The Persian Gulf recently made headlines across the world due to clashes between Iran, the U.S., the U.K., and regional Arab states. Of grave concern, the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is a chokepoint for global shipping routes where much of the world’s energy supply passes. While tensions have remained high in the region for quite some time, every incident bears some consequence for global stability.
The Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf according to some Arab countries, showing how the rivalry also extends to the very name of the sea) is an inland sea that is connected to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz, a feature that is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. With its powerful littoral navy homeported in bases all around the Strait, from the main base at Bandar Abbas to smaller ports at Jask, Qeshm and Abu Musa, Iran is clearly very well-positioned to attempt a closure of the Strait.
Freedom of navigation has been long guaranteed by the United States Navy and its allies, but today this is increasingly challenged, from China in the South China Sea to Iran in the Persian Gulf. With respect to Iran the U.S. Navy already dealt a strong blow to the Iranian fleet in 1988 with Operation Praying Mantis, but the situation has radically changed since.1 In 1988 Iran was locked in a protracted bloody war with Iraq, and its forces were still trying to recover from the purges of the Islamic Revolution. Iran was also faced with a lack of supplies and spare parts for its largely American or European-built arsenal. It is no surprise then that American naval forces were able to sink or severely damage half of Iran’s operational fleet in a single day.
The Iranian Navy has changed plenty in the past three decades. Now the IRIN (Islamic Republic of Iran Navy) can field three Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines and a vast array of small but deadly midget submarines that could prove extremely dangerous in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf (that has an average depth of only 160 ft and a maximum depth of 300 ft). The Iranian surface fleet is still greatly inferior to the U.S. Navy and can only rely on a few small frigates. But it also includes a great number of small combatants, often of no more than 200 tons but armed with 2-4 modern anti-ship missiles with a range sufficient enough to hit almost any area on the opposite side of the Gulf from their home bases. But even the boats without ASMs can be a great threat in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf and attack enemy ships with surprise attacks and swarm tactics that could overwhelm even better armed American ships.2 To add to the threat, a large number of land-based anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles are now in the inventory of the Iranian Armed Forces. These not only endanger ships in the Persian Gulf, but bases and infrastructure across the Arabian Peninsula are under threat.3
Moreover, Iran has maintained a mining capability that has already proven deadly for commercial ships and for the U.S. Navy back in the ‘80s. Since World War II, of the 19 U.S. ships sunk or seriously damaged by attack, mines were responsible for 15. Even old mines can pose a great threat to ships and will require extensive operations to clear them. Mines dropped from innocent-looking fishing boats can block shipping lanes, deter transits, all while giving the aggressor some cloak of deniability.
While these weapons are extremely dangerous for American forces in the area and Iran could carry out a deadly first strike against the U.S. and its allies, the Iranian regime is well aware that an American counter-attack could destroy their military. But if Iranian forces limit themselves to small-scale attacks that help maintain a semblance of deniability, then Iran can still cause havoc to shipping4 and destabilize the global economy as even small incidents can make oil prices and shipping insurance increase considerably.5
Expanding the Roles of Arab Allies
In order to reduce their dependence on the United States Navy, which is no longer looking to maintain a carrier strike group in the Gulf on a full-time basis, Arab Allies should concentrate more on fielding small and agile ships armed with ASMs missiles on the model of the Iranian Navy. But the trend for Gulf States in recent years has been to upgrade their navies with larger and more capable surface combatants,6 but while Saudi Arabia can base its more powerful ships in the Red Sea, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates can only place their ships a few miles from numerous Iranian missiles ready to strike them. If Arab states instead build a fleet of more numerous small and fast surface combatants they can hope to escape any first strike by Iran by distributing their forces and then countering Iran with reciprocal small-boat missile attacks. They must also look to expand their mine countermeasure forces to keep up with the platform-intensive activity of minesweeping.
While America and its Arab Allies can greatly contribute (and already are greatly contributing) to maintaining security in the Strait of Hormuz, Asian countries that are the main importers of Gulf oil should do their part. More than 75 percent of these crude oil exports are destined for Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea and China the largest importers. Moreover, Iranian actions are angering even those countries that showed support in the past to Iran or that refused to follow the American “maximum pressure” campaign of Sanctions. European countries that tried to save the Iran deal are now reconsidering their stance as Iran looks to continue enriching uranium and attack civilian shipping.7
Iranian threats can be mitigated through innovating in energy infrastructure. Saudi Arabia already has a long East-West pipeline, connecting the oil fields near the Persian Gulf to the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea opposite Egypt. If more pipelines are built toward the port of Yanbu, and other ports on the Red Sea are adapted to service tankers, a large portion of Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas can be exported from this area, safe from Iranian naval threats. As the Saudi monarchy has close ties with many neighboring Arab countries, regional states could develop a joint plan to export their oil and gas from the Red Sea, in this way reducing their dependence on the Strait of Hormuz. Moreover, if Arab States export more oil and gas from the Red Sea, then Iran will increasingly become the only state that is truly dependent on the Strait of Hormuz.
While the Iranian Armed Forces have greatly improved in recent decades and can be a serious threat to commercial and military assets transiting the Strait of Hormuz, there are many ways to counter these forces and maintain freedom of navigation. Since Iran has developed many asymmetric tactics to counter the U.S. and its allies, the best way to respond is to develop opposing asymmetric tactics and unconventional means, both military and political, to throw Iran off balance.
Andrea Daolio, from Italy, has an engineering background and a long-standing passion for wargaming and for geopolitical, historical and military topics. He has been a finalist in New York’s MTA Genius Transit Challenge. He is currently collaborating with video game developer Slitherine on the popular wargame Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. His views are his own.
Featured Image: RIYADH, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Feb. 10, 2013) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert meets with heads of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) program at the RSNF head quarters building. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor/Released)
In the wake of growing tensions with Iran in the Gulf and around the Strait of Hormuz, the United States announced a push for an international coalition that would monitor activity in the area and guard against maritime security breaches. The coalition would be known as “Sentinel.” Although it is unclear as of yet which countries will make up this alliance, over 20 states are in consideration. The name and concept may be derived from “Sentinel Asia,” a coalition designed to counter and mitigate issues stemming from natural disasters, and which includes eight international organizations, and 51 organizations from 20 participating countries.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford explained that the U.S. is engaged in the process of identifying which countries have the “political will” to be involved. The second phase of the plan would be to work with the militaries of these countries to identify specific capabilities that would ensure the success of the plan. Finally, the members of the coalition would be charged with escorting vessels, such as oil tankers, made vulnerable to threats by Iran. The U.S., for its part, would be willing to share intelligence with the coalition but would not be involved in escorting vessels. The push comes shortly after President Trump complained repeatedly that the U.S. handles the burden and the costs of securing the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb, whereas its allies, such as Asian countries, are not contributing enough. He repeated these comments during the G20 summit in Osaka, further adding that allies should carryfull costs of the presence of U.S. troops on their soil and that Japan would not get involvedif the U.S. were to be attacked. He also questioned the need for U.S. protection of international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. The U.K. joined in the call for internationalizing maritime security in the region with a push for an European maritime mission.
These comments followed Iran’s threatto close off the Strait of Hormuz, which remains an essential route for transporting oil for a number of Gulf States, as well as Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries, following U.S. designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Exports warned that such a move would imperil international access to oil and cause petroleum prices to skyrocket. In May, Saudi, Emirati, and Norwegian oil tankers were attacked in mysterious incidents which the U.S., UAE, and others attributed to a state actor. That was followed by Houthi attacks against Saudi oil rigs and attacks on Saudi civilian and military sites, as well as U.S. targets in Iraq. In June, the attacks on oil tankers resumed, and a Japanese-flagged ship was attacked while Prime Minister Abe was visiting Iran in an attempt to mediate between Washington and Tehran. As the war of words between the two countries escalated, cyber attacks between the U.S. and Iran also surged.
By July, the U.S. came to the brink of a military strike against Iranian targets after the downing of a U.S. reconnaissance drone that may be worth up to $220 million. The U.S. instead retaliated with a cyber strike against IRGC targets responsible for that act. Tensions continued as the U.S. claims to have down a provocative Iranian drone, which Iran tried to deny. Meanwhile, Chinese vessels smuggling oilfrom Iran continue to vanish off the radar in an effort to disguise their routes; aPanamanian-flagged tanker reportedly carrying Emirati oli disappeared in Iranian waters (Iran claimed that it had stopped a ship smuggling oil; Panama now claims the ship violated regulations); British forces arrested an Iranian oil smuggling oil to Syria in an attempt to circumvent sanctions.
Iran refused to return the ship home and instead it retaliated by diverting a British tanker to Iran and briefly arresting another British ship. These events transpired amidst an increasing military buildup by the U.S. and the U.K. in the Gulf. The U.S. transferred two naval destroyers to the Gulf, the Patriot air defense system, as well as several B-52s to the Al-Udeid Base in Qatar. The U.S. followed by bringing in additional naval task groups and other military presence to the area. Saudi Arabia recently approved the transfer of 500 U.S. troops to a military base in KSA as part of the 1000-troop buildup U.S. pledged in the face of the rising tensions.
Nevertheless, none of these developments appeared to have deterred Iran from an increasingly aggressive military stance. In fact, most recently, Iran discussed implementing a “toll system” that would require tankers to pay a contribution to the IRGC boats stationed in the area in order to be able to continue to travel freely. Some have described this attempt to charge foreign ships as a form of extortion or modern day piracy.
Iran’s Strategy and Military Capabilities
Whereas the U.S. has attempted to portray its responses as part of its maximum pressure policy on Iran, the two countries are coming from very different places in this confrontation. What in Washington may appear to be a tough but reasonable position aimed at deterring the possibility of violence while also deescalating tensions, in Tehran this may be seen as mixed signals, and more likely as a sign of weakness and desperation for a new nuclear deal that would make President Trump appear to be more successful than his predecessor.
Iran’s strategy relies on the domination of the “Shi’a crescent” and creating a strongmilitary and political control of the “triangle”: Strait of Hormuz/Bab al-Mandeb, Syria, and Lebanon. It pursues its goal through an advance of strategic land routes that would connect Tehran to Syria through Iraq and allow a line of communication from Lebanon to Syria, all the way to the Jordanian borders, as well as a parallel path of ideological outreach, influence, and recruitment. To that end, Iran has focused on its “ground game” in countries of strategic interest as much as on the show of military capabilities, largely focused on the asymmetrical warfare perfected by its IRGC arsenal of light ships that are small enough to become an active hindrance in the narrow strait.
Militarily, Iran is no match against the vastly superior U.S. or British naval forces, but it does not need to be. Pushing the envelope to normalize its harassment in the wake of the increasingly isolationist position by the U.S., and to see the real extent of the Trump administration’s red lines and commitment to security in the region is likely Tehran’s goal, instead of the full scale conventional war that its proxies and assorted lobbies and propagandists have been warning against in the media.
It is to Iran’s benefit to create a false dichotomy of “full scale conventional confrontation” or “no action at all” in order to deter limited military strikes by the U.S. or other countries that could cripple its limited and strategically necessary capabilities. Any lack of firm position is interpreted by Tehran in its favor, especially if it is merely biding its time until the Trump administration inevitably leaves office, whether in 2020 or four years later. Neither Rome nor the Persian Empire have been built in a day; Tehran, if it wishes for its agenda to come to fruition, has no choice but to think long-term and exercise unrivaled strategic patience while deploying more discrete means.
Mixed Signals from the U.S. government
To that end, the U.S. response so far is showing Iran exactly which buttons it needs to push in order to make incremental progress despite growing pressure from the United States. For instance, when the administration announced a military strike in retaliation for the downing of the drone, and then changed its mind at the 11th hour after the alleged concerns about the number of casualties, while to President Trump’s base that may have signaled a humane and proportionate approach. But to the Iranian leadership it signaled weakness, shiftiness, and unwillingness to make tough or unpopular choices.
Similarly, when Iran faced virtually no consequences for its forceful abductions of tankers or its arming of the Houthi separatists in Yemen, who then proceeded to engage in attempted terrorist attacks against Saudi civilian cites, the message as interpreted by Tehran was that the United States is far less unwilling to intervene in conflicts that do not directly affects its own citizens, even if Houthis consider the United States an adversary. To Tehran, the United States position was clear: there are limits to its support for its allies, even if that support requires merely an imposition of additional sanctions against members of the government responsible for these strategic decisions. The United States, Iran may conclude, is more bark than bite. The U.S. may therefore take virtually no deadly action because in the run-up to an election the concern for keeping promises to the base and not engaging in what may risk a long-term conflict is greater than other policy considerations.
The same signal appears to come from related Congressional decisions, which show that the US public – or at the very least – her representatives do not have a stomach for further military engagements or even support for regional partner countries, which may engage against Iran with their own measures. Further, bitter political battles, rather than security considerations, appear to be a top priority for political leadership at the moment, which gives Iran plenty of ground to exploit.
These decisions include a bicameral vote to withdraw U.S. forces and logistical assistance to the Arab Coalition in Yemen (vetoed by the president); a more recent decision to block emergency expedition of arms delivery to KSA and UAE; assorted resolutions against Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in connection to the Jamal Khashoggi death, and attempted votes to deny arms sales to Bahrain, a tiny country with a large Shi’a population, that suffered an attempted Iran-backed coup in 2011, which was tolerated as “part of the Arab Spring” by the State Department at the time, but was more likely a test run and a harbinger for things to come.
At the center of most of these votes, was none other than Senator Rand Paul, a staunch isolationist who had advised President Trump against his earlier openness to supporting regime change in Iran and who now apparently seeks to be a sort of an “envoy” to Iran. Therefore, the U.S. policy in Iran involves a maximum pressure campaign geared toward a futile pursuit for a new nuclear deal, while dilly-dallying over campaign promises, all to the effect of lesser involvement and influence in the region. This sends mixed signals on U.S. commitments, reassuring Iran, and undermining confidence in the ability of the U.S. to carry out “maximum pressure” by the allies affected by these decisions.
While the Trump Administration believes American “energy independence” would eliminate dependence on foreign suppliers and lessen the need for a U.S. military guarantee of safe passage through global shipping lanes, energy remains a global market and any disruptions anywhere will impact prices. As approximately a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Straight of Hormuz, which has historically been a flashpoint for attacks on oil tankers, the U.S. Navy must continue to secure the peace and protect global energy supplies. Threats of withdrawing betray a lack of understanding of the role the U.S. is playing commercially and economically, not just military and politically. Doing so would also mean sacrificing national security interests for domestic political point scoring.
Does The Idea of the Sentinel Program Reflect an Understanding of the Problem?
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has described Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as being on the “front lines” of the effort as “we’re not trying to put a military coalition as much as a coalition writ large of like-minded allies who share our concerns about freedom of navigation, who share our concerns about Iran’s nuclear pursuits in the past, their missile technologies and, frankly, their malign activities in the region.” This comment reveals a fundamental understanding of the crux of the issue.
First, the administration appears to have failed to define its goal – the lethal failing in the creation of any workable strategy. If Sentinel is not to be an armed coalition, then what is it supposed to be? Without understanding the problem these ships are facing is a military problem, rather than an issue of responding to random distress calls or occasional unpredictable security breaches, there is no progress to be made. It appears that the State Department is driving the strategy, which means that the focus is inherently on the diplomatic and political aspects of the issue; however, political problems that require military solutions need to be coordinated with the Defense Department. Denying that the solution will ultimately be a military one in the instance of putting together this coalition once again is sending the message to both US allies and adversaries that the administration is fundamentally unprepared or not serious to be dealing with either.
Second, from the course of events it appears that the administration has failed to take into account the concerns and limitations of the stakeholders. Without defining this “coalition of the willing” as the “coalition of the stakeholders,” the administration will spend a great deal of time searching for volunteers with the political will to take action. For instance, countries like Japan are reluctant to stretch their limited naval capabilities at a time when they are facing threats with respect to China, North Korea, and a dispute with South Korea (whose current administration is much more dovish towards North Korea and other regional threats). Treating allies as dispensable or unwilling to contribute simply because they are facing additional security threats, which in some case may be priority for them, does nothing to inspire volunteers to join the fray.
Third, there appears to be no defined strategy at the moment. Even provided the administration identifies a number of countries with sufficiently strong navies willing to do the job, it is not yet clear how these countries with divergent interests and perspectives will agree on the best way to handle the situation and who will lead the effort. Admittedly, a lack of a clear vision for deterring or engaging Iranian drones and other military assets, which are increasingly becoming a factor, may create difficulties in finding volunteers as countries may not wish to sign up for an opaque, poorly delineated mission.
Finally, Sentinel may already be on its way in repeating the flaws that doomed MESA, or “the Arab NATO,” a Trump-backed project that appears to have deflated before ever getting off the ground.
What Went Wrong with MESA
MESA was envisioned as a coalition of Arab states to counter Iran’s regional aggression. MESA wasnot an altogether hopeless project had it taken into consideration a number of potential conflicts of interest among prospective members, and had taken a more realistic assessment of who should have been involved.
At the same time, in a misguided effort to bridge the differences among the GCC, the Trump administration sought to include both Qatar and the members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet, which have been boycotting Qatar for the past two years. Qatar has not addressed any of the concerns by these other Gulf States, and in fact, despite claims of feeling threatened by Iran, maintains a growing relationship with Tehran. Likewise, MESA aimed at too broad a goal without any background of joint defense exercises or operations, and with a history of long disputes and differences among Arab States. Sentinel seems to be replicating some of the problems with MESA, in that the coalition is open-ended and the criteria for successful involvement is not defined.
There appears to be no mechanism for addressing potential disputes or other problems. Without taking the lead in identifying desirable actors, the administration can not guarantee that countries will not drop out based on other security considerations, as Egypt resigned from its commitment to MESA due toincreased tensions with Turkey, or because of conflict with other “volunteers.” The administration does seek to identify specific skills that would optimize everyone’s involvement in the coalition, but without knowing what one is looking for, it is hard to get there. When there is no concrete vision of the mission, identifying valuable capabilities suitable to the tasks is not something that can be done. Capabilities should be sought for to be fit within the framework of the mission and minimal expectations, common to all participants.
Iran, a key country in China’s New Silk Road strategy, remains a top oil trading partner (China is also heavily invested in oil fields in Ahwaz) and trade between the two countries has grown in other areas. While the U.S. sanctioned one of the Chinese companies responsible for smuggling Iranian oil, the impact of such measures is proving negligible as sanctioned Chinese entities rebrand, just as with Iranian proxy businesses. Iran’s provocative strategy in the Gulf may be somewhat based on China’s belligerent actions in the South China Sea as well as involving useful, coordinated distractions from Tehran and Beijing’s oil smuggling operations elsewhere.
Will Greater US Presence be a Deterrent?
Whereas Iran has a long-term offensive strategy, increasingly dependent onhybrid tactics, up until this point U.S. responses have been tactical, and often attuned to political interests than to strategic military needs. Furthermore, Sentinel at its core is a narrow defensive project that in no way aims to degrade Iran’s capability to continue wreaking havoc in the region. In reality, a serious and comprehensive strategy to counter Iran would likewise be hybrid and look to disrupt Iran’s information warfare, military, and defense mechanisms just as much as Tehran looks to disrupt those of the Western and Gulf countries.
Preemptive action can be increasingly appropriate as a deterrent as the mere presence of increased forces has not stopped Iran from escalating. Finally, high level Iranian officials, such as Foreign Minister Zarif, should be held personally responsible for past and future security breaches and sanctioned. The IRGC received an award after downing a U.S. drone, yet the role of the government in inciting and allowing such incidents to take place has been downplayed. Their assets in Western countries should be frozen, and no member of Sentinel or any country affected by Iran aggression should host Zarif; he should not have the opportunity to come to the US or other countries only to advance propaganda. Information warfare is central to any successful military strategy; by ceding public affairs ground to Iran and its lobbyists and apologists, the United States showed itself to be trailing behind on this essential front. Finally, Iranian proxy groups and operations should be disrupted officially and unofficially, and disinformation should be sowed among the government ranks until such level of confusion is achieved that the U.S. can make its demands or successfully pursue whatever other goals it defines.
However, all evidence increasingly points to the U.S. interest in negotiating a new deal. If that is the case, in pursuing a path to negotiation, the U.S. once again appears to have forgotten than the best way to get a deal with a rogue regime is to aim for unconditional capitulation of the adversary rather than the kind of compromise than can only boost the morale of the regime.
Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer. After graduating from Fordham University (BA, International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies, 2006) and Fordham University School of Law (JD, 2009), Irina focused on diplomatic outreach and community building, including as a founding board member of Moroccan Americans in New York. A prolific writer, her work appears regularly in domestic, Middle Eastern, and other international publications, including the Morocco World News, Begin-Sadat Center, The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, Algemeiner, The Times of Israel, and American Spectator. She has presented on congressional panels, international conferences, and scholarly conferences. Irina has also appeared as a commentator on Fox Business, i24, and Moroccan Channel 2M.
Featured Image: Fishermen in waters off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, near the Strait of Hormuz, on May 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)
Current incidents in the Arabian Sea should be seized as an opportunity to advance naval conceptual thinking about unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. Gray zone activities are an astute object for concept development, as they “creep up on their goals gradually,” rather than involving decisive moves, as Michael Mazarrhas argued. In response, Mazarr contends, gray zone operations will “call for a greater emphasis on innovation” as these operations take different forms and intensities and thus require varied responses. This coincides with the general need to devote more attention to concepts developmentthat drives the use of new naval technologies such as unmanned systems.
Applying Unmanned Systems to Gulf Security
Maritime stability in the Arabian Sea has deteriorated significantly over the past couple of weeks. In response to the Iranian seizure of the Stena Imperio,a Swedish oil tanker under British flag, Londonreached out to different European capitals in view of establishing a maritime protection mission escorting commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.
This incident and prior events in the Arabian Sea such as harassing commercial vessels with speedboats and assaults on commercial vesselsare a perfect illustration of so-called gray zone activities. Located between war and peace, gray zone activities involve “coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response,” as Lyle J. Morris and others have suggested.
These activities raise an obvious question: How best to respond? Staying out of the region for an interim period, as the British government has advised U.K. shipping, has been interpreted as a watershed moment “when the UK admits it can no longer protect its merchant vessels.” But even if political support for the maritime protection mission matured, the question would remain if there were enough adequate platforms to do the job.
Deploying big capital ships or surface combatants to escort merchant vessels might send a strong message of resolve to Iran, but doubts remain if this approach is adequate. Past experiences in the Arabian Sea have made it clear that naval vessels remain vulnerable to speedboats operating at a high tempo in distributed maneuver operations. While this is certainly only one method of attack, it is most important for strategic communication. Small boats successfully attacking or deterring prestigious naval ships delivers a message that all gray zone actors want to convey.
It is time to supply navies with an additional option using unmanned systems. Unmanned maritime systems (UMS) have been developed and used for quite some time, but right now, the majority of unmanned maritime systems are used for mine countermeasures. There is an obvious operational need to do the job, concepts of operations are in place, and technology is mature. This makes a perfect fit, but more can be done.
Unlike gray zone activities in the South China Sea that involve the building of artificial islands to underline sovereignty claims and the use of naval militia and the coast guard to intimidate neighbors, Iran’s actions are of a different quality. In the Arabian Sea, mosaic defenseemphasizes mass, speed, and surprise. Unmanned maritime systems would be ideal to respond because they can be built to be lost. This levels out current asymmetries between speed boats and big capital ships and denies the adversary the offensive on strategic communications. This attrition-like role is only one mission UMS could play in future maritime protection missions. Overall, the mission envelope could be much broader.
First, assuming that a maritime protection mission depends on persistent situational awareness and understanding, unmanned systems can be used to collect intelligence and provide reconnaissance. For this mission the emphasis should be on closing the sensor chain from seabed activities through the undersea world to the sea surface into airspace and space. In all of these domains unmanned systems are already in use, but more needs to be done to fuse data to augment the existing Recognized Maritime Pictures (RMP), for example to detect anomalies stemming from adversarial behavior at sea.
Second, unmanned systems at sea can push the defense perimeter out. Forward deployed unmanned surface vehicles (USV) could be used to intimidate an adversary’s embarking speed boat fleet thus delaying the launch of operations and creating “noise” that would send alarms to the RMP. A more wicked though not yet technically mature option would focus on very small, mine-like unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). These assets could be deployed covertly by submarines or by air assets. These UUV could turn into a sort of adhesive explosives that stick to boats running over them, thus rendering them dysfunctional.
Third, unmanned maritime systems could be used for deception operations. A swarm of USV could enter a theater of operation disguised as a big capital ship on the adversary’s sensors. As the adversary prepares to counter the ship the USV swarm would disperse into many different smaller platforms thus out tricking the adversarial defense posture. A similar mission can be envisaged for the underwater domain where UUV are already used to imitate the signature of submarines.
Fourth, USVs could constitute the outer ring of maritime protection missions. Robust platforms could be equipped with remote-controlled weapon stations, like the Protector USVdeveloped by Rafael Advanced Systems, to engage incoming speed boats or flying platforms. In addition, USV could be used to deploy electronic counter-measures, for example, to jam adversarial sensors and take out communications between unmanned aerial assets and the respective control units.
While some of these ideas are closer to reality than others, what matters most is that concepts and operational requirements need to drive the use of unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. So far, the discussion about UMS mainly focuses on providing solutions to meet the needs that emerge in naval warfare areas such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, or anti-surface warfare. However, gray zone activities cut across all of these tasks. Adequate responses need to adopt a more horizontal approach, as well looking at the technological building blocks that can be used for all missions. Here, the most recent decision of Belgium and the Netherlands to develop a toolbox of unmanned systems for mine-countermeasures shows the way to the future. This approach could be turned into a holistic concept to deal with UMS for maritime gray zone activities.
Putting extra emphasis on innovation and concepts development also opens up avenues for fruitful cooperation with the Gulf states that step up efforts to expand their own naval capabilities while at the same time ramping up efforts to establish a local naval industrial base. Involving them from the start would make sure that specific regional requirements could be adequately addressed while at the same time contributing toward building up local technology expertise in important areas and incentivizing the establishment of local capabilities and concepts. In the long run this joint approach could help shoulder the burden to provide maritime stability in one of the world’s most pivotal regions.
Arabic for “the Gate of Tears,” the strait could not be more appropriately named. Situated at the center of the some of the world’s most critical humanitarian disasters and economic issues, it is a decisive point for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the global economy more broadly. To the north lies Yemen, a failed state where 17 million people face starvation, over a million people are stricken with cholera while thousands have died from the disease, a diphtheria outbreak has emerged, and multiple regional actors and terrorist networks vie for power in a bloody conflict that has claimed over 5,000 civilian lives in three years.
To the south lies Africa where fragile states like Somalia battle famine and Islamic militant groups. Atrocities abound at sea as well. Refugees cross the Bab-el-Mandeb to the north and south because both sides seem to be the better alternative. In March 2017, 42 refugees fleeing from Yemen to Sudan were shot and killed by an attack helicopter, which apparently mistook them for militants.1 In August 2017, smugglers threw over 300 Somali refugees into the water near the Yemeni coast, drowning up to 70, in the span of 24 hours after reportedly sighting authority figures on shore.2 Just last week, 30 African refugees drowned en route from Aden to Djibouti, after their boat capsized amid gunfire from smugglers.
Meanwhile, the Bab-el-Mandeb serves as a critical artery for the global economy. 52 vessels and 4 million barrels of oil transit the strait per day, making it the fourth busiest waterway in the world, and the only one surrounded by chaos. In the last year, two merchant vessels and five naval ships have been attacked with cruise missiles, explosive boats, and small arms in the southern Red Sea, while the very real threat of mines exists lurking in the water.
Yemeni and Somali civil wars, humanitarian disaster, and the economic importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb form a complex dynamic in which to develop U.S. foreign policy. The key for policymakers is to determine what U.S. national interests are at stake and what actions must be taken to protect them. After careful consideration of the issues surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, it becomes clear that the U.S. can ill afford to do nothing. On the other hand, it may also be unaffordable to secure U.S. interests by leading multilateral stabilization efforts via intervention within Yemen and Somalia. Fortunately, a third alternative is available via American seapower. Applying maritime influence to enable other elements of national power can contain threats to national security and the global economy, while providing a path to mitigate human suffering in the long term.
U.S. National Interests and the Strategic Calculus
The debate over U.S. national interests will not be settled here, but for simplicity’s sake and the purpose of meaningful analysis, the following definitions from the July 2000 Commission on America’s National Interests will be used:3
Vital – Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment).”
Extremely Important – Extremely important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions, especially the Persian Gulf.”
Important – Important national interests are conditions that, if compromised, would have major negative consequences for the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation. A key example is to “discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries.”
Due to the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the global and, consequently, U.S. economies, the U.S. has a vital national interest in maintaining the free flow of commerce through the Strait. Even if the U.S. did not depend on the 1.5 billion barrels of oil (currently $98B) annually that flow through the Strait, allies in Europe would certainly feel the economic impact if shipping companies re-routed their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope in the event of crisis or conflict. Inflated maritime insurance rates and an additional 10 days transit time from the Middle East to the U.S. would have considerable worldwide ripple effects to which the U.S. economy would not be immune. Moreover, as one of two primary sea lines of communication to the CENTCOM AOR, the U.S. also has a military interest in maintaining freedom of navigation through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. In October 2016, the U.S. was forced to respond with Tomahawk missile strikes into western Yemen when the USS Mason came under anti-ship missile fire from the Yemeni coast. Further attacks would increase risk and necessitate additional escorts for Bab-el-Mandeb Strait transits.
Conversely, the U.S. has no vital national interest in broader involvement in the armed conflicts in Yemen and Somalia; however, its interests are clearly impacted by the growing threat emanating from Yemen. In western Yemen, Saudi Arabia along with eight other regional allies, are fighting a brutal war against separatist Houthi rebels who aim to establish an anti-Western Shia government in Yemen. In December 2017, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley provided material evidence to the international community that Iran provides missiles and advanced weaponry to the Houthis, enabling them to target vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and strategic locations inside Saudi Arabia, threatening the U.S. national interest in free flow of commerce and advancing its own interest in promoting its regional hegemony.4,5 In January 2018, the Houthis threatened to close the Red Sea to international shipping if the Saudi-led Coalition continued its advance toward Hudaydah, a strategically important Houthi-held port critical to the flow of humanitarian aid. If the Houthi threat is credible, Iranian-aligned forces could now threaten another vital maritime chokepoint, in addition to the Strait of Hormuz which Iran has often threatened to close. Growing Houthi influence and capabilities in Yemen also impose costs and shift the balance of power in relation to Iran’s regional opponents, primarily Saudi Arabia, and allows Tehran to expand its influence elsewhere. Saudi Arabia may have felt compelled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war as the tide shifted in favor of the Houthis because the prospect of bordering an Iranian-aligned state would prove strategically disadvantageous.
In eastern Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen maintain presence, despite UAE-led counterterrorism operations, due to lack of effective governance and internal security. Despite pressure from the West, AQAP remains a threat to the U.S. homeland, and the prominence of ISIS-Yemen continues to grow as the extremist caliphate is gradually eliminated in Iraq and Syria. Without a doubt, the U.S. has a vital national interest in supporting its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in their counterterrorism efforts and in defense of their borders, but it does not benefit from becoming directly entangled in the fight.
Similarly, Somalia provides a safe haven for terrorists who would do harm to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fighting rages on between the Federal Government of Somalia, which was only recently established after two decades of near-anarchy, and the Al-Qaeda aligned militant group Al Shabaab, while the civilian population suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, criminals continue to recruit disenfranchised young men, desperate and angry with perceived (and sometimes real) illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters, to become pirates. Still, even though Somalia is a hallmark of instability in the region and a safe haven for terrorist organizations, the U.S. has no vital national interest in establishing security and governance in the African country. From Vietnam, to Somalia itself in the 1990s, America has learned through experience the high cost of entering into regional and internal armed conflicts in proxy pursuit of national interests. Becoming directly entangled in the conflicts surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb is counter to U.S. national interests, but so is ignoring them. U.S. vital national interests in Somalia and in Yemen are limited to ensuring instability is contained within territorial borders so that the free flow of commerce is maintained, attacks against the homeland and assets abroad are prevented, and American influence in the region is sustained.
In Pursuit of National Interests
Considering U.S. vital national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb and surrounding territories – maintaining the free flow of commerce, preventing attacks against the homeland and assets abroad, and sustaining American and allied influence in the region – the challenge arises when deciding how to apply the instruments of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to secure those interests. The U.S. could secure its interests by:
1) Leading a large-scale multilateral stabilization effort for Yemen and Somalia
2) Containing threats to national interests via maritime influence; or
3) Taking no action (Isolationism)
Option 1: U.S.-led Stabilization Effort
Bringing all instruments of national power to bear on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by leading multilateral stabilization efforts in Yemen and Somalia is a thorough, long-term approach to securing U.S. national interests; however, it would come at significant cost. Securing national interests via stabilization could involve, in varying degrees: state building, military intervention, occupation, and inevitably comparisons to “neo-imperialism” and “adventurism.” In theory, these activities could give rise to effective governance, which would serve to eliminate the threats to U.S. national interests spilling out of Yemeni and Somali borders. The governments, in this case the Federal Government of Somalia and Republic of Yemen Government, ideally would be able to aid in securing the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, stamp out terrorist safe havens, and provide adequate food and medical care to their populations, all while acting in alignment with U.S. foreign policy objectives.
The trouble is that stabilization has rarely turned out the way the U.S. intended. The most striking examples are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains after intervening to eliminate threats to the homeland and the region. Supporting Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s or the present-day Syrian Opposition are two examples where the U.S. applied pressure indirectly with less than desirable results. Meanwhile, it’s been 25 years since the U.S. first led a UN coalition into Somalia, tasked with stabilizing the war-torn country whose central government had collapsed. Clearly, stabilization efforts are no sure thing. Even when stabilization is successful, the cost is immense. Following World War II, in addition to the over $14B ($140B in today’s dollars) given in aid to Germany and Japan for economic recovery, the U.S. maintained a significant military presence to help stabilize those countries.6,7 It is reasonable to assume that a concerted effort to stabilize Yemen and Somalia would lead to indefinite military presence in those countries as well. Fortunately, there is an alternative to stabilization for securing U.S. national interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb region: maritime influence.
Option 2: Containing Threats to Yemen and Somalia – Maritime Influence
Rather than directly stabilizing Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce and secure its foreign policy objectives in the region by exerting maritime influence and projecting its power landward. Through a combination of naval operations, international cooperation, and engagement with industry, the U.S. can mitigate the risk to commercial and friendly naval vessels transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, albeit not without the presence of forces as a credible deterrent to would-be attackers. Securing the critical waterway can help secure U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region by eliminating maritime attacks as an option for belligerents in internal conflicts and forcing their attention inward, but airstrikes or other direct action may be required to drive home the point that the Bab-el-Mandeb is “out of bounds” and the consequences for attacking neutral parties are severe. Ultimately U.S. maritime influence could contribute to international pressure to peacefully end the Yemeni Civil War, and fortify the fragile Somali government. Meanwhile, maritime assets could act as seabases for forces providing humanitarian aid or conducting raids on terrorist networks. The agility the Navy provides – in the form of hospital ships, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, various surface combatants and patrol craft, sealift and logistics ships, landing craft, helicopters, and other aircraft – has been on display in disaster relief efforts such as the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010. These same assets can be used to support counterterrorism efforts as expeditionary mobile bases, allowing special forces to conduct short-duration operations with minimal footprint on land. Lastly, interdiction of lethal aid flowing into Yemen, enabled by UN Security Council Resolutions, would be a key element of maritime influence.
International maritime operations are already underway in the region that the U.S. could leverage to build a maritime influence strategy. U.S., allied, and other international navies, such as China, Russia, and Iran, maintain presence in the Gulf of Aden. These navies already work with organizations such as the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and U.K. Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) to advise industry of potential threats to shipping. The key to success of a maritime influence strategy will be cooperation of these international navies, especially since the U.S. cannot afford to take on this security burden alone. The U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) offers a viable model for bringing to together naval forces of 32 countries, some of whom would not normally form military partnerships with each other, to provide maritime security in the Middle East. Mutual participation of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, although seemingly unlikely, should be a goal for U.S. policymakers, as this could set the stage for dialogue to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Additionally, contrary to conventional U.S. foreign policy, U.S. leaders should consider recognizing Iran for their contribution to international counter-piracy efforts off Somalia, while holding Saudi Arabia accountable for their role in contributing to the devastating humanitarian conditions in Yemen.
The international campaign to combat the Somalia piracy epidemic in the early 2000s provides an ideal example of how maritime influence has been proven to effectively eliminate threats at sea. From 2005 to 2012, pirates attacked nearly 700 ships in the Somali basin, and collected $400M in ransom payments. Over that time, the international community gradually came together to address the problem. The U.S. established a multinational maritime coalition to counter piracy threats, and participated in EU and NATO task forces as well. As many as 20 international warships patrolled the waters around the Horn of Africa at any given time. Simultaneously, the U.S. coordinated with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish a set of industry best practices, the latest of which, Best Management Practices, Rev. 4 (BMP4), officially endorsed unarmed embarked security teams. Other maritime influence efforts included establishing an internationally recognized transit corridor, real-time vessel tracking and communication with maritime agencies, and development of mechanisms for transfer of detained pirates to cooperative local governments. This international effort to push piracy back to land was effective – pirates did not successfully hijack a single vessel in the Somali Basin from 2013 to 2016. It is important to note, however, that piracy will remain a threat until it becomes cost prohibitive. Criminals still take advantage of poverty and conflict in Somalia to recruit disenfranchised young men. In 2017, a series of six attacks raised concerns that the piracy epidemic had returned. Instead, it turned out that industry had become lax in applying best practices and about half as many warships patrol the area as in 2012. Not coincidentally, NATO concluded its counter-piracy operation in December 2016. Pirates seemingly sensed an opportunity. Fortunately, no ransoms were paid and the international community once again applied maritime influence to beat back the piracy threat.
Maritime influence was effective in pushing piracy back to shore, and it essentially removed piracy as an option for financial gain in Somalia. In fact, judging from the improvements in Somalia over the last decade, from growing GDP and livestock exports and a democratic presidential election in 2017, one could argue that maritime influence contributed to better conditions on land. Still, the root conditions in Somalia that led to the problem in the first place persist. Maritime influence is not a foreign policy panacea. In the Bab-el-Mandeb region, the U.S. would need to apply maritime influence while supporting international stabilization efforts to make meaningful progress toward resolving the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia, eliminating terrorist safe havens, and effectively securing its national interests. Thus, the U.S. still risks becoming entangled in foreign wars. The U.S. needs to consider whether investing in the security of Yemen, Somalia, and the Bab-el-Mandeb is worth the cost. Of course, the third option is to invest nothing and accept the potential consequences.
Option 3: Isolationism
It can be tempting to assume the U.S. should do nothing at all to stabilize the region around the Bab-el-Mandeb, especially amid the rising tide of nationalism and isolationism in America. After all, many argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East completely. The danger is that the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Somalia may reach the point of catastrophe, at which the U.S. could be compelled to act purely on the basis of respect for humanity. On a grand enough scale, the alleviation of human suffering, much like the prevention of genocide, can in fact be a vital national interest. There are already 20 million people starving and over one million people suffering from cholera and diphtheria in the two countries surrounding the Bab-el-Mandeb, an unparalleled concentration of human suffering. A particularly heavy rainy season, or even a single cyclone, could rapidly exacerbate shortages of food and medical care. At some point, the loss of life could become so immense that the U.S. has no choice but to intervene, regardless of its security or economic interests. Such an intervention would inevitably come at great cost in terms of dollars and foreign policy objectives, not to mention the risk to American armed forces and civilians on the ground.
Another consequence of doing nothing to stabilize the region is the power vacuum that will likely continue to grow. In Yemen, AQAP and ISIS will unquestionably continue to plot and orchestrate attacks against U.S. interests, barring a concerted U.S. or international effort. In Somalia, the U.S. and other allies provide military support to the government’s fight against Al Shabaab and other militant groups. Without American involvement, both countries would be safe havens for those who would do Americans harm. Further, wherever the U.S. has withdrawn presence and influence throughout the Middle East, states such as Iran, Russia, and China predictably increased their operations in those areas. In August 2017, China opened its very first overseas naval base just south of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in Djibouti, signifying the strategic importance China places in the region. With American withdrawal, the U.S. and global economies would be dependent on foreign efforts to secure the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, whatever those may be. In any case, increasing maritime threats may inevitably force the U.S. foreign policy hand, only the response would be reactive instead of proactive, dictated by the enemy’s actions.
The U.S. can afford neither to ignore the threats emerging from the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and surrounding territory, nor can it afford to aggressively intervene in Yemen and Somalia wholesale to fully stabilize the region. The most affordable approach to securing U.S. interests in the region is through maritime influence to enable regional and international partner efforts. By leading an international naval, diplomatic, and economic campaign, augmented with key activities internal to Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. can ensure the free flow of commerce, prevent attacks on American citizens, and preserve its influence in the region, while setting the stage for resolution of internal conflicts and humanitarian crises. It may seem heartless to take such a calculated approach to secure one’s own interests in the face of so many others’ suffering. It is helpful, however, to consider that the best way to mitigate that suffering and secure U.S. national interests may be one and the same. Under the wholesale intervention and stabilization approach, humanitarian conditions will not improve at all unless the U.S. is willing and able to adequately resource an international effort, which seems unlikely. Stabilization of Yemen and Somalia through U.S. intervention is simply not a feasible option. The U.S. may not be able to keep the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from living up to its Arabic name, “the Gate of Tears,” but the best approach to securing its national interests, by exercising maritime influence, also happens to represent the best opportunity to positively impact humanitarian and security conditions in the long run without risking excessive entanglement.
Jimmy Drennan is the President of the CIMSEC Florida Chapter. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.
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 U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1954 (1955),” table 1075 pp 899-902.
 The U.S. officially recommends armed security teams.
Featured Image: Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (via Eosnap.com)