Commercial ships no longer safe after Oman attack - analysis
Iranian-flagged container ship Shahr e Kord is pictured at Haydarpasa port in Istanbul, Turkey December 13, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/YORUK ISIK)
Defending commercial ships from threats such as Iran’s brash drone attack this week is a problem for ship owners and managers and for states in the region, and does not have an easy solution
The drone attack on the ship Mercer Street off the coast of Oman is an important game changer in our understanding of threats to commercial ships by both states and non-state actors, such as terror groups backed by Iran.
The full details of how the drones were guided to the ship or where they flew from, or even what precise type they were and what warhead they used, is still being determined.
What we do know is that the US, UK and Israel have blamed Iran. Drones were used in the attack. This presents a whole new level of threat to ships. Ships have in the past faced mining attacks in the Gulf of Oman, and Iran likely carried out several rounds of attacks in May and June of 2019.
Ships have also faced attacks by pirates. In addition, anti-ship missiles have been used across the region, including by the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah and ISIS in Sinai. The Sinai attack in 2015 was apparently done with an anti-tank guided missile.
This means that ships face all sorts of threats. In the past it was usually naval ships and military targets that were struck by militants, terrorists and states. This included the USS Cole, attacked in 2000 off the coast of Yemen. However, during the tanker war in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, many ships were attacked.
IS THERE a lesson to be learned today from what happened in the ‘80s?
In those days the Iraqi Air Force used warplanes, such as Mig 23s and helicopters to target ships. They also used Exocet anti-ship missiles. France supplied Super Etendard aircraft to Baghdad, which resulted in more attacks on shipping.
The New York Times reported at the time (1983) that, “according to Le Monde, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz of Iraq asked France for the Super Etendard early this year for use against Iranian oil installations. The request was renewed when Mr. Aziz was in Paris in May. He also met there with Secretary of State George P. Shultz to discuss Iraqi-American relations and the Lebanon situation.” France provided training for the Iraqi pilots.
Clearly, the Iraqi use of Western-supplied weapons is quite different from what Iran is doing today. Tehran had responded at the time as well, eventually using Chinese CSSC-2 Silkworm missiles against ships. Losses to crews increased. The US re-flagged Kuwaiti ships to deter attacks. Tensions grew, US ships came under attack, and the US responded and struck Iranians ships – even mistakenly downing an Iranian civilian airliner.
If there is any lesson for today, it is that a tanker war can lead to escalation. It also shows that Iran has been willing to strike at military and civilian targets. This is well-known because the Islamic Republic has attacked civilian targets in other places as well. Tehran has been targeting commercial shipping to raise the price tag for what it sees as Israel or the West in waters near the Gulf.
THIS IS not a simple calculation. Iran wants to put on notice sailors, who might work for management companies that are in any way linked to Israel, that they could be a target. This is because the world of shipping is murky and complex. Often a ship is owned by one country or company and operated by another and even flies the flag of a third country.
In other words, in the world of commercial shipping, it is not so simple to say that a ship is “American” or “Israeli.” It also means that Iran’s apparent decision to target commercial shipping was made with the knowledge that it could entangle itself in tensions with the ships’ multiple ownerships and management. Tehran has made this calculation before.
This means that owners and operators have to weigh what might come next. Ships cannot easily be defended against drones. This is because kamikaze drones are a one-way weapon, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in singling out Iran.
A one-way weapon is on one mission only and has to be shot down. It may not be possible for a ship to take evasive action and move. This isn’t like avoiding torpedoes and zig-zagging the way convoys in the Second World War might have tried to do. Drones may not be fast, but commercial ships are not very fast either.
Shooting down drones can be done with missiles, but no one wants to outfit large numbers of commercial vessels with missiles. Drones can also sometimes have their frequency jammed, or GPS-denied environments can make their navigation more complex. They can also be taken down with other specially designed drones or even shot down. However, it doesn’t seem feasible that commercial ships would be armed in such a manner, although they might employ jammers and other technologies.
ANOTHER METHOD to help ships defend against drones is for major navies, such as the US or UK, to help place more naval assets off the coast of Oman or in areas where Iranian drones are suspected to lurk, and provide air defense coverage.
Ships can be used for air defense, and can even be used for ballistic missile defense. But that requires a lot of ships to provide the air defense umbrella over hundreds of kilometers of open ocean. The Straits of Hormuz and the areas off the coast of Oman and Socotra Island are more than 1,800 km. apart. These are big distances.
Countries likely do not want to start shooting down every Iranian drone in the area or targeting Iran drone bases, which might be on the coast of Iran, or even on Iranian ships or among the Houthis in Yemen.
Iranian drones have been harassing shipping for years. They have overflown the USS Boxer, and carriers such as the USS Harry Truman, the USS Eisenhower and even the FS Charles De Gaulle. For example, USNI News explicitly reported in 2016 that US 5th Fleet officials had confirmed that Iranian forces flew an unmanned aerial vehicle over French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) and USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75).
What this tells us is that since 2015 or so, Iran has been experimenting with complex drones and flying them over the most sophisticated ships in the world. Iran is not afraid. They want to send a message. Now they are using the drones to strike at ships.
This is a major escalation. For the ship owners and managers, and states in the region, the problem of defending the ships does not have an easy solution.