate for the continued attrition.  If worst case budget projections occur the Navy could experience massive cuts without any decrease in maritime threats or operational commitments.  The Coast Guard is in even worse shape.

The USS John S McCain DDG 56

The most important aspect of national defense, free trade and humanitarian assistance in the coming years are America’s Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.  Without a strong Navy and the other components of maritime power we are at the mercy of tin-horned dictators, pirates and terrorists who live and operate in the most vital areas of the world’s maritime transportation network.

Humanitarian assistance: USNS Comfort off Haiti 

As our political leaders meet in the coming weeks and months decisions will be reached in matters of national security.  They will be based budget considerations alone as we have not operated on a clearly defined national security strategy since the end of the Cold War.  Force structure has to be decided based on the over arching national strategy and broad brushed and un-thought out cuts are a recipe for disaster.

History tells us this. Following our Revolution the nation was deep in debt and eliminated the Navy.  Since our merchant shipping was no longer protected by the Royal Navy and the treaty withFrancewas allowed to lapse American ships became easy prey for the Barbary Pirates.  Rather than build a navy to protect American citizens and shipping the nation paid “tribute” to dictators which amounted to tens of millions of dollars until Thomas Jefferson sent the new re-established Navy to counter the threat.   Our history and that of other maritime powers such asGreat Britainand theNetherlandsprovide many precedents for this use of power.

What needs to happen now is for the LCS ships and Zumwalt class production to end with the current ships building.  No carriers except the 50 year old USS Enterprise should be decommissioned until a full up national strategy review is completed and agreed to by both political parties.  That strategy needs to actually prioritize the most important areas of engagement that the military should focus its efforts.  The Middle East will remain important but will fade as Asia continues to gain importance.

Regarding other ship classes much needs to happen.  DDG production should be stepped up and an affordable yet fully capable replacement to the Ticonderoga class designed, to include the ability to conduct ballistic missile defense.  A diesel electric attack submarine needs to be fielded to complement the Virginia Class attack boats.  A Light Fleet Aircraft Carrier design should be designed and produced to compliment the Nimitz and Ford Class Carriers now in commission or building. The Navy should design or take an off the shelf Corvette or small Frigate type ship to fill the role envisioned by the LCS.  Such ships should be designed for specific tasks to avoid the massive cost overruns and simplify production.  When one remembers that it as the United States Navy that first developed the Destroyer Escort type ship to fill a specific role such an undertaking should be well within ship designer and capabilities so long as they do not try to “gold plate” the type and make it a jack of all trades and master of none ship.  Other types of ship should be studied to include smaller but still capable aircraft carriers and new amphibious ships to support the Marine Expeditionary forces.

Ships need to be designed with combat power, survivability as the first priorities and they need to be affordable and easy to mass produce.  Designs do not need to be over thought.  George Patton’s adage “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week” applies today for this nation and the Navy.  To adapt Patton’s adage I say that “a combat effective and survivable ship class that we can afford and mass produce now is better than a perfect ship that bankrupts us and cannot be produced in the numbers needed to secure the seas.” 

The Navy is the American Armed Force of the Future. Of all the Armed Services the Navy offers the United States the ability to protect its interests abroad and homeland security without the need to base large numbers of ground forces overseas.  Naval forces are flexible, are easily sustainable and conduct security, combat and humanitarian operations better and more affordably than any armed service in the world. When coupled with the expeditionary capability of the Marines offer a force that affordably provides national security.  George Washington, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all knew this.  I do hope that the current Administration, Congress and their successors will not allow the current superiority that we enjoy on the high seas to decay just as our greatest economic and military competitors build up their naval capabilities and the threat of terrorists, pirates and the small but dangerous navies of rogue states threaten the sea lanes that are absolutely vital to our economy and national security.

The Navy is also the least provocative armed service and history has repeatedly shown that naval forces are a deterrent to war and guarantee of peace.

On that last note…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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