Iran and Saudi Arabia’s struggle for power in the Middle East and North Africa has led to many states becoming involved in their proxy wars. Some states have been left open to their intervention due to a power vacuum, and Yemen is no exception. Since the Houthi rebels’ overthrow of the Saudi allied leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, both states have become involved (Malsin 2016). Since their revolution in 2011, the country has suffered from famine as well as airstrikes that have led to high casualty counts, particularly of civilians.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict is often characterized as a religious divide between Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. However, when talking about the conflict in Yemen, it is most important to examine its location and strategic value to each of these states. Both states seek to gain ideological dominance and regional hegemony. This is due to many factors including their oil wealth, relative stability in the region as well as both of their religious sects and being seen as the leader of these sects. While religion is a factor for the conflict, particularly for Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels, this conflict is primarily centralized around Yemen’s strategic value for both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is of particular strategic value for both states. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s proximity makes it concerned about border security. The Saudi-Yemen border is susceptible to infiltration from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a large terrorist group (Reardon 2015). This is one of the main reasons for their concern over the stability of the Yemeni government. This issue has led to their contribution toward propping up the government using ground support and airstrikes (Reardon 2015). But Yemen also sits along vital shipping lanes for Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea (“The Sunni…” 2016). Given that the Saudi economy relies heavily on oil and the safety of these routes, its interests rely heavily on the security of trade and its borders.
Additionally, they see Yemen as an easy target for Iran to take hold of in the Gulf region (Reardon 2015). Saudi Arabia currently holds hegemonic power in the Gulf region and it is concerned about the loss of this soft power given its intervention in states like Yemen and Bahrain. However, Yemen can be considered more easily controlled given its extreme instability. Iran has an easy path into the role of Yemen through common faith with the Houthi rebels. Iran seeks to find a solid foothold in the Gulf and Yemen is a good candidate because of the rebels’ strength. By propping up the rebels and joining with them based on their common sect of Islam they could potentially hold ground close to Saudi Arabia and use it as a bargaining chip in the future.
Religion certainly does still play a role in this conflict and is fuel for the fire but it is not the only source of tension. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shia militia and while this is not Iran’s brand of Shia Islam, they have chosen to align themselves with this group (“The Sunni…” 2016). Although this link is less strong than the Saudi’s pledge to the Yemeni government, both states have chosen opposing sides. Iran may be less involved in the conflict, financially and militarily, but more importantly, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran is backing the rebels to secure Shia hegemony and so prompts much of their involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). While both countries are linked to the conflict by religion, they both have more stakes in the country than just these ties. Without other strategic value in Yemen, it is likely that these states would not be involved or less involved. Yemen’s location and strategic significance has likely prompted most of the conflict.
Due to Iran’s tenuous connection to the rebels, many have argued that their involvement is minimal and therefore Yemen’s conflict cannot be classified as a proxy war. Even though their connection is not heavily supported financially there is clear ideological support and since Iran’s involvement there has been more support for Iran in the region, threatening Saudi control and prompting their further involvement (“The Sunni…” 2016). Additionally, many have said that Yemen has primarily been a revolution of people given its beginning in 2011 during the Arab spring. Despite this, it was certainly a revolution against Saudi Arabia because of its support of the previous president and Saudi Arabia is keen on maintaining control over this strategic state. Iran saw this revolution as an opportunity to gain another ally in the Gulf and used their connection to the Shia rebels to gain access.
To the outside viewer religion may seem like the primary motivation for both states involvements. In the landscape next to Iran and Saudi Arabia’s various other conflicts, Yemen could be seen as another proxy war between the two rivals. However, Yemen is unique given its strategic location for trade and its vulnerable border shared with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s involvement clearly lies in its interest in keeping the Yemeni allied government in power for these reasons while Iran saw the weak state as an opportunity to gain advantage over Saudi Arabia in yet another conflict and used its Shia ties to the revolutionaries to gain access. Therefore, while the religious divide has certainly fueled the desire of both states to be involved in the conflict, each has chosen to be a part of the conflict in Yemen because of its strategic geographic significance in the region.
Rose Cote attends Syracuse University, where she majors in International Relations and Economics. She did a semester abroad in Morocco to study Arabic, and will be joining the Peace Corps to work in Namibia after graduation.
Ighani, Helia. “Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry.” October 25, 2016. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. file:///Users/rcote/Downloads/Workshop_Report_CPA_Saudi_Iran_Rivalry_OR.pdf
Malsin, Jared. “Yemen Is the Latest Victim of the Increase in Iran-Saudi Arabia Tension.” TIME. January 11, 2016. http://time.com/4174837/yemen-analysis/
Reardon, Martin. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen.” Al Jazeera. March 26, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/saudi-arabia-iran-great-game-ye-201492984846324440.html
“The Sunni Shia Divide.” February 2014. Council of Foreign Relations. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide
Yeranian, Edward. “Yemen Proxy War Adds to Tensions Among US, Iran, Saudi Arabia.” February 6, 2017. VOA News. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.voanews.com/a/proxy-war-in-yemen-adds-to-tensions-among-us-iran-saudi-arabia/3707893.html
Featured Image: Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa Shi’ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2015. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
International attention has focused on the possibilities of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz, and the catastrophic effect a blockade would likely have on global energy supplies. Even a temporary closure or military disruption in the waterway would cause energy prices to soar and could politically destabilize the Persian Gulf region. Far less attention has been paid to Iranian activity in the Red Sea, however, despite the crucial importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to world oil shipments. In 2013, an estimated combined total of 8.3 million barrels of oil passed through Bab-el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal at either ends of the Red Sea, making it the world’s third-busiest maritime oil transit chokepoint.1 A limited military conflict in the Sea or the presence of naval mines would cause major disruption to European energy supplies and would force oil tankers to take the much longer southern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In this event, oil prices would likely rise dramatically and remain high until security in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait was restored.
Iran has regularly deployed naval forces to the Red Sea since 2011. Although Iranian naval doctrine has typically concentrated on closing the Straits of Hormuz using asymmetric forces, more recent efforts by Iran’s naval leadership to project naval power beyond the Persian Gulf have resulted in a frequent Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea remains an important route for Iranian weapons smuggling to militants in Gaza and Syria,2 and senior Iranian naval officers have announced plans to maintain a permanent maritime presence in the region.3 At present, Iran does not possess the same level of naval capability in the Red Sea and the Gulf as it does in its coastal waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, given the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to global oil shipments, it would appear that more research is needed to assess Iran’s ability to disrupt shipping from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
This article aims to outline Iran’s military capabilities in the Red Sea and the southern approach to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. It relies principally on open-source information published on the Islamic Republic’s naval forces, and attempts to make realistic projections about Iran’s ability to intercept the Suez shipping line, which remains limited at present. Even in the case of the much more heavily-guarded Strait of Hormuz, it is generally acknowledged that Iranian forces could only hope to close the waterway for a matter of days or, at best, a few weeks, given its crucial importance for Western oil supplies.4 Attacks on oil shipments to Western Europe and North America in the Red Sea would risk triggering a devastating Western response, and it is not clear whether the Iranians would be prepared to do so. Moreover, in the event of a conflict with Iran, clashes would almost certainly be primarily focused on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would likely be a secondary theatre. This analysis therefore attempts to understand what forces Iran would be able to deploy to the area in the event of conflict, and how effective they might be in closing the strait.
This essay begins with a review of recent Iranian involvement in the Red Sea beginning in 2011, as well as its current naval policy towards the region. It will then give a brief overview of Iran’s current naval forces at Iran’s disposal, and will discuss the types of vessels and weapons Iran is capable of deploying to the Red Sea. In so doing, this article will attempt to give a broad summary of Iran’s likely present military capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the kinds of threats which ships in the Red Sea could expect to face in the event of a conflict.
Iranian Involvement in the Sea
Between 1979 and 2011, there was no confirmed Iranian naval activity in the Red Sea. Iran was suspected to have supported a terrorist group which in 1984 claimed it had laid nearly 200 naval mines in the sea, but Tehran denied any involvement.5In February 2011, however, a small flotilla of Iranian warships was dispatched on a mission to Syria, marking the first time that Iranian vessels had entered the Red Sea and transited the Suez Canal since the 1979 Revolution.6 Several months later, in July the Iranian government announced its intention to deploy one of its submarines on a patrol of the Red Sea. After completing its cruise, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy, declared that the Kilo-class submarine “could finish its 68-day mission in international waters with full preparation despite all sanctions and through the effort of domestic specialists.”7Subsequently, at the end of 2011, Iran held naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, with units deployed in the Gulf of Aden as far as the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The purpose of this exercise, declared Tehran, was to show “Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and to test the newest military equipment.”8
After a year-long hiatus, Iran once again deployed units to the Red Sea in January 2013. The Iranian government reported that it would be sending its 24th Fleet on a three-month patrol of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea before transiting the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.9Citing the need to protect its vessels from pirate attacks, Iran established its own small anti-piracy task force in the Gulf, and in March 2014 purportedly defended an Iranian tanker from an attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.10In 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi fighters captured the strategic island of Perim in the Strait, and Sayyari announced that “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Navy has deployed in the North of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and this presence will continue forever.”11
These moves came as part of a wider Iranian drive to expand its regional influence by developing its blue-water capabilities. Iranian warships entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time in the Navy’s history in 2013, and dispatched a vessel to South Africa in 2014.12The Iranian naval leadership has placed particular effort on projecting naval power onto sea lanes in the Arabian Sea,13 and as a report produced by the American intelligence firm Stratfor concluded, “Iran’s navy cannot project enough power to control key shipping lanes, but Tehran has emphasized its presence around Bab-el-Mandeb as a possible means of disrupting global trade in the event of an attack on Iran and a key point for negotiations in the future.”14
Stratfor’s report also highlighted Iran’s use of the Red Sea as an important shipment route to provide arms to its proxies and allied militant organizations in Gaza and Syria. Rockets bound for Hamas fighters, for example, were discovered in a ship on course for Port Sudan, where they were due to be unloaded and shipped across the Egyptian border to Gaza.15Israeli aircraft have attacked alleged weapons convoys travelling from Sudan to Gaza, and the Red Sea forms a crucial link in this illicit supply line.16Iran’s overt involvement in the ongoing Yemeni civil war has further increased the importance of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Tehran’s strategic aims.17
In addition to using Sudan to supply weapons to its proxies, Iran has been cultivating good relations with Eritrea, which controls the remaining two large ports in the Red Sea.18Iranian ships frequently dock in Massawa and Assab, and Iran is believed to be concentrating on building its regional influence with key East African states.19 Indeed, as early as 2008, rumors surfaced that Iran had secretly established a naval base in Assab. Whilst there is some satellite evidence suggesting that Iran has established a permanent naval facility in the port, these rumors cannot be confirmed.20
Iran’s Naval Forces
The Iranian fleet is divided between the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval Forces (IRGCNF). 18,000 sailors are enlisted in the regular navy, whilst the IRGCNF is comprised of 20,000 sailors and 5,000 marines.21Iran has seven frigates and 32 fast-attack missile craft designed for green-water service which form the core of its surface fleet, all armed with the C-802 Noor long-range anti-ship missile.22Iran has also invested in a large flotilla of small craft, ranging from offshore patrol boats to armed motorboats and dhows, intended for coastal service and for mounting swarm attacks in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has a squadron of five minelayers, as well as several mine countermeasures vessels, which can be supplemented by its small craft in laying naval mines in the Strait.23The Iranian submarine service is made up of a total of 29 submarines, divided between the IRIN and IRGCNF.24Five of these submarines are capable of operating in blue water, and the rest appear to be designed for service in the Persian Gulf. A number of ships and submarines are currently under construction, although information about these vessels remains limited.
The IRGCNF is tasked primarily with defending the Iranian coast and for interdicting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. IRGCNF controls Iran’s asymmetric capability force, including its small attack craft, suicide vessels, and batteries of relatively short-ranged anti-ship missiles. IRGCNF bases are located in the Persian Gulf, and as its focus is limited to Iran’s littoral zone, its vessels are constrained by a smaller operating radius than the regular surface fleet. The IRGCNF also commands over 17 Qadir-class and Nahang–class midget submarines, the majority of Iran’s submarine force, which are designed for service exclusively in the Persian Gulf.
By contrast, the IRIN controls Iran’s blue-water capabilities. Although both the IRIN and IRGCNF share responsibility for protecting the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, since 2011 the IRIN has begun to focus on expanding Iran’s regional maritime reach. In the event of a conflict with the United States or with Iran’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals, the main Iranian effort would likely be focused on closing the Strait of Hormuz and on attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. Most of these operations would fall under the responsibility of the IRGCNF, which has the capability to interdict shipping through the Strait with its small vessels and missile batteries. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, however, falls out of the operating range of most of the IRGCNF’s vessels, and so any operations in the Red Sea or the upper Gulf of Aden would be undertaken by the IRIN.
According to IISS’ Military Balance, the core of the IRIN’s main surface fleet consists of two Jamaran-class light frigates, three Alvand-class frigates, and two Bayandor-class patrol frigates. Five of these ships date from the 1960s; the Alvand ships were bought as refitted Vosper Mark 5 frigates from the Royal Navy in 1971,25and the Bayandor ships were purchased from the U.S. between 1964 and 1969.26The Jamaran frigates are based on the basic Vosper Mk 5 design, although unlike the Alvand and Bayandor ships, they are armed with anti-air defenses. The Jamaran-class is thought only to be armed with two single SAM launchers, firing the SM-1 anti-air missile which was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in 1967.27 The lack of anti-aircraft capabilities indicates that Iran’s core surface vessels are dangerously exposed to air attack, critically limiting their ability to be deployed outside the umbrella of Iran’s coastal defense anti-air batteries.
All three classes are armed with the C-802 (CSS-N-8 Saccade) long-range anti-ship missile.28The C-802 was developed by China to upgrade its own naval surface-to-surface missile (SSM) capabilities, and it is believed to be extremely accurate.29 The missile is powered by a turbojet with a range of at least 120km and carries a 165kg warhead.30 The C-802 is sea-skimming, and a successful Hezbollah attack on an Israeli missile ship in 2006 using the C-802 seriously damaged the Israeli vessel.31
Fourteen of Iran’s smaller missile boats also carry the C-802, although the remainder are armed with the C-704 Nasr short-range SSM.32The Nasr is a domestically-manufactured missile with a range of 35km and a 150 kg warhead, capable of sinking medium-sized vessels.33Three of Iran’s frigates received upgraded fire controls to better utilize the Nasr, but the Iranian missile stockpile is thought to be quite limited and mostly concentrated in coastal batteries.34
In theory, Iran could use its surface ships to mount a blockade of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by attacking ships attempting to pass through the Red Sea. The main Iranian surface fleet clearly has the operating radius to project power into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and its ships are armed with sufficiently long-ranged missiles to engage tankers in the narrow confines of the southern Red Sea. However, the extreme vulnerability of these ships to air attack with their lack of air defense cover suggests it is highly unlikely that these vessels would be capable of maintaining a blockade for long, or would even be risked attempting to do so. The disastrous losses inflicted on the Iranian fleet during the 1988 tanker war by U.S. aircraft highlighted this weaknesses, and prompted Iranian strategists to focus on asymmetric forces as an alternative.35With both an American F-15 squadron based in Camp Lemonnier36and ships from EUNAVFOR Atalanta stationed in Djibouti,37 it is doubtful whether any hostile Iranian surface ships would be able to successfully interdict Red Sea shipping.
Submarines and Mines
Since 1988, the main effort by the Iranian naval leadership has concentrated on building up Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, including acquiring a strong submarine force.38 Although most of Iran’s submarines are small or midget craft designed for operations in the shallow waters of Persian Gulf, Iran does possess at least four blue-water submarines.39
Three of these are diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines, purchased from Russia in the 1990s.40The Kilo-class was designed as a quiet attack submarine, but because they were intended for colder climates, Iran’s three Kilos do not operate well in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. For this reason, whilst they are currently based in the main Iranian naval station at Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz, a new submarine base for them is reportedly under construction at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman.41Not much is yet known about the fourth submarine, the lead boat of the domestically-produced Fateh-class, but it is designed for service in blue water.42
The three Kilo submarines represent Iran’s main operating capability in the Red Sea. Whilst its surface ships are hampered by their vulnerability to air attack and small operating range, the Kilo-class submarine is designed for extended operations in open waters.43Each Kilo is thought to be armed with wake-homing torpedoes, and they can carry a total payload of 24 mines, deployable through the torpedo tubes.44A batch of 1,000 mines was included in the original purchase from Russia.45
Since then, Iran is estimated to have built up a stockpile of at least 2,000 mines, including the M-08 contact mine, the MDM-6 pressure mine, and the EM-52 smart mine.46The Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are too deep for the M-08 contact mine, which operates at depths of up to 110 meters, but potentially within the range for both the MDM-6 and EM-52.47The EM-52 is a particularly lethal threat, as it is laid on the sea floor and is a guided, rocket-propelled warhead. It is also powerful enough to penetrate a carrier hull.48
Seafloor mines are especially challenging to detect; it took a Royal Navy minesweeper six days to detect a single Iranian smart mine in the Red Sea in the 1980s.49Caitlin Talmadge, in her analysis of Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, calculated that a task force of 12 NATO ships managed to clear an Iraqi minefield at a rate of 1.18 mines per day, a rate that was unusually fast and done under ideal conditions.50 Given the rugged geography of the Red Sea’s floor and the proliferation of smart mines, it is not clear whether another task force would be able to clear an Iranian minefield at the same rate.
However, the Kilo class is aging, and these vessels are vulnerable to U.S. and British hunter-killer groups. The proximity of Western forces to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the strategic importance of the Red Sea to Western interests suggests that the Kilo submarines would probably only get one voyage to the Red Sea before being neutralized in the case of hostilities. If Iran deployed all three of its blue-water submarines, which is unlikely, they could sow 72 mines at most. If a naval task force was to achieve the same rate of minesweeping as in Talmadge’s analysis, it would take 61 days to clear this minefield completely. Nevertheless, it is improbable that the Iranian leadership would risk all three of its largest submarines on such a risky, possibly one-way mission, and similarly it is unlikely that minesweepers would be able to operate with the same speed in the Red Sea as in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, a rough estimate of Iran’s submarine capabilities and mine stock would indicate that a single Kilo submarine with a well-trained crew could close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait for at least a week in an attempt to divert attention away from combat in the Persian Gulf.
Iran does not at present have any fixed-wing aircraft with sufficient range to operate from Iranian bases to the Red Sea. Besides its naval capabilities, it can only reach the Red Sea with ballistic missiles. Iran currently has nine types of missile able to reach the Red Sea; the Shahab-3, -4, -5, and -6, the Ghadr-101 and 110, the IRIS, SAJIL, and the new Emad rocket.51All of these classes have the range to strike targets in the Red Sea, and all can reach the waterway within ten minutes of being launched.52
As a general rule, Iran’s long-range missiles are extremely inaccurate and are designed to hit strategic targets, not individual ships transiting the Red Sea.53 The sole exception is the latest Iranian missile, the Emad, which was designed as Iran’s first precision strike system. The Emad is equipped with an advanced guidance system in the nose cone, and has a reported accuracy radius of 500 meters.54It also carries a 750 kg warhead with enough explosive power to cripple or sink even a heavy oil tanker.55
Whilst the Emad represents an improvement in Iran’s ballistic missile capability, it is not clear how effective it would be as an area-denial weapon in the Red Sea. It does not appear to be accurate enough to target individual ships, and it will take several years to perfect the guidance technology.56 Furthermore, in order to reach the Red Sea, a costly Emad missile would need to transit across the Arabian Peninsula through Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. The possibility of using ballistic missiles to attack Red Sea shipping is therefore remote.
Iran’s ability to interdict shipping in the Red Sea is limited by its aging surface fleet and by the small number of submarines and missiles it can deploy to the waterway. Despite Iran’s growing interest in expanding its influence into the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the southern Red Sea as a means of securing its regional power, its current naval forces are tasked primarily with shutting the Strait of Hormuz.
Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations, the Iranians do have a narrow range of capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Although its surface fleet is unlikely to risk its assets by deploying surface vessels so close to U.S. and Saudi airbases during wartime, Iran has demonstrated that it can send submarines on extended cruises of the Red Sea. Its aging Kilo-class submarines are equipped with sophisticated mines in quantities which would take weeks to clear, and could be used to apply pressure on both the U.S. and Western Europe as well as the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf. Iran is already suspected to have laid mines in the Red Sea in the 1980s, and it is capable of doing so again – either as a means of leveraging its position in the Greater Middle East, or as a way to disrupt oil shipping and to open a new theater of operations in the event of a war with its regional rivals.
James A. Fargher works as an intelligence analyst at a political risk firm in the UK, and is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. James holds a BA from Drew University and an MA in modern history from King’s. He specializes in Imperial history and naval theory, with a particular focus on the Red Sea region.
1. Alexander Metelitsa & Megan Mercer, ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoins Critical to Global Energy Security,’ Today in Energy, US Energy Information Administration, 1 December 2014.
2. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.
3.‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.
4. Caitlin Talmadge, ‘Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz,’ International Security, 33:1 (Summer 2008), 84.
5. Gerald F. Seib and Robert S. Greenberger, ‘Iran’s Signals Mixed on Mines in the Red Sea,’ The Wall Street Journal, 8 August 1984.
6.‘Israel anger at Ian Suez Canal warship move,’ BBC News, 16 February 2011.
7. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.
8. ‘Iran Navy to Hold War Games Near Crucial Sea Lanes,’ The New York Times, 23 December 2011.
9. ‘Iran navy to deploy 24th fleet to Mediterranean Sea – commander,’ BBC News, 16 January 2013.
10. ‘Iran Navy counters pirate attack against oil tanker in Red Sea,’ BBC News, 4 Mach 2014.
11.‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.
12. ‘Islamic Republic of Iran Navy IRIN / Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/navy.htm.
13. Tarek Fahmi, quoted in ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.
14. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.
17. ‘Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war – sources’, Reuters, 22 March 2017.
21. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 328.
25. ‘Alvand Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/alvand.htm.
26.‘Bayandor Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/bayandor.htm
27. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.
Beginning on 9 October, several missiles were fired at the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87)in the Red Sea from Houthi-controlled territory in war-torn Yemen. Iran supports the Houthis with arms, training, and money. The United States responded by launching several land-attack missiles from the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze (DDG-94) against radar installations and other Houthi targets in Yemen. In response, Iran has deployed a pair of warships to Houthi waters, ostensibly to “protect trade vessels and oil tankers.”
Concurrently, Turkey continues its operations against Syria’s Kurds, using its rapprochement with Russia to give it political cover for more assertive military activity. As he continues tightening his grip on Turkey after the aborted coup attempt in July, President Erdogan’s venture could signal a major divergence between American and Turkish strategic goals.
Meanwhile, the Syrian ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia has all but evaporated. Moscow and Washington have ceased discussions, especially after Russian airstrikes destroyed a UN aid convoy in late September.
The Middle East, never an oasis of tranquility, has reverted to its traditional template of tension and violence. Both Syria and Iraq are now failed states—targets of opportunity—for terrorist groups that burn their victims alive, and dictators that massacre their own people. The region is also home to a major portion of the world’s energy resources, and a large portion of global maritime trade passes through the various chokepoints that surround and suffuse it.
Disengagement is always tempting for great powers. The “Weary Titans” of international politics have an ear for their politicians’ rhetoric of exhaustion and weariness. This encourages isolationism, the cutting of “entanglements,” and the desire to define “national interest” as purely homeland defense. But laying down our burdens rarely works. Enemies’ animosity and ambition is spurred, not deflected if states that benefit from the international order look the other way.
This is the first conclusion of the University of Haifa and Hudson Institute Commission report on the Eastern Mediterranean released last month. Commission members included American and Israeli political and military leaders from both sides of the partisan aisle. The report reflects their agreement that disengagement is not an option. The economic relevance of the Middle East as a whole, combined with its chronic instability, the pervasiveness of terrorism and radicalism, and the power plays of larger states, will make the region strategically relevant to the U.S. for decades to come.
The authors of this report all agree that American and Israeli interests remain in alignment and that increased engagement will advance the shared interests. Both the Jewish state and the world’s greatest democracy have a critical interest in keeping the seas free for navigation, preventing hegemony on land in the Middle East, and countering both regional and global jihadist movements. The present Middle Eastern strategic situation makes this relationship more important than at any point in the past 30 years, or, arguably, at any point in history.
Israeli seapower is a large and increasing strategic concern for the Jewish state. Ringed by hostile countries, Israel relies on maritime transport for 99% of its trade. Additionally, since the early 2000s, Israel has discovered massive oil and gas reserves in its offshore Exclusive Economic Zone. These reserves are large enough to make Israel a player in the global energy market. Finally, nearly all of Israel’s major population centers lie on its coast. Israel’s economy, resources, and very survival are aided immeasurably by the strength of whatever power controls the Eastern Mediterranean. From 1973 onward, Israel could rely on a robust U.S. Sixth Fleet, complete with at least one aircraft carrier, to secure the seas and preserve its lines of communication. In return, the U.S. could rely on Israel to counterbalance regional threats, and advance its general strategic interests.
Today’s Sixth Fleet is comprised of four guided missile destroyers and a command ship. This is supplemented on occasion by U.S. surface forces that are diverted from their passage through the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, or from the Gulf itself, to strike land targets in Syria. Only four American fighting ships are tasked with controlling one of the world’s most critical maritime hubs. This leaves the U.S. and its allies vulnerable.
The report recommends several solutions, including greater cooperation between U.S. and Israeli naval forces, and the involvement of potential regional partners. However, there is no substitute for American and Israeli seapower. Future administrations and governments in both countries should expand their naval forces, with an eye toward establishing sea control in a contested environment, deterring mischief, and fighting, if necessary.
The Hudson-Haifa report offers future administrations a template for discussing security issues that are critical to two of the world’s most important democracies. Based on sound strategic thinking, rather than ideological biases, it avoids typical Washington political bickering, and analyzes what is in American and Israeli interests. Disengaging from the region, a frequent refrain used by both Democrats and Republicans over the last decade, only makes America weaker at the same time disregarding policy options to the point where no reasonable ones are left. Only through careful analysis and planning can the U.S. and Israel develop proper joint policies to safeguard their joint security and interest.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He is a member of the Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean Report sponsored by the University of Haifa and Hudson Institute. Dr. Cropsey served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.
Featured Image: HAIFA, Israel (Feb. 22, 2016) Sailors render honors to Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon during a tour of USS Carney (DDG 64) while in port Haifa, Israel. Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the U. S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo by Ensign David Nelson/Released)
Israel is a majority Jewish state located between the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean, separating the Arabic speaking world in two geographic regions. Approximately the size of New Jersey, its maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is larger than the state itself. According to an assessment from the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), maritime trade accounts for 99 percent of Israeli foreign trade. Furthermore, 70 percent of Israel’s population lives on the narrow coastal plain between the West Bank and the Mediterranean. This piece aims to provide an overview of the Israeli Navy and the maritime dimension of Israel’s national security.
The Israeli Navy and Geography
Israel’s southern coast is approximately 10 miles in width, leaving the Israeli Navy (IN) a limited region of operations, comparable to Iraq’s maritime border. The southern Red Sea port of Eilat is Israel’s direct maritime access route to the Indian Ocean and the markets of southern and southeast Asia. In the Red Sea, the IN protects sea lines of communication in the narrow waters between Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and onward. Israel’s western coastline on the Mediterranean is approximately 110 miles in length. The primary facilities of Israel’s Mediterranean fleet are in the ports of Ashdod (north of the Gaza Strip), Haifa (south of Lebanon), a small presence of patrol ships in Herzliya, and a center for Israel’s Navy Seals equivalent, Shayetet 13, in Atalit.
The IN is primarily a coastal defense force tasked with protecting Israeli shores from seaborne threats originating in the Gaza strip, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Israel maintains local maritime superiority against conventional threats and has developed capabilities to combat a variety of asymmetrical threats. Despite this, the IN is capable of performing outside of the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean. IN corvettes and submarines are known to venture into the Indian ocean to counter threats from Iran and the western Mediterranean to address issues related to North Africa.
The IN maintains a robust modernization program. While the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) generally receives the bulk of its military hardware from the U.S., its naval procurements are diverse, including acquisitions from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) (Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft), Aérospatiale, Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie, as well as domestic suppliers such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael, and DSIT. Active procurement programs include four Sa’ar 6 corvettes (set to begin arriving mid-2019), six Dolphin–class submarines, the Barak 8 missile system, the C-dome, unmanned sea vehicles (USV), eight SH-60F Seahawk helicopters, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
To assist with territorial water (TTW) defense, Israeli companies have developed innovative technological solutions. Such solutions include the implementation of the sonar-based AquaShield Defense System. Designed to prevent sea infiltration, the IN has deployed the AquaShield sonar system near Gaza and the Lebanese maritime borders. This underwater sensor detects potentially hostile underwater movement. The system can reportedly detect an Open Circuit Diver (SCUBA) at a distance of up to 1000 meters and a Closed Circuit Diver (re-breather) at a distance of 700 meters.
The IN is a leader in sea-based missile defense with programs designed to combat short range rocket projectiles and shorter range ballistic missiles. Strategic planning concerns Hezbollah in Lebanon and Gaza based organizations including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, as well as other regional terrorist entities.
The IN ballistic missile defense apparatus is evolving to combine a Very Short Range Air Defense (VSHORADs) systems, the such as the Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) C-Dome and Barak 1, as well as a Long-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM) platform, the Barak 8. Israel is incorporating multilayer maritime anti-ballistic systems in a similar fashion to its three well-known land based systems Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the Arrow system.
The development of anti-missile systems is a high priority for the IN, which has recent memory of missile attacks on its ships. In 2006 Hezbollah successfully attacked the INS Hanit with a Yakhnot (S-800) anti-ship missile, nearly capsizing the ship. In 1967 the Egyptian Navy sunk the INS Eilat using a P-15 Termit anti-ship missile in the first incident of a vessel being sunk by an anti-ship missile fired in anger.
In May 2016 the IN announced a successful launch of the C-Dome system. Designed by Rafael, the C-Dome is a maritime variant of the acclaimed Iron Dome anti-rocket and projectile system operated by Israel’s Air Force. In addition to C-Dome, the IN maintains the Barak 1 and Barak 8 systems. The Barak 1, which is to be phased out, has a reported range of 5-12 km while the joint Israeli-Indian developed Barak 8 has a reported range of approximately 70-100 km. Facilitating these platforms is the incorporation of the domestically produced iMulti-Function Surveillance, Track and Guidance Radar (MF-STAR) radar system, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Elta.
Protecting Offshore Oil Platforms
A major component of the IN’s developing maritime strategy is offshore Oil platform (OPLAT) protection. Since the discovery of natural gas in the Tamar and Leviathan fields off of Israel’s west coast, Israel has dedicated naval resources to OPLAT development and protection. To protect Israel’s Mediterranean shores, the IN has a fleet of patrol boats including the Shaldag class and Dvora Mark III. Additionally, Israel is using USVs, particularly the Rafael system’s Protector. USVs play a role in providing surveillance as well as dealing with asymmetric contingencies. Such scenarios include the use of a suicide-explosive rigged boat attack or waterborne improvised explosive devices (WBIED), rocket salvos, and the takeover of an oil platform by a terrorist entity.
Sea Interception, Infiltration, and Blockade
The IN is experienced in implementing sea denial strategies in times of conflict. The IN conducted a naval blockade on Lebanon during the 1982 war, Operation Peace for Galilee, where its submarines provided early warning information for blockading vessels. Israel’s navy enforced a blockade on Lebanese ports again during the 2006 Lebanon War. From 2007 until today the IN has enforced a blockade of the Gaza strip. The Gaza strip blockade is an effort to prevent the transfer of arms and building materials to the Hamas terrorist organization that is currently in control of Gaza. Patrols intermittently come into contact with fishermen from Gaza who have claimed that Israel enforces the maritime policy inconsistently. After a policy change in March 2016, the IN now permits Gaza fishermen to travel up to nine nautical miles from Gaza’s coastline.
Most recently, Hamas attempted to form a naval commando unit. During the 2014 war with Hamas, Operation Cast Lead, Hamas commandos briefly stormed the Zikim beach north of the Gaza strip. In May 2015 Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, intercepted 40 dive suits hidden inside sport suits en route to the Gaza Strip.
The IN has demonstrated its ability to operate successfully outside of its immediate coastal area including visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) missions. In 2014 IN commandos of Shayetet 13, a unit frequently compared to the U.S. Navy Seals, conducted Operation Full Disclosure, a VBSS mission targeting the Iranian “Klos C” sailing under a Panamanian flag en route from Iran to Port Sudan, 930 miles from Israeli waters. The ship’s cargo included several dozen M-302 missiles, reportedly of Syrian origin. The IDF Spokesman unit claimed the weapons were en route to Hamas.
Sea to Surface Targeting and Special Operations
In the past decade the IN targeted shore-based threats in both Gaza and Lebanon and directly supported ground forces inside of enemy territory while conducting isolated attacks on enemy positions. The most recent display of sea-to-surface targeting was the targeting of Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip amidst Operation Cast Lead. During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli corvettes reportedly targeted militants in the Gaza strip with Gil or Spike-MR guided missiles. In 2006 the IN is said to have fired 2,500 rounds at Lebanese targets in the 2006 July-August Lebanese war.
Warning: Graphic Content. Israeli Navy fires on Hamas seaborne infiltrators during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. (Israeli Navy)
During the Second Lebanon War, Shayetet 13 raided an apartment block in Tyre, Lebanon believed to be a staging site for rockets being launched into Israel. During the summer 2006 war, the Israeli Navy bombarded Hezbollah positions, infrastructure, and access routes to the Lebanese coastline. In the 1982 conflict Operation Peace for Galilee the IN inserted IDF units behind enemy lines north of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – Syrian positions. It was during the 1982 war that the IN demonstrated its ability to conduct an amphibious assault that included troops, tanks, and other vehicles.
The IN maintains a cyber defense unit known as MAMTAM (Information Systems, Processes, and Computerization unit). MAMTAM maintains three separate branches: cyber, technology, and operations and industry. According to an officer from MAMTAM, the unit deals with IT and IP networks. The Israeli Navy experienced attempts to breach its cyber networks during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 against the Gaza based Hamas terrorist group. Additionally, the IN plans to incorporate modernized C4i (Command and Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence) systems into its fleet, particularly with the expected arrival of Sa’ar 6 corvettes.
Second Strike Capability and Nuclear Deterrence
The IN is suspected of possessing nuclear weapons, an accusation that has traditionally neither been confirmed nor denied by the Israeli government. The Israeli submarine program is believed to incorporate second strike nuclear capabilities for strategic deterrence. In December 2015 Israel’s fifth Dolphin class submarine was delivered by Germany’ ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). Dolphin class submarines have reportedly been armed with submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs).
Security Cooperation with the U.S. Navy
In the eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy port call in Israel is among the most secure and productive for U.S. operations in the region. Haifa offers a friendly port south of Greece and Turkey and north of Djibouti. U.S. security assistance and coordination with Israel has only increased in the past decade. However, the IN is not able to publicly participate in U.S.-led operations such as Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). Due to ongoing tensions with Arab and Muslim majority countries, the IN cannot conceivably participate in multinational regional operations, whether against ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the Saudi war with factions in Yemen. For similar political considerations, Israel was also not able to publicly participate in U.S. efforts during the Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. Israel and the Palestinian Territories also fall under under the AOR of U.S. EUCOM rather than the seemingly more logical CENTCOM, where the majority of the Middle East falls.
In addition to India, the U.S. plays a critical role in Israeli missile defense scenarios. EUCOM engages with Israel through its Strategic Cooperative Initiative. The USN participates in maritime Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) patrols in cooperation with Israel and can deploy when requested to assist Israel with ballistic missile threats. Furthermore, U.S. Aegis platforms have supported bi-annual U.S.-Israel wargames dubbed “Juniper Cobra.” Finally, EUCOM supports Missile Defense Agency test events in coordination with Israel.
In September 2016, a joint U.S-Israel Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean made up of policymakers and former flag officers from both countries noted the potential benefits of U.S. ships hypothetically homeported in Haifa. Benefits included “increased (and stabilizing) presence, deterrence of Benghazi-style attacks, assistance with non-combatant evacuations, and security for drilling rigs, liquefaction plants, and pipeline terminals.”
Israel is a small country, with a total land area approximately the size of New Jersey. The active duty navy is estimated at 10,000 mostly conscripted personnel, a force significantly smaller than that of many U.S. Navy bases. Few existing Navies are tasked with similar challenges to those of the IN in a comparable amount of surface space. While its landmass is limited, the maritime sphere allows Israel to gain some form of strategic depth. This is particularly important when the country is less than 11 miles wide at specific locations and has fought conventional and asymmetric wars throughout its existence.
Guido Weiss is an Operations Specialist (OS) in the Navy Reserve and works as a researcher on security and military issues in Iraq. He holds an M.A. in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The views expressed here are of Guido’s alone and do not represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.
Featured Image: Israeli naval cadets (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.)