Tag Archives: middle east

Waters of Black Gold: The Strait of Hormuz Pt. 1

By Imran Shamsunahar

Introduction

What distinguishes navies from that of other branches of the military is that their raison d’etre is often inherently economical in nature. Navies primarily exist to protects one’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in trade and natural resources, while threatening those of your enemy’s in times of war. As the classical seapower theorist Mahan would memorably argue, “the necessity of a navy springs from the existence of peaceful shipping and disappears with it.”1 In today’s globalized world, where 90 percent of global trade is still transported through merchant shipping, ensuring that freedom of navigation is protected on the world’s waters has become more vital than ever for ensuring global economic growth and regional stability.

This is especially relevant when discussing the stability of global energy markets. A 2014 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) entitled “World Oil Transit Chokepoints” noted that in 2013 total petroleum and other liquids production was 90.1 million barrels per day (bb/d), with over 63 percent of that amount transported through seaborne trade. Statistics from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development noted that in 2013 oil tankers accounted for 30 percent of total worldwide shipping by deadweight tonnage. Any disruption to those transport routes, even briefly, would lead to “substantial increases in total energy costs and world energy prices.” These dangers of disruption are especially acute in so-called “maritime chokepoints,” described by the EIA as “narrow channels along widely used global sea routes.”2

The Middle East, specifically the Arabian Gulf, continues to remain one of the key players in world energy markets. The Gulf accounted for 32 percent of the world market share in oil production in 2015,3 with total crude oil exports from the region estimated at 17 million barrels per day.4 As well, the Middle East accounted for 17 percent of the market share in world natural gas production in 2015, with total production estimated at 164, 504.9 million cubic meters.5 The global trade in crude oil and natural gas increased by 1.5 percent and 0.3 percent respectively from 2014 to 2015.6

Thus, those interested in ensuring the stability of seaborne energy transportation coming out of the Middle East have turned a wary eye to two of the most important maritime chokepoints in the region. The first is the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The second is the Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint 18 miles wide at its narrowest, and which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.7

Both chokepoints are vital for oil and LNG (liquefied natural gas) shipments making their way from the Middle East to the hungry markets of the Asia-Pacific and Europe. Unfortunately, both also suffer from geopolitically tense littorals, driven primarily by the present rivalry between the U.S.-backed Gulf Arab states and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is this very rivalry that drives present day concerns among security pundits and observers in the energy industry over freedom of navigation in these two vital maritime chokepoints.

Although most strategists have sought to view the GCC-Iranian geopolitical rivalry through the prism of landpower (focusing on Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, etc.), the maritime dimensions of this rivalry are no less important, as global energy prices (and therefore the health of our still fragile world economy) are threatened by the possible disruption of tanker shipping through both chokepoints. This two-part series will analyze maritime security and the threats to energy shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. The first part will discuss the strategic significance of the Strait of Hormuz, the makeup of Iranian forces, and the Strait’s recent history of war at sea. Part 2 will assess the feasibility of Iran’s asymmetric strategy to shut down shipping through the area in times of crisis.

Tense Waters

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world when discussing the security of global energy transportation. At its narrowest, the Strait is only 21 miles wide, with an official two mile shipping lane recognized by the International Maritime Organization to protect shipping coming through. Its northern shores comprise the Islamic Republic of Iran, while Oman and the UAE comprise its southern littorals. In 2013, an estimated 17 million barrels per day were shipped through the Strait, comprising almost 30 percent of total global oil seaborne trade for that year. The EIA noted: “The Strait of Hormuz is deep and wide enough to handle the world’s largest crude oil tankers, with about two-thirds of oil shipments carried by tankers in excess of 150,000 deadweight tons.8 The GCC states, bar Oman, are heavily dependent on the Strait for their energy exports, the bulk of which are shipped to the growing and energy-hungry markets of the Asia-Pacific.9

Understanding the military imbalance between Iran and the Gulf Arab states can shed light on Iran’s asymmetrical maritime doctrine. Collective GCC defense spending and conventional capabilities currently dwarfs that of the Islamic Republic due to international sanctions, which also prevent the regime from modernizing its military through procuring modern armaments.10 According to a CSIS report, the total defense spending for 2015 for the GCC stood at $117.23 billion, while Iran stood at $15.9 billion. This military imbalance can be gleamed most glaringly through comparing their respective naval capabilities. Iran’s conventional blue water navy, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), would stand little chance in a fleet-to-fleet engagement with either the U.S. Navy or the navies of the GCC (the latter certainly possesses modern surface ships), composed as it is of mostly aging frigates and corvettes from the Shah era.11,12

Instead, Iran has strategically chosen to adopt an asymmetric maritime doctrine to both deter its enemies and, if necessary, fight a protracted war within the Strait. Their doctrine is predicated on the use of submarines (Iran is currently the only Gulf sea power to possess submarines), mines, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and small fast-attack boats. These capabilities are currently shared between the IRIN and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), the naval arm of the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps (or Sepah), set up by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the Revolution as a dependable force which would protect the regime from internal and external threats. The IRGCN operates as a brown water, coastal defense force whose area of responsibility (AOR) is the Persian Gulf, while the IRIN operates as a more conventional, blue water fleet whose AOR includes the Gulf of Oman, the Caspian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and who are employed for a wider range of tasks including anti-piracy operations and naval diplomacy. Responsibility for the Strait of Hormuz is shared between both services.13

Iran’s strategy of fighting a guerilla war at sea is heavily influenced by their experiences during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, particularly the so-called “Tanker War,” in which both belligerents attempted to financially exhaust the other through attacks on their oil tankers. Iran sought to attack the tankers of the Gulf states, who were the primary financial backers of Saddam’s Iraq. By the end of the war, Iran had attacked 190 ships from 31 nations, killing at least 63 sailors, using mainly asymmetric tactics to damage tanker shipping within the Gulf. Iran’s only attempt at a fleet-on-fleet engagement was during the U.S.-launched Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. Launched in retaliation for the damage sustained by the USS Samuel B. Roberts by an Iranian mine, the operation saw Iran lose two oil platforms as well as five ships, including the frigate Sahand. Another frigate, the Sabalan, suffered extensive damage. Iran learnt from its experiences during the war that while directly engaging the U.S. Navy had been disastrous, its asymmetrical strategy had been relatively more successful.14

The Iranian frigate IS Sahand (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing II from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), in retaliation for the mining of the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). The ship was hit by three Harpoon missiles plus cluster bombs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iran’s maritime strategy within the Strait is therefore predicated on using asymmetrical warfare to deter its enemies from harming Iran, increase its leverage diplomatically over its rivals, as well as fight a protracted maritime guerilla war if necessary. Their doctrine revolves around using speed, mobility, survivability, surprise, and exploiting the geography of the Strait and Persian Gulf to harass and destroy enemy warships and commercial shipping, the latter of which would have huge ramifications for the global economy, thereby pressuring the international community to intervene.15 It would also have a direct impact on the economies of the GCC, who almost entirely depend on regular access through the Straits to sustain economic growth. Any disruption to this growth would have serious internal stability implications, as the absolute monarchies of the GCC states were only able to cling to power throughout the turbulent Arab Spring of 2010 by exploiting their oil wealth for social development and job creation. 

The ability to bypass the Strait is currently limited, with only Saudi Arabia and the UAE possessing pipelines able to bypass the Persian Gulf entirely. The Saudis possess the 746-mile Petroline, able to carry oil from its western refineries to its Red Sea port of Yanbu. The United Arab Emirates operate the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline, which is able to carry half of the country’s total net oil exports to its port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. The total unused capacity of both countries at the end of 2013 was estimated at 4.3 million bbl/d.16 However, it should be noted that utilizing the land pipelines to bypass the Straits has been referred to as “costly, inconvenient, and a remedy of limited scope.”17 For the time being, the economic and political survival of the Gulf states, and that of the larger energy market, is predicated on ensuring continued access through the Straits of Hormuz.

Conclusion

This first section dealt with the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz for global energy markets and political stability in the Arab Gulf region, as well as understanding Iran’s maritime strategy of using asymmetrical warfare to disrupt vital energy shipping transiting the Strait. In the second section, I will be analyzing Iran’s present maritime capabilities to ascertain the feasibility of their asymmetric strategy, and whether they could actually shut down shipping within the waterways.

Imran Shamsunahar is a recent graduate of the University of Hull, where he earned a Master’s in Strategy and International Security. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto. He developed an interest in maritime security and naval warfare during his graduate studies, and wrote his dissertation on the South China Sea dispute and contemporary maritime strategy. He is currently based in his home city of Kuala Lumpur where he is interning for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based security risk monitoring company catering to travelers. In the meantime, he enjoys writing articles on naval matters as a hobby. He is hoping to continue his studies in the near future, hopefully once again in maritime security.

1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783, (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., 1890), p. 23

2. ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoints’, U.S. Energy Information Administration, last modified November 10th2014, https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis_includes/special_topics/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/wotc.p df

3. ‘Oil: Production in thousands of barrels per day’, BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2016, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/energy-economics/statistical-review-2016/bp-statistical-review-ofworld- energy-2016-full-report.pdf, p. 84

4. ‘World crude oil exports by country (1000 b/d)’, OPEC: Annual Statistical Bulletin 2016, http://www.opec.org/opec_web/static_files_project/media/downloads/publications/ASB2016.pdf, p. 52

5. ‘World natural gas exports by country (m standard cu m), OPEC: Annual Statistical Review 2016, p. 106

6. OPEC: Annual Statistical Review 2016

7. ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoints’

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Robert Czulda, The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine: How Would They Fight?’ Middle East Policy, 23 , no. 1, (2016): 92-109. Available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12176/full

11. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, ‘Iran and the Gulf Military Balance’, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 3rd October, 2016. Available online: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fspublic/ publication/161004_Iran_Gulf_Military_Balance.pdf.

12. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa’, The Military Balance 2017, 117, no. 1 (2017): 376-380: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/04597222.2017.1271213?needAccess=true

13. Robert Czulda, The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine’

14. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S. – Iranian Conflict at Sea’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009. Available online: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf

15. ‘Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies’, Office of Naval Intelligence, March 1st 2017, available online: https://news.usni.org/2017/03/01/document-2017-office-naval-intelligence-report-iranian-navy

16. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, ‘Iran and the Gulf Military Balance.’

17. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations’, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, January 2010. Available online: http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File- 9122013113155.pdf, p. 10

Featured image:A starboard bow view of ships of tanker convoy No. 12 underway in the Persian Gulf. Included in the convoy are the guided missile frigate USS HAWES (FFG-53), the reflagged tanker GAS KING, the guided missile cruiser USS WILLIAM H. STANDLEY (CG-32) and the amphibious assault ship USS GUADALCANAL (LPH-7) (U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Elliot)

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War in Yemen

NAFAC Week

By Rose Cote

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.

Works Cited

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)

Saudi Navy Expansion Program

By Chuck Hill

The Royal Saudi Navy is planning to replace virtually all of its Eastern Fleet. The expected price tag has been variously reported as between $11.25 and $20B. One of Saudi Arabia’s two fleets, the Eastern Fleet is based in the Persian Gulf and faces off squarely against Iran’s Navy and Revolutionary Guard Corp. The Western Fleet is based in the Red Sea and includes seven French built frigates.

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The existing Eastern fleet, all American built, includes four 75 meter (246 foot), 1,038 ton corvettes and nine 58 meter (190 feet), 495 ton guided missile boats. All are nearing the end of their useful lives, having entered service in the early ’80s.

It appears Saudi Arabia is again looking to the US to build this new fleet, reportedly buying  four up-rated Lockheed Martin Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ships.  While these ships have been much in the news, they are only part of a much larger program.

In February Defense News reported that Saudi Arabia had sent a letter of request to the US Navy that outlined the entire program.  It specified:

  • Four 3,500-ton “frigate-like warships” capable of anti-air warfare, armed with an eight-to-16-cell vertical launch system (VLS) capable of launching Standard SM-2 missiles; fitted with an “Aegis or like” combat system using “SPY-1F or similar” radars; able to operate Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters; with a speed of 35 knots.
  • Six 2,500-ton warships with combat systems compatible with the frigates, able to operate MH-60R helos.
  • 20 to 24 fast patrol vessels about 40 to 45 meters long, powered by twin diesels.
  • 10 “maritime helicopters” with characteristics identical to the MH-60R.
  • Three maritime patrol aircraft for coastal surveillance.
  • 30 to 50 UAVs, some for maritime use, some to be shore-based.

This shopping list sounds remarkably specific. This suggest that they already have a good idea what they expect to buy.

Four 3,500-ton “frigate-like warships”

Plans have firmed up for the four frigates. While they will not have the Aegis like radars they will have a, “…16-cell (Mk41) VLS installation able to launch Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, and will carry Harpoon Block II surface-to-surface missiles in dedicated launchers, and anti-air Rolling Airframe Missiles in a SeaRAM close-in weapon system. The MMSC will also mount a 76mm gun… a Lockheed Martin COMBATSS-21 combat management system, which shares some commonality with the much larger Aegis combat system, and feature the Cassidian TRS-4D C-band radar.”

Six 2,500-ton warships with combat systems compatible with the frigates, able to operate MH-60R helos.

The design for the six smaller ships hasn’t been discussed openly, so this is a bit of speculation, but at least I think we can expect something like this. The video below, from Swiftship, recently appeared without much explanation.  The similarity in design to the Freedom class is striking and it claims to be a proven hull form. If Marinette Marine is too busy to build these smaller ships in addition to the LCS and the Saudi Frigates, having Swiftships build them might be a way have having them delivered relatively quickly and it looks like it might fit the description. Note there is no mention of an ASW capability for these ships (other than the ability to embark an MH-60R). This parallels the current fleet structure where only the four largest vessels have an ASW capability and the next largest class vessels do not.

Swiftships has a record of selling vessels through “Foreign Military Sales” and the vessel in the video shares a number of systems in common with the projected Saudi frigates including a 76mm gun, RAM missiles, MH-60s, and possibly Harpoon (they show only a generic representation of an ASCM).

20 to 24 fast patrol vessels about 40 to 45 meters long, powered by twin diesels.

A likely choice for the patrol boat is this one, eight of which were sold to Pakistan. Reportedly these 43 meter, 143 foot vessels can make 34 knots and operate a ScanEagle UAS.

Westport143
Westport Yachts photo

Another possibility is this 43.5 meter vessel that was provided to Lebanon under FMS.

RiverHawk-LCSC-42

Both of these PCs have the capability to stern launch an RHIB.

10 “maritime helicopters” with characteristics identical to the MH-60R.

A request for ten MH-60Rs was submitted earlier and has been approved by the State Department.

Included in the buy of the helicopters are, “one-thousand (1,000) AN/SSQ-36/53/62 Sonobuoys; thirty-eight (38) AGM-114R Hellfire II missiles; five (5) AGM-114 M36-E9 Captive Air Training missiles; four (4) AGM-114Q Hellfire Training Missiles; three-hundred eighty (380) Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System rockets; twelve (12) M-240D crew served weapons; and twelve (12) GAU-21 crew served weapons.”

I note that the 380 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) semi-active laser homing 70mm rockets is exactly the number to fill twenty 19 round launchers. These weapons are probably an ideal counter to the much vaunted Iranian “swarm.”

Three maritime patrol aircraft for coastal surveillance:

These are almost certainly P-8s.

30 to 50 UAVs, some for maritime use, some to be shore-based:

While there is no indication which system is favored.  This sounds like too many systems for Firescout.

ScanEagle or one of Insitu’s slightly larger systems seems more likely, and if the Swiftships Offshore Patrol Vessel video is any indication, it includes a ScanEagle launch and recovery.

Conclusion:

This will be a major upgrade to the Saudi fleet that should allow them to maintain an advantage relative to the Iranian Fleet.

  • The ships and patrol boats will be three to five times larger than those they replace and far more survivable.
  • Fleet air defense systems which have been limited to 76mm guns and Phalanx CIWS will get a basic local area defense in the form of Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, which will be backed up by rolling airframe missiles.
  • ASW  capability will take a quantum leap with the addition of the three Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), the ten MH-60R.
  • The Eastern fleet was relatively well equipped to target larger surface targets with a total of 68 Harpoon launch tubes on the existing ships, but they were less well equipped to deal with numerous Iranian small craft.  MH-60Rs  armed with Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System guided rockets should provide an effective counter to Iran’s swarm strategy.
  • MPA and Unmanned systems will enhance ISR capability.
  • The larger patrol craft should significantly improve maritime security.
  • According to my “Combat Fleets of the World,” the Saudi Navy has a Marine Corp of 3,000, but their only Amphibious Warfare ships are four LCUs and two LCMs. The addition of at least 30 ships with RHIBs, assuming the patrol craft have this capability, should allow the Saudi Navy to consider at least small scale raids and other forms of maritime Special Ops. If the six 2500 ton ships are configured like the ship in Swiftships video, with four RHIBs, it would seem particularly appropriate for this role.  The addition of ten helicopter decks where there were none before also opens up options for these types of operations.

Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history. Chuck normally writes for his blog, Chuck Hill’s CG blog.  

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Is Egypt’s Instability a Threat to the Suez Canal?

Fatal attacks on the Suez Canal, one of the world’s central trade routes by sea, have long been a mere theoretical possibility. This changed with the attack on the “Cosco Asia” on 31 August 2013. The attack is a result of political instability in Egypt, leaving the Sinai Peninsula a lawless zone for jihadists and Bedouin militias. In response, the Egyptian armed forces launched a brutal anti-terrorism campaign in the northern Sinai. However, purely military measures could prove insufficient.

RH-53D_over_Suez_Canal_1974
A U.S. Navy Sikorsky RH-53D of helicopter mine countermeasures squadron HM-12 Sea Dragons sweeping the Suez Canal using an Mk 105 minesweeping gear during “Operation Nimbus Moon” in 1974. Source: U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News September 1974

The Suez Canal is one of the most militarized zones in the world due to its strategic importance, reflected in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and its closure from 1967–1975 during the Arab-Israeli wars. The passage through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is considered to be the second most important waterway for global oil trade after the Strait of Hormuz. A blockade of the Suez Canal could have disastrous effects on the world economy. The canal, built by the British and in operation since 1869, is controlled by an extensive security system under supervision of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA). The SCA employs vessel data registration, radar surveillance, signal stations, camera surveillance and a signal-based automatic identification system. Egypt’s armed forces are responsible for its security, having an estimated five divisions deployed with the Second Army responsible for the Port Said-area from the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Third Army responsible from Ismailiya to the Red Sea to the south.

Attack on the Canal

Yet the Cosco Asia attack exposed its vulnerabilities – primarily because the geographic 120-mile stretch between Port Said and Suez is hard to control, enabling militant groups to mount land-based attacks in narrow passages. On 31 August 2013, a group calling itself “Al-Furqan Brigade” claimed responsibility for an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) attack on the Cosco Asia, a Chinese-owned container ship under Panamanian flag with 10,000t of cargo on its way to Northern Europe. The attack did not cause much harm. The bullet only struck a container containing an illegal delivery of cigarettes belonging to Irish smugglers. If such terrorist groups are able to cause a ship to sink in a narrow passage of the canal, the authorities would be forced to stop canal traffic and remove the ship. Yet an incident of this magnitude seems highly unlikely since it would take a large-scale operation to sink a robust ship. Thanks to the comprehensive surveillance system in the canal zone, Egyptian security forces can quickly respond to major incidents. Larger operations would therefore be very difficult for terrorist groups to carry out.

20130713_MAM919
Source: The Economist

Egypt’s Sinai Problem

An attack on the Suez Canal could cause a devastating disruption of maritime trade. It is less real danger, but more the possibility of such attacks that creates anxiety among Egyptian authorities and international shippers. There are reasons to remain cautious in the future. After the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt on 30 June 2012; Morsi in turn was later ousted on 3 July 2013. In Egypt after Mubarak, the constitution is disputed, the military establishment continues to dominate and Islamists are increasingly confronting the state authority. Egypt’s security policy in Sinai is becoming a key challenge. On 17 July 2013, the Associated Press reported, based on a series of interviews with military sources, that Morsi had been at odds with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for several months, the man whom Morsi had promoted from Head of Military Intelligence Services to Defense Minister and Head of the Armed Forces in August 2012. According to a former general the security situation in the Sinai was the main source of disagreement. According to military sources, but also leading Islamist figures who reject the use of violence as a tactic, Morsi was collaborating with armed extremist groups in the Sinai. El-Sissi believed that insecurity in Sinai was a threat to Egypt’s state security and used this as the reason to topple Morsi from the presidency.

The Sinai Peninsula Underworld

The 23,500 mile²-large peninsula has been a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt since the peace treaty of 1979. Only limited military forces are allowed to operate and multinational armed forces (MFO) are stationed to ensure accordance with the peace treaty. The population of around 400,000 people consists to three quarters of Bedouins, the rest Palestinians, Egyptian immigrants and descendants of the settlers from the Ottoman period. Egypt has largely neglected Sinai and its inhabitants, many of whom do not have Egyptian citizenship, keeping public investments and military presence low. The Egyptian army never deployed more than 70-80 percent of the 22,000 soldiers allowed by the Camp David Agreements in Zone A of the Western Sinai. Nor had it opened headquarters or trained troops for combat in desert terrain. After Mubarak’s downfall, jihadist groups became more active, supported by increasingly dissatisfied Bedouins. The long marginalized tribal Sinai Bedouins have since become a semi-autonomous player. Egypt could no longer neglect the Sinai Peninsula, considering increasing terror activities of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaeda or Bedouins who joined Salafi-jihadist groups. After the uprisings in the Arab world, illicit smuggling of people and weapons from Algeria and Libya increased. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) welcomed hundreds of Sinai-based militants to Libya for training and cooperation. A strong Hamas network has been smuggling weapons both from and into Gaza, coming from Iran through Sudan and Egypt. Hamas employs secret storage sites throughout the Sinai, including long-range missiles, explosives workshops, rockets and mortars. It is estimated by local sources that a total of 100,000 weapons of all kinds and an illicit trade amounting to roughly $300 million exist in the Sinai.

File-picture-of-a-fire-at-al-Arish-in-the-north-of-the-Sinai-peninsula-following-an-attack-on-a-gas-pipeline-AFP
Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula bombed a gas pipeline to Jordan on July 6, 2013 witnesses said, amid a surge in attacks on police and soldiers since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office. (Source: AFP)

Uprising and Open Confrontation of the State Authority

After Mubarak’s fall, Sinai experienced a quasi-insurgency with more than 200 attacks in five months, including rocket attacks on military targets and gas pipelines as well as armed robberies using trucks and motorcycles. Egypt’s armed forces launched Operation Eagle in August 2011 to address increasing lawlessness, mainly in the north of Sinai. On 19 August 2013, 25 Egyptian policemen were killed in an ambush in Rafah. The attackers fired RPGs on their convoy to stop it, before removing and then executing the passengers openly in the street. After Morsi’s ouster, violent attacks peaked between 1 and 28 July 2013, when 250 attacks were tracked. As a reaction, the armed forces started Operation Desert Storm on 27 July, deploying 20,000 soldiers supported by US-supplied Apache combat helicopters. This meant Egypt’s largest mobilization since the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Egypt’s security forces killed and detained militants from Libya, the Palestinian Territories, the North Caucasus, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. The frequency of attacks dropped in the months that followed. The inhabitants of the Sinai bemoan indiscriminate destruction of their homes, enormous brutality of the Egyptian army against suspects and their stigmatization as “terrorists.” Many young Bedouins have joined jihadist groups. Al Qaeda, Hamas and many other groups are in open confrontation with the Egyptian state with increasing support of the locals, who are loosing confidence in the state. On November 20, a Salafi-jihadist group attacked a convoy of buses with Egyptian security personnel in the northern Sinai, killing 11 and wounding 35 – the bloodiest attack since July but the last of this size. It seems the military was successful in curbing attacks which went down from 104 in July, to 40, 31 and 22 in August, September and October. During the counter-terrorism campaign, the Egyptian armed forces recognized that the Rafah tunnels at the 9 miles-border to Gaza are a key security challenge. Since August 2012, the military targeted the tunnel networks, bombing and flooding them. In July, the estimates of operating tunnels ranged between 100 and 300, while in September, only ten remained. However, the bombardments on the tunnels to Gaza will lead to further economic losses and deprive even more people of their livelihood.

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Egyptian military helicopters on September 3, 2013 launched air strikes on militants in the country’s restive Sinai peninsula, where the army has been battling a semi-insurgency, security sources and witnesses said. Source: www.devanture.net

 

Egypt’s Coming Collapse?

This will not calm Sinai’s inhabitants, who may find more reasons to confront the Egyptian state. More unrest and terrorist attacks against civilians, military targets or the Suez Canal can be expected. The confrontation may become even more intense after Al Qaeda veterans’ call for arms against the Egyptian army. On September 5, the Sunni-jihadist group Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis used an improvised explosive device (IED) placed in a car with 50 kilograms of explosives to target the interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim’s convoy in Nasr City, Cairo, injuring 22. More such IEDs have been found on the main Cairo-Suez road, indicating that the wave of violence increasingly affects the mainland. After Morsi’s ouster, regular protests and attacks on military targets took place in the Suez Canal port cities, Suez, Ismailia and Port Said. Lloyd‘s List, a marine insurance company, reported increased military activity and ship inspections in the canal. Lloyd‘s recommended ships take the 6000 mile-longer route around the Cape of Good Hope instead. This wave of terror might only be the beginning. If the security situation in Egypt is not improved, the Suez Canal passage would be considered to be even more dangerous in the future, increasing risk premiums for shipping and causing the Egyptian economy to suffer further. It cannot be ruled out that the North Sea route will become more attractive for international shipping in the future.

In spite of the recent successes by the Egyptian armed forces’ counter-terrorism campaign, the breeding ground for jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula remains a challenge for Egypt, forcing it to look beyond the military dimension and instead focus on governing Sinai and addressing local grievances in the long run.

References

Niklas Anzinger is a Graduate Assistant at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, NY. This post appeared in it’s original form and was cross-posted by permission from our partner site Offiziere.ch.