The Gulf crisis has put the Royal Navy centre stage of world events after Iran seized a UK registered tanker in attempt to ramp up the pressure on Europe to persuade Washington to ease trade sanctions imposed to restrict Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Last year, President Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal and imposed additional restrictions on Tehran last year.
The agreement – which was reached by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany, along with the European Union, in July 2015 – agreed to lift sanctions on Iran and required that the country halt its nuclear program. The move came after Washington accused Tehran of supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen which it claimed are mounting a proxy war for the regime as well as funding Hezbollah in Syria and the Lebanon, which the US administration claims is de-stabilising the Middle East.
But the European Union did not support Trump’s action and clung to the hope that Iran would stick to its side of the bargain. But in May, Tehran revealed it would restart part of the activities prohibited under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal which potentially kills off an agreement that is crucial not just for the nonproliferation regime and for Middle East security.
In total one fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquified gas trade, worth half a trillion dollars passes through the Strait of Hormuz every year and in May four oil tankers – two Saudi flagged, one Norwegian and one Emirati flagged – were damaged by explosions in the waters of the UAE. An inquiry into the incidents claimed that the explosions were caused by magnetic mines which and had been placed by specialist divers – but only identified the attacker as a state actor.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The narrow 21 mile stretch of water between Iran and the United Arab Emirates is a vital international shipping lane and keeping the Strait open is critical for free passage of international trade. But the region is also a strategic hub, both the US Navy and Royal Navy have permanent bases in the region and now China, which has a logistics port in Djibouti and is now seeking to establish a forward military base at the Pakistan port of Gwadar in the Gulf of Oman.
The escalating crisis in the Gulf soared in June when the UK seized the Iranian oil tanker, Grace 1, off Gibraltar when Royal Marines boarded the vessel. The raid was mounted after it was alleged the shipment was bound for Syria – a breech of EU sanctions. The tanker has since been held at the Rock but in a direct response, the Revolutionary Guard said they would seize a British registered vessel and on 20 July the Stena Impero was boarded and escorted to Banda Abbas, the Iranian naval port in the Strait of Hormuz.
Footage released by Iran shows commandos from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards roping down from a helicopter to take command of the Stena Impero. Her maritime transponder was switched off and fast attack craft escorted the vessel into Iranian waters where she is currently at anchor.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary at the time of the incident, said: “The Stena Impero was seized in Omani waters in clear contravention of international law. It was then forced to sail into Iran. This is totally and utterly unacceptable. Our priority continues to be to find a way to de-escalate the situation. That’s why I reached out to the Iranian Foreign Minister, that’s why due process in Gibraltar continues. But, we need to see due process happening in Iran as well. We need to see the illegal seizing of a British-flagged vessel reversed, we need that ship released, and we continue to be very concerned about the safety and welfare of the 23 crew members.”
The UK had prior to the incident, announced that HMS Duncan, a Type 45 Daring-class air defence, destroyer was moving from the Mediterranean to the region to support HMS Montrose, a Type 23 Duke-class anti-submarine frigate, which is forward based in Bahrain for the next three years. In addition, in September, HMS Kent another Type 23, will join the small force along with the navy replenishment ship RFA Wave Knight. The UK also has a small mine counter measures force in the Gulf along with the support ship RFA Cardigan Bay.
NATO was quick to condemn the Iranian action and a spokesman for the Alliance, said: “We condemn the seizure of two commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz. This represents a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation. We urge Iran to immediately release the ships and their crew. The UK has made clear that their priority is to address the situation through dialogue and diplomacy. NATO supports all diplomatic efforts to resolve this situation. All Allies remain concerned by Iran’s destabilising activities.”
Just a week before the UK tanker was seized, Saudi naval forces discovered a remote-controlled fast attack craft in the southern Red Sea packed with explosives. The `maritime IED’ believed to have been planted by Houthi rebels fighting Saudi forces in Yemen – who it is alleged are engaged in Iran’s dirty work as Teheran spreads its military influence across the Middle East in what Washington claims is yet another example of Iran’s de-stabilising the region.
In the Gulf, the threat from Iran is not just from fast attack craft and heli-borne commandos. The Iranian Navy has a 23 strong force of midget submarines and presents a considerable threat to Royal Navy warships. Commander Tom Sharpe, who commanded a Type 23 Duke-class frigate, during his 27-year career, says the tiny Yono- class is a particular menace in the TTC – the Traffic Separation Scheme – the waterway in the middle of the Strait of Hormuz.
He said: “The Yono midget submarine is a particular menace. Often lurking just below the surface in the middle of the TSS, they are armed with a couple of heavyweight torpedoes. These will kill a frigate and possibly even a carrier. There are always a couple at sea and they are hard to track and even harder to defeat.”
But while the Royal Navy has two new super carriers, costing an estimated £6 billion, it has faced serious cutbacks to frigates and destroyers – the warships needed to escort and protect merchant traffic from Iranian gunboats in the Strait of Hormuz. In total, the senior service has just 19 frigates and destroyers and according to official figures it only has nine warships avail for operations.
As of July 2019, of the fleet’s six Type 45 destroyers just two are listed as available for deployment. The first HMS Duncan, will take up station in the Gulf from the end of July leaving her sister ship HMS Dragon to escort the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth when she heads for the United States in August to undertake her second phase of F-35 trials. The other four are in maintenance with one (HMS Daring) being out of service since 2017.
The Type 23 fleet is in a slightly better position. It has five frigates in refit undergoing a life extension (LIFE) and a sixth waiting to start. Of the remaining seven Duke-class vessels HMS Montrose, is already deployed and HMS Kent committed to the Gulf. At least three of the remaining five warships are required to maintain operations in UK waters and with NATO, leaving just two available to join the Gulf mission, if required.
As tension increases, we understand a Royal Navy specialist mine counter measures warship was called in to escort a US Navy oil supply warship in the Gulf – amid fears that Iran’s Naval Revolutionary Guard has released mines.
USS Big Horn ferried 180,000 barrels of fuel and aviation oil from Bahrain to the Gulf of Oman when with Hunt-class warship HMS Brocklesby `riding shotgun’ to counter a suicide attack or mine threat. Iran constantly threatens to mine the Strait of Hormuz and US Navy Commander Captain Jeffrey Morganthanaler who heads the Coalition mine force, Task Force 52, said: “The mine threat is always present here.”
The specialist crew aboard Brocklesby, have the difficult task of locating mines in one if the busiest shipping lanes in the word and Iran has developed sophisticated mines, which sit on the seabed listen out for the noise and magnetic signature of a ship and then detonate.
HMS Brocklesby, is one of a squadron of mine vessels based that the UK has permanently based in Bahrain to counter the mine threat with the vessels constantly monitoring international shipping lanes to ensure the safety of merchant vessels. As she escorts the USNS Big Horn her crew will man series of fitted with mini-guns, 50 calibre machine guns and 30mm gun which can intercept and stop any fast attack craft.
In addition, the ship, which has a glass reinforced hull to protect her from mines, can use sonar technology to locate threats and initiate the hi-tech Seafox unmanned underwater vehicle, which can be deployed ahead of the ship to search the waterway.
Her 46 crew includes a six strong team of specialist mine disposal team equipped with `rebreathing systems’, which allow them to operate longer for longer period as well as autonomous system called Remus, which can dive to 100 metres to find mines. The 42,000 tonne USNS Big Horn, which has just one Phalanx Gatling gun onboard and little capability to identify fast attack craft or mines, is heading south to replenish the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group in the Gulf of Oman.
Both the Royal Navy and US Navy have mine counter measures capabilities in the Gulf with the American force having recently moved their teams from Bahrain south to the port of Fujarah – which is closer to the Strait of Hormuz. Brocklesby, who has the call sign Golf Bravo Papa Quebec, took part in the clearing the waters for the amphibious assault in Tot Al Faw peninsula in 2003 as well as operating off Libya.
The immediate UK plan appears to join or form a Coalition escort force, which will protect merchant ships going north and south. Both HMS Montrose and HMS Kent have Wildcat helicopters based aboard them, but a new supersonic missile system, called Sea Venom, is yet to be installed on the aircraft, leaving the helicopter with only a 50 calibre machine gun as a primary weapon. Sea Venom is a £500 million replacement missile for Sea Skua, which was fitted to the Lynx and deployed with success in the Falklands war (1982) and in the First Gulf war (1991). The delay in service use of the weapon is reported to be the late approval of funding.
Lord West, the former First Sea Lord who served in the Falklands war and has campaigned for a stronger Royal Navy, warned against a military response, he said: “A military response against Iran is not appropriate and, in any case, is beyond the capability of our armed forces acting alone. But we should make it clear to the Iranians that, while up until now we have been trying to talk to Washington about easing sanctions, we will side with the US and strengthen sanctions unless Iran releases our ship and its crew.”
He added: “Some powerful groups in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States want war and think a precision strike against key parts of Iran’s military capability would lead to regime change. They are wrong. It would lead to an open-ended war with catastrophic consequences across the region and the globe. There are very real risks of a miscalculation or some foolhardy action leading to a war.”