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Arab Allies Must Step Up To Defend Freedom of Navigation in the Gulf

Securing the Gulf Topic Week

By Andrea Daolio

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.

A map of the Strait of Hormuz and key shipping lanes. (Wikimedia Commons/Perry Castaneda Online Library, University of Texas)

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.

Oil and gas pipelines in the Middle-East (Wikimedia Commons/Energy Information Agency) Click to expand. 


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.


1. David B. Crist, “Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea,” June 2009, The Washington Institute.

2. Sune Engel Rsmussen, “Iran’s Fast Boats and Mines Bring Guerilla Tactics to Persian Gulf,” The Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2019.

3. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, Iran and the Gulf Military Balance, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 3, 2016.

4. Vivian Yee, “Claim of Attacks on 4 Oil Vessels Raises Tensions in Middle East, The New York Times, May 13, 2019.

5. Jonathan Saul, “Ship Insurance Costs Soar After Middle East Tanker Attacks,” Reuters, June 14, 2019.

6. Chuck Hill, “Saudi Navy Expansion Program,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 9, 2015.

7. Alexandra Ma, “Europe Reportedly Threatens to Activate Nuclear-Deal Clause that COULD Reimpose Sanctions and push Iran into China and Russia’s Arms,” Business Insider, July 5, 2019.

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)

Will The Sentinel Program Work? Understanding Iranian Aggression and U.S. Mixed Signals

Securing the Gulf Topic Week

By Irina Tsukerman

The Immediate Context for Sentinel

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 carry full costs of the presence of U.S. troops on their soil and that Japan would not get involved if 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 threat to 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 oil from Iran continue to vanish off the radar in an effort to disguise their routes; a Panamanian-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 strong military 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 was not 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 to increased 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 on hybrid 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)

Why Unmanned Systems Are The Go-To Option for Gray Zone Ops in the Gulf

Securing the Gulf Topic Week

By Heiko Borchert


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 Mazarr has 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 development that 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, London reached 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 vessels are 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 defense emphasizes 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 USV developed 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.

Dr. Heiko Borchert runs Borchert Consulting & Research AG, a strategic affairs consultancy.

Featured Image: A Bladerunner craft fitted with the MAST system. (Wikimedia Commons)

Strategy On Top of the World, Pt. 2: Regional Arctic Perspectives

Read Part One here.

By Tyler Cross

Strategy and Security – Canada’s Perspective

Canada, much like Russia, is heavily invested in the Arctic. Ranking second in Arctic interests, it also ranks second in land holdings with 1.2 million square miles found above the Arctic Circle. Canada’s northern borders have also long been secured by the vast expanses of Arctic ice, but they may find their Arctic holdings precariously exposed if ice sheets become non-existent.

The Northwest Passage dispute involving Canada is set to come to the forefront of security concerns as it becomes increasingly navigable. This dispute, however contentious, is unlikely to seriously threaten regional stability. At the same time, a solution does not appear to be in the making. The Canadians have lesser disputes over parts of the Lincoln Sea and Hans Island with Denmark and parts of the Beaufort Sea with the U.S. But all disputes are with staunch NATO allies, and they are poised to find diplomatic solutions.

There exists a dichotomy of Canadian strategy in the Arctic. Diplomatically, Canada tends to take a “lean back” approach, but at the same time there is a consistent focus on the Arctic. Of all 28 NATO countries, Canadians are the least excited to see an allied military presence in the Arctic. Multi-national military presence there, they feel, will undermine their near hegemony in large portions of the high latitudes. Anti-military cultural bias is relatively higher in Canada, and a significant portion of the populace ardently supports indigenous societies who call the Arctic home. The Canadians prefer decisions to be made by the diplomatic and intergovernmental Arctic Council as opposed to the more military-oriented policies of NATO.2 In sum, there is a general aversion to military development in the Arctic.

But ice cap depletion may bring a change of heart on High North militarization. While much of Canadian Arctic policy is characterized by a “lean back” strategy, there has been a bit of a pivot to the North in recent years. The Canadian military has developed its operational capacity in cold, remote regions. Recently, the Canadian military has purchased a new icebreaker to complement its six working ships, while creating a winter fighting school and a deepwater port in Baffin Bay. Likewise, former Canadian Chief of Defense General Walter Natynczyk has an appreciation for Arctic defense and began increased allotments to strategic security there.

Location of Baffin Bay in Canada’s uppermost reaches. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Canadians are willing to protect assets that they see as rightfully theirs, but are inclined to pursue multi-nation diplomacy at the same time.3 The dichotomy appears a bit contradictory, and they would do well to continue Arctic operations, even if they are limited. This would help rebut Russian advances and strengthen general security. The Canadians are strong NATO members and have participated in coalition efforts worldwide, making them a vital cog in mutual defense. 

Strategy and Security – European NATO States

Norway favors the most proactive Arctic defense policy of all NATO nations. They see Russia as particularly threatening, and recent history has only validated their claims. Norwegian security is driven by defense against Russia, as they feel the shadow of the resurgent giant looming over their relatively small population of five million. The Norwegian island of Svalbard, according to former NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James Stavridis, “constitutes a significant thorn in the side of Russian ambitions in the region.” Fisheries teem off the icy island’s coast, and are of great value to the Norwegians. Defense of the island and its nearby fish stocks are paramount and will be important in future defense strategy. Hydrocarbons are also of concern, and will become increasingly important as easily extracted oil is depleted on the mainland.4 

The location of the Norwegian island territory of Svalbard. (

Of the NATO members, Norway has the most active military in the Arctic. They see the region as the alliance’s unguarded flank, and constantly prompt other member states to be well-informed and combat ready.5 

In 2008 Russia resumed surface patrols in the waters surrounding Svalbard. The Norwegians found this deeply concerning, and it has only prompted further active preparation and defense readiness. A microcosm of the tensions played out when in 2005, one Russian fishing vessel, the Elektron, encroached on exclusive fishing zones off the coast of Svalbard. It was chased by a Norwegian Coast Guard ship. Tense days ensued, but the dispute was eventually resolved diplomatically.6 The Elektron incident was indicative of future fishery confrontations and tensions between the two Arctic states as a whole. Luckily, the diplomatic solution resolved the affair peacefully, but one must also remember that Russia was not as powerful or assertive on the world stage in 2005. While still unlikely, the chances of more confrontations are higher today than they were before. Norway, feeling rather threatened by Russia, has continued its “lean forward” policy in the years since.

Iceland was viewed as an unsinkable aircraft carrier during the Cold War. It would again be stuck between the United States and Russia in a Cold War 2.0 in the Arctic. Iceland desires the waters to their north to be a zone of cooperation. Ideally for them, Reykjavik would become a stop and central location to a North Atlantic trade highway. With oil to be found within their 200 mile exclusive economic zone, there is much economic growth potential.7 Iceland may look to distance itself militarily from the United States if a free economic zone is achieved, or if the island’s leaders fear they could become ensconced in another Cold War. It is also likely that the American military presence will reappear in Keflavik, particularly in response to Arctic tensions. If Icelanders feel threatened, they look to the U.S. Navy to assuage concerns. Iceland was a pivotal halfway point during the Second World War, and could serve as a vital way-station for the future. They are also close allies with the Danes, and this close alliance and increasing needs for mutual defense could bring the two states further into NATO and closer to the U.S.

Denmark is an Arctic state by virtue of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland has been an important location for NATO defense, especially because of the bases the Danes provide. In addition to its strategic importance, predominantly through early missile warning, Greenland has increased in importance lately with the discovery of natural gas deposits, and Denmark will look to aggressively map the Arctic floor in search of more resources while simultaneously increasing military presence. Their claims are likely to go all the way to the North Pole itself, and Copenhagen will look to back its claims with naval presence.8 In 2009, the Danes began establishing an Arctic military command.9

Iceland officially has no standing military, although its Coast Guard and Crisis Response Units are fully military in all but name. It is largely for this reason that the Danes have complete naval access to Icelandic ports. The two states also work as an alliance within the NATO alliance. Iceland acts as a strategic stopping point for Danish ships in transit between Greenland and Europe.

The United States should prioritize the Danes, as their provided NATO bases in Greenland are vital to Arctic defense. A relic of the Cold War, Thule Air Force Base, located on the island’s northwestern edge, was one of the most vital ICBM missile detection bases monitoring potential missile routes over the Arctic.

American Strategy – What To Do?

The NATO alliance helps defend the Arctic. Thule Air Base is a good example of cooperation in the Arctic, as it is home to approximately 400 Danes, 50 Greenlanders, three Canadians, and 140 Americans. Locked in ice nine months of the year, sea lanes are opened by a Canadian icebreaker. While extreme in location, being found 700 miles above the Arctic Circle, it is a good example of inter-alliance cooperation on top of the world.10 Activity in the Arctic is predicted to increase and could bring about similar bases in the future.

Thule Air Base (Wikimedia Commons)

For the United States, this would likely begin in Alaska, where there has already been talk of further military development. But it will be important for planners to learn about the particular challenges and needs of Arctic militarization and prepare as traffic flows increase and the ice melts. The United States military will be unable to secure and protect all of the Arctic alone, and much of this will fall to NATO allies. Cooperation will be paramount in times to come.

The Russian Federation’s prioritization of the Arctic will be a primary driving factor in security strategy. Until 2009, the United States did not even have an articulated policy on the Arctic.11 But as the Arctic takes on new importance, American strategy will hopefully diversify and strengthen. Besides remote locations and harsh weather, the U.S. will face difficulty with a lack of inter-agency doctrine and cooperation in the Arctic. Plus the Arctic takes on new meaning with North Korea’s development of ICBMs that can reach the United States, where missiles have to travel through and over the Arctic in order to reach American soil.12 The U.S. will also have to consider both fighting and search and rescue forces, which will lack resourcing and enjoy limited interest from policy-makers.

But nonetheless, progress is being made. The Department of the Navy, including the Coast Guard and Marine Corps, have created a joint cooperative strategy that recognizes the opening of sea lanes in the Arctic. Their strategy recognizes new challenges. The Navy’s currently stated goal in the Arctic is “to foster and sustain cooperative relationships with other Arctic nations and, within the joint, interagency, international, and academic communities, to improve its understanding of the Arctic environment, enhance its ability to predict changes to it, and prevent or contain any regional instability, through the creation and maintenance of security at sea.”13 This is an encouraging start. There is a strong environmental focus, and understandably so. But Russian militarization in the High North will require the further development of security in this somewhat neglected region.

The United States needs to foster close allegiances and play a leadership role in NATO. In the summer of 2007, Russia explorers planted their flag on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, deep in the Arctic and far beyond their exclusive economic zone. They claimed this underwater ridge for themselves.14 As if their militarization was not enough, the Russians are claiming international waters as their own, attempting to monopolize natural resources in the High North. It will take a concerted effort on the part of the NATO allies to rebuff the advances of the Russians, and deter them from claiming internationally recognized areas of open sea.

The Lomonosov Ridge (shown in dark blue) links Greenland’s continental shelf with the North Pole. The red dotted line shows the extent of the five Arctic countries’ claims on the region under existing international law, which allows them to claim ownership of land up to 200 miles from their northern borders. (

What is worse is that rules for free trade in the Arctic are meager. Moscow cannot be allowed to form hegemonic control of the Arctic and dictate terms retroactively. By mid-century, it is predicted that warm summers will see no polar ice coverage. If this happens, and Russia has an early and strong head start, freedom of navigation could be severely jeopardized. Plus, some of Russia’s Arctic stations are mobile.15 Control and mobility would provide a substantial advantage in a zone of conflict. By comparison, NATO stations are stagnant and sporadic. It will take a rejuvenated effort and concern for defense to appropriately meet this challenge.

The U.S. alone will be unable to counter Russian challenges, particularly north of the European theater. But help from NATO allies and close friends will act as a counterbalance. It will not take a large force to provide security in the Arctic, but a well-equipped and mobile one. Arctic exercises with active NATO members will be highly beneficial in identifying problems with joint warfighting maneuvers. Finland, Norway, Canada, and Denmark should be incorporated in these activities, and other allies should be invited. Swedish involvement would be ideal. It would also be wise to consider opening the military base in Keflavik, Iceland again. It was decommissioned as a military station just over a decade ago and is an active airport today. The station could help keep an eye on the growing Russian submarine fleet, and would greatly benefit both the Navy and Air Force to gather intelligence from this forward observation post. Additionally, its proximity to Reykjavik would make it a more tolerable post for servicemen when compared to other High North stations like remote Greenland.

In order to avoid security dilemmas, military exercises should be complemented by dialogue with Russia. One of the best avenues of discussion is via the Arctic Council, where Russia and the Arctic NATO states are members. Council meetings occur frequently, and include scientific, military, and geopolitical topics.16 Dialogue through the Arctic Council will be one way to soothe relations with Moscow in this region.

Break the Ice

Building icebreaker capability will be absolutely paramount to security and science in the Arctic. Icebreakers provide the ability to maneuver and supply remote bases. It is here that the United States is at its greatest disadvantage when compared to Russia. Currently the United States Coast Guard operates only one active icebreaker, the Polar Star. The other two icebreakers are inactive and at the end of their service life. And the Polar Star, many years removed from her christening, has seen 40 years of service and is set to retire in the early 2020s. By contrast, Russia operates 40 icebreakers, seven of which are nuclear powered. They are also building their new icebreaking nuclear powered flagship, the Arktika, slated for service before 2020.17 

Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr smashes through layers of ice just feet away from a group of adventurers in northwestern Russia. (Anton Panov/Oper_11 via Instagram)

The previous Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, implored Congress to fund the building of new icebreakers. He found success, albeit somewhat limited. Zukunft asked for three heavy and two medium ships, and the first heavy icebreaker will be completed in 2023.18 This is an encouraging start, but the U.S. has a long way to go before it can compete with Russia or even smaller states in frozen seas. Finland has seven, Sweden seven, Canada six with another on the way, Denmark four, and China three with more in development.19 Congress will need to get serious about funding if it wants to compete in the Polar regions and enforce freedom of navigation in navigable ice flows. Luckily, the construction of each icebreaker pales in comparison to substantial Navy projects. The cost will be comparatively low, but the repercussions great.

The advantage of building icebreakers is that they facilitate freedom of navigation and trade in the Arctic. While the ice may be receding, northern shipping lanes will still be covered in ice for much of the year. Some lanes that have opened up remained locked in ice year-round, but the ice is thin enough for an icebreaker to pass through.

Ships looking to traverse the open ocean cannot rely on Russian help. As nice as cooperation will be, it is unlikely. When speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Admiral Zukunft said “I don’t think you’ll see tranquility about to break out.”20 Likewise, he openly discussed the idea of outfitting future icebreakers with cruise missiles. It suffices to say that it will take until 2023 for the next U.S. icebreaker to be completed, and Russia will complete two more by 2020, both possibly outfitted with cruise missiles of their own.21


The High North will almost certainly be a zone of competition. If Russia can take a hegemonic role there, it will lean on its military presence and the relative lack of international rules and norms for it to control the region. The Chinese are not far behind. American absence from the Arctic has weakened its stance with respect to great power competition and serves to upend the Navy’s stated mission of freedom of navigation. In a contentious Arctic, Russia will be unlikely to provide icebreaker coverage to international shipping and will try to claim resources and open sea. The United States Coast Guard must lead the way, and find close support from the other military branches.

The United States must remain a player in the Arctic Council and coordinate NATO defense in Arctic and near-Arctic regions. As long as the NATO alliance is strong, Russia will be deterred from exceedingly brash actions. With a strong presence, freedom of navigation will reign and peace can continue.

Tyler Cross recently completed a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University. He will continue his career in international security cooperation.


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[1] Stavridis, pp. 344-345.

[2] Ibid., pp. 345-347.

[3] Ibid., 345-346.

[4] Ibid., p. 351.

[5] Ibid., pp. 351-352.

[6] Roberts, pp. 958, 968.

[7] Stavridis, pp. 349-350.

[8] Ibid., pp. 350-351.

[9] Zysk, p. 109.

[10] Jeremy Bender, “This is What Its Like to Live at The US’ Most Remote Air Base,” Business Insider, last modified Nov. 24, 2014,

[11] Stavridis, p. 353.

[12] Ibid., pp. 353-356.

[13] David Titley and Courtney St. John, “Arctic Security Considerations and the US Navy’s Roadmap for the Arctic,” Naval War College Review 63, no. 2 (2010): pp. 42-43.

[14] Roberts, p. 958.

[15] David B. Hill, “Force Projection, Strategic Agility, and the Big Meltdown,” Naval War College, May 18, 2001, pp. 4-5.

[16] Stavridis, p. 338

[17] Ibid., p. 357. Some estimate Russian icebreaker capability is higher, as much as 44 in fact (source: Eckstein article)

[18] Eckstein.

[19] Stavridis, p. 357.

[20] “Zukunft to Congress: US Must be Serious About Icebreaker Acquisition,” U.S. Naval Institute News, last modified May 18, 2017,

[21] Eckstein.

Featured Image: Crewmen walk across the ice toward the US Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC POLAR STAR (WAGB 10). The POLAR STAR, first Coast Guard icebreaker to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent, has paused during its journey to give crewmen “ice-liberty.” (PA1 Ed Moreth, USCG)