Tag Archives: the tanker war

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 Naming of a New Aircraft Carrier and the Centrality of the Navy in Future National Security Strategy

USS HUE CITY CG-66 Enforcing the UN Oil Embargo against Iraq in April 2002

“Control of the seas means security. Control of the seas means peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the sea if it is to protect our security.” —John F. Kennedy

“For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.” Admiral Arleigh Burke

Over the Memorial Day weekend Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the naming of the second ship in the Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier.  The name selected was significant as the ship will be named the USS John F. Kennedy CVN-79, her namesake being President John F. Kennedy who served as a junior officer in the Second World War commanding a Patrol Torpedo Boat, PT-109 in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy’s boat was rammed and split in two by the Japanese Fubuki class destroyer Amagiri in the early hours of August 2nd 1943.  Over a period of six days he made herculean efforts to save his crew and was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.

The United States has always been a seafaring nation and today the vast majority of our commerce is borne by ships from the world over. The United States learned during the Revolution and the War of 1812 the importance of sea power when the Royal Navy for all intents and purposes rules the waves. Even the land victory of Washington at Yorktown was sealed by the intervention of the French Fleet which prevented the British from evacuating the garrison.  During the Civil War the Union Navy was the deciding factor as it blockaded Southern ports and forced the Mississippi River cutting the Confederacy in two and sealing its fate even as Confederate armies battled Union forces in the bloodiest battles ever seen on this continent. The Navy was the deciding factor in the Spanish American War sweeping the Spanish Navy from the seas and dooming its garrisons around the world.  The U.S. Navy began the First World War late but by the end was the ascendant naval power in the world and was one of the major reasons that the British in spite of the superiority that they had at the time agreed to the Washington and later London Naval accords.  When the Second World War erupted the United States was in the beginning stages of a Naval build up to reinforce and replace the fleet that was still dominated by the ships built prior to the Naval treaties.   In the Pacific the Japanese Navy steamrolled its scattered and ill equipped opposition while in the Atlantic German U-Boats decimated convoys very nearly breaking the back of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. However it was the Navy initially stretched to its limits by the Two Ocean War which regained the initiative which in an unprecedented build up of Naval Power defeated its adversaries and safeguarded the vast convoys of merchant ships carrying American troops and equipment into battle and bringing American Lend Lease aid to reach Britain and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam the Navy was a flexible and mobile response force to crises around the globe military, diplomatic and humanitarian, often diffusing situations without a shot having to be fired in anger and eliminating the need for large numbers of ground forces. In the 1980s the Navy secured the Gulf of Sirte against the threats of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and kept the Persian Gulf open during the Tanker Wars initiated by Iran on merchant ships transiting the Gulf. American naval power was again on display during the Gulf War and subsequent United Nations sanctions on Iraq.  After 9-11 the Navy has been a response force around the globe in the War on Terrorism as well as numerous natural disasters and humanitarian crises. When a crisis develops which might require a military response the first questions on the mind of every Presidential administration has been where is the nearest Carrier Strike Group and Marine Expeditionary unit.  Today the Navy supports military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa and against piracy.

The vast majority of the world’s populations now live on the littorals, or the land areas adjacent to the ocean.  The bulk of world commerce is maritime commerce; the United States depends on secure sea lanes to support our economy.

While sea power is essential to American national power, diplomatic, economic and military large standing armies are not. Yes our land forces must be strong and in quality the best in the world. At the same time whenever we have committed large numbers of land forces to ill defined campaigns we have squandered national power and prestige in wars that have been at best stalemates and at worst strategic defeats. This of course excemts the two World Wars where those large land forces were engaged they had a specific mission that was directly tied to national strategy.

We have come to a place in our national life where our strategic thinking still largely influenced by the World Wars and the Cold War has to be modified.  The major land wars launched by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven incredibly costly in terms of manpower and economics and it is clear that the Obama administration and bipartisan Congress will seek to disengage sooner rather than later from those wars.  One knows that once those wars are over that land forces will shrink as plans are already on the table with cuts already beginning in some services.

Of course one has to ask what the military should be composed of in light of a coherent national security strategy that takes into account the full spectrum of threats to our nation many of which are not military in a traditional sense. To sustain large numbers of land forces on foreign territory is expensive and often fraught with peril when there are changes in the leadership of allied nations on which we depend for the basing of such forces. Even forward deployed Air Force assets are subject to these constraints.  Such basing was necessitated by the Soviet threat during the Cold War.  All previous overseas conflicts were viewed by American leaders as expeditionary in nature, land forces would go in with a specific goal for a limited time. If forces were left in place they were generally small and of a constabulary nature.

Only the Navy-Marine Corps team provides the flexibility to provide a rapid military or humanitarian response to overseas contingencies.  Critics call it “gunboat diplomacy” but then we have found what we are doing is not sustainable and we need an alternative.  That alternative is the Sea Services, which also include the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.  The Bush administration reduced the Navy in terms of ships and personnel in order to support land wars of questionable strategic value, even turning thousands of Sailors into soldiers to support Army missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without reducing and even expanding the requirements of Naval forces.  This was a mistake of unmitigated proportions, no strategic goal that we have accomplished in either Iraq or Afghanistan could not have been accomplished by the Navy and Marine Corps and contingents of Special Forces, military and civilian advisors and the CIA.

Theodore Roosevelt had a saying, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He was not an isolationist by any means; he advocated engagement with the world but also protections, military, economic and ecological for Americans.   A strong Navy was central to his thinking as were good relations with other nations.  He understood the importance of the Navy in supporting American interests. In his annual address to Congress on December 6th 1904 he stated:

“In treating of our foreign policy and of the attitude that this great Nation should assume in the world at large, it is absolutely necessary to consider the Army and the Navy, and the Congress, through which the thought of the Nation finds its expression, should keep ever vividly in mind the fundamental fact that it is impossible to treat our foreign policy, whether this policy takes shape in the effort to secure justice for others or justice for ourselves, save as conditioned upon the attitude we are willing to take toward our Army, and especially toward our Navy. It is not merely unwise, it is contemptible, for a nation, as for an individual, to use high-sounding language to proclaim its purposes, or to take positions which are ridiculous if unsupported by potential force, and then to refuse to provide this force. If there is no intention of providing and keeping the force necessary to back up a strong attitude, then it is far better not to assume such an attitude.”

Roosevelt understood better than most of his peers around the world of the necessity of worldwide engagement and the protection of American interests.  As interdependent as the United States and our allies are on international cooperation in anti-terrorism, humanitarian response and the free flow of commerce the Sea Services have to be the primary means of response.  Land forces are important but it is clear that they will need to be reorganized and rebuilt after the long and arduous conflicts that they have shouldered and ultimately they are dependent on the Navy for the bulk of their support when deployed overseas.

Any new national security strategy must prioritize our nation’s goals with diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic assets. We must leverage power and not squander it.  Naval forces are among the most flexible and economic means of exercising the military aspects of such strategy and are not hostage to unstable governments as are forward deployed land forces.   Naval power leverages national power in ways that forward deployed land forces cannot and are far more connected to goodwill than are ground forces which are seen by many around the world as occupying forces.

British Maritime strategist Julian Corbett in his book Some Principles of Maritime Strategyprovides a clear understanding of how sea power is best suited to the principle of a true national strategy for a maritime nation which emphasized limited and asymmetrical warfare.  Such strategy sustained the British Empire until it allowed itself to become mired in the trenches of Flanders and the shores of Gallipoli during the First World War killing off the flower of the nation’s youth and nearly bankrupting the nation and alienating much of the empire.

Corbett maintained that naval forces were best suited to controlling lines of communications, focus on the enemy, and maneuver for tactical advantage.  He also believed that naval forces best suited the political, economic and financial dimensions of waging war as well as war’s technological and material aspects.  One key aspect of this was the Corbett believed that continental war where large land armies are deployed inherently act against opponents limiting their political aims and increase the chance of total war with all of its destructive effects.  Corbett understood, as Clausewitz did before him the primacy of politics in war and necessity to devise appropriate strategies to protect the national interests while emphasizing efficiency in battle while preserving costly assets.

Ultimately the United States is a maritime power. When we try to become a continental power by engaging in protected land wars overseas we lose our strategic and economic advantage.  One can argue that we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan today had it not been for the deployment of land and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula following the Gulf War.

The new USS John F. Kennedy when completed will be one of the key platforms of American power projection in the middle part of this century and it is important that we strengthen and modernize the Navy so that it might meet the tasks required of it by our nation and our friends around the world.  It is imperative that we as a nation remember our heritage and return to it as we develop a strategy that is at last freed from the World War and Cold War model.  The time for that is now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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