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Gators in Motion: Demystifying Recent Russian Amphibious Activity

By Ben Claremont

The past several weeks have seen some extraordinary Russian naval activity.1 On 17 and 18 January 2021, six Russian amphibious warfare ships sortied from the Baltic Sea, passing through the Danish straits to the North Sea. On 24 January, TASS reported that over 20 surface combatants and auxiliaries sortied from the Russian Baltic Fleet.2 Recent satellite radar imagery of Baltiysk Naval Base in Kaliningrad shows only the two Neustrashimy-class frigates in port.3 This implies that all four Steregushchiy-class corvettes and several of the 21 smaller ships assigned to the fleet are at sea.4 In addition, major portions of the Northern, Pacific, and Black Sea Fleets have sortied, nominally as part of a large exercise.5 On 4 February, the six amphibious ships stopped for resupply in Tartus, Syria.6 Currently, they have transited the Turkish Straits and entered the Black Sea.7

Due to the build-up of forces on the Russian border with Ukraine and in Belarus, Russia’s amphibious forces have received a great deal of news coverage. This includes no less than eight articles in The Drive’s The War Zone and regular reporting from USNI News, Forbes, Radio Free Europe, the French Navy, and numerous other media outlets.8 The coverage has generally focused on their progress and the viability and possible locations of amphibious assaults on Ukraine. While the capabilities, location, and destination of these ships are important, their movements and possible targets must be contextualized; the Russian Military has a distinct understanding of and approach to amphibious warfare. It also must be kept in mind that these forces only augment existing capabilities in the Black Sea Fleet and so should not be used as an indicator of readiness to initiate conflict.

Most commentary on possible Russian amphibious assaults in a war with Ukraine suggests targets such as Odessa and Mariupol or describes them as a feint.9 In November, the Chief of Ukrainian Military Intelligence suggested that amphibious assaults would target Odessa and Mariupol.10 Responding to this in the January 2022 issue of Proceedings, Col. (Ret.) Phillip G. Wasielewski, U.S. Marine Corps, suggested that such assaults would be incredibly risky.11 Still, the idea of amphibious assaults to seize major cities persists.12 However, when this scenario is compared with existing Russian amphibious warfare capabilities, the Russian theory and practice of amphibious warfare (and its Soviet antecedent), and the larger Russian deployment of forces, it becomes clear that Mariupol, Odessa, and other major urban areas or ports are unlikely targets for the Russian Naval Infantry. Conversely, it is unlikely that such forces are only a bluff, feint, or ruse.

February 9, 2022 video by  Ihlas News Agency entitled (in Turkish), “Russian Warships Advancing From The Dardanelles To The Black Sea One After One.”


Russia’s amphibious ships are moving in two groups with an estimated capacity of two regular battalions — one tank and one motorized infantry— with some space for artillery and air defenses. Alternatively, the groups could carry a Battalion Tactical Group.

Group 1: Baltic Fleet14

  • Пр.775/II [ROPUCHA-I] 127 Minsk
  • Пр.775/II [ROPUCHA-I] 102 Kaliningrad
  • Пр.775/III [ROPUCHA-II] 130 Korolyov

Group 2: Northern Fleet15

  • Пр.775/I [ROPUCHA-I] 012 Olenegorskii Gornyak
  • Пр.775/II [ROPUCHA-I] 016 Georgii Pobedonosets
  • Пр.11711 [IVAN GREN] 017 Peter Morgunov

A Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) is a task-organized combined arms force created by augmenting a Motor-Rifle Battalion (MRBn) with tanks, artillery, electronic warfare capabilities, air defenses, and other modern conveniences necessary for the mission at hand.16 It is the smallest regularly formed combined arms force in the Russian military capable of independent action.17 It is only the latest form of a type of unit which the Russians — and Soviets before them — have been iteratively developing and adjusting since the Second world War.18 A 1989 survey of Soviet professional literature on the topic found that only 12 of the 551 examined battalion-level actions involved a battalion acting without attachments or support, and none took place after 1972.19

From analyzing Russian exercises, it can be inferred that these two groups can carry a BTG. Zapad 2021 featured an amphibious assault exercise in which four Ropucha-class tank landing ships (LSTs) and two Zubr-class landing craft air cushion (LCACs) landed a Naval Infantry force.24 The four Ropucha-class offloaded “more than 40x BTR-80” while the two Zubr-class LCAC offloaded supporting vehicles. A Russian BTR-mounted infantry battalion has 44 BTR-80 variants, meaning that four Ropuchas can carry the entire infantry landing force of a BTG. This leaves two landing ships for whatever forces are attached — likely a mixture of tanks, artillery, and air defense vehicles. While the contents of their holds are unclear, a BTG is well within the six ships’ capacity and congruous with the Naval Infantry’s most probable mission in conflict: supporting the Russian Ground Forces.

Tank landing ship of the Russian Navy RFS Kaliningrad 102 (2012 Photo via Pacholski)

Theory and Practice

Whatever its size, this amphibious force is trained to conduct what the Russians call “десант” [desant]. Desant is the task of landing troops on the enemy’s territory to conduct combat operations.25 The role of the Naval Infantry in these landings is to support the action of the Ground Forces. The Russian Navy did not consider themselves able to conduct a brigade-scale landing — what they call an Operational Desant — in 2018, and there is no indication this has changed.26 The Kavkaz 2020 and Zapad 2021 exercises included landings by battalion-sized groupings. In particular, Zapad 2021 featured 4 Ropuchas landing a Naval Infantry Battalion while two Zubr-class landed the battalion’s attachments.27 This restricts the mission profile to Takticheskii Desant (Tactical Desant), defined as: desant used in an offensive battle or operation to destroy important enemy targets in the tactical and close-operational depths, preventing the maneuver of enemy troops and ensuring the high rate of advance.28

The archetypical Soviet-Russian Tactical Desant is conducted in the tactical depth to outflank an enemy defense or insert a force acting as a forward detachment for the main forces attacking along a coastline.29 These are both viable missions for a Naval Infantry BTG. The location of such a landing is dependent on the disposition of enemy forces and the landing force mission. However, the Russians do believe that surprise (Внезапность) is a prerequisite of success.30 Whether or not it is still possible to conceal an amphibious landing, it is likely Russia would seek to conceal the beachhead and axis of the main effort.31 A common method to achieve this is by presenting the enemy with information which confirms pre-existing incorrect assessments of the time, place, and scale of a landing. Operation Fortitude is a classic example of this technique, though Soviet practice went further, often conducting a secondary landing to continue the deception or split enemy attention.32 Examples of this include the January 1943 Taman landings by the 47th Army, the April 1942 Murmansk Offensive by the 14th Army, and the October 1944 landing at Malaya Volokovaya by the 63rd Naval Infantry Brigade.33

Soviet Amphibious Assault during the Novorossiysk-Taman Strategic Offensive Operation. Click to expand. (SSRC Soviet Amphibious Warfare, p. 41)

The Soviet-Russian school of amphibious assault also heavily features vertical envelopment by airborne or heliborne forces to support the landing. This could either be in support of seizing an initial beachhead or to assist the Naval Infantry force in achieving their objectives. One of the most common uses of vertical envelopment seen in Russian amphibious assault theory and practice is an initial landing of infantry and combat engineers to clear obstacles and provide security for the beachhead.34 This initial landing may be supplemented or replaced by landings from small assault boats, such as the Pr.03160 Raptor-class.35 Four of these boats were spotted on 30 January moving on the M4 highway between Moscow and Krasnodar via Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh.36

Click to expand. (Graphic via Grau and Bartles, Russian Way of War, p. 148.)

All six amphibious ships appeared loaded in pictures captured as they transited through Denmark.37 In addition, Frederik Van Lokeren noted that when the Northern Fleet Ropucha-class LST Aleksandr Otrakovsky and Georgiy Pobedonosets and Ivan Gren-class Pyotr Morgunov entered the Baltic on 11 January, “It appear[ed] that both Ropucha class vessels are fully loaded, with the RFS Pyotr Morgunov being partly loaded,” and that on 13 January at least a company of BTR-mounted Naval Infantry was seen leaving their barracks in Baltiysk.38 It is therefore possible that the BTG consists of Baltic Fleet Infantry and supporting assets from the Northern Fleet’s Naval Infantry units.


While these movements are cause for concern, the initiation of armed conflict is unlikely to be contingent on these forces. The Black Sea Fleet has seven LSTs organic to its forces, three Alligator-class and four Ropucha-class.39 Each Alligator-class has double the capacity of a Ropucha-class.40 These seven ships have far more capacity than the six amphibious ships from the Baltic and Northern Fleets.

While amphibious landings could undoubtedly assist in destabilizing Ukrainian defenses, the Russians have amassed a preponderance of forces near the Ukrainian border, equivalent to 12 divisions or over 75 BTG.41 It is highly unlikely that Russian planning is reliant on whether they can put two BTG over the shore instead of the single BTG they are currently able to land, or even whether they can land one maneuver battalion when they have deployed 12 divisions.

In sum: the Russians have moved loaded amphibious ships that double their landing capacity in the Black Sea to two BTGs. If they do conduct a landing, it will almost certainly be in support of the Ground Forces, not an attempt to seize major urban areas by coup de main. It is unlikely that Russian offensive plans are contingent on the amphibious forces which just entered the Black Sea. These forces represent less than 1/75th of deployed Russian maneuver battalions and far less than one percent of deployed Russian combat power when air assets and high-level indirect fire assets are considered.

The build-up phase of the Russo-Belarussian joint exercise was scheduled to end on 9 February. This is the date by which experts such as Rob Lee have stated that Russia’s deployment of forces would likely be complete.42 At the time of publishing on 10 February the Baltic and Northern Fleet amphibious forces have arrived in the Black Sea. However, these forces would only augment existing Black Sea Fleet capability and so should not be used as an indicator of Russian readiness for offensive action. On the other hand, these amphibious forces are unlikely to be a feint; the Russians have demonstrated the capability to land battalion-scale forces in the region, and such a landing fits into their theory and practice.

Benjamin Claremont graduated with an MLitt in Strategic Studies from the University of St Andrews School of International Relations in 2021. His dissertation, Peeking at the Other Side of the Fence: Lessons Learned in Threat Analysis from the US Military’s Efforts to Understand the Soviet Military During the Cold War, explored the impact of changing sources, analytical methodologies, and distribution schemes on US Army and US Navy threat analysis of the Soviet Military, how this impacted policy and strategy, and what this can teach in a renewed era of great power competition. He received his MA (Honours) in Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. He is interested in Strategy, Operational Art, Naval Warfare, and Soviet/Russian Military Science.





[4] These comprise: 4x Nanuchka-III-, 6x Parchim-, 2x Buyan-M-, 3x Karakurt-, and 6x Tarantul-class corvettes and missile boats. The fleet flagship, the Sovermenny-class destroyer Nastoychivy is currently in refit.












[16] Grau and Bartles, Russia’s View of Mission Command of Battalion Tactical Groups (2016), p. 5-7

[17] Grau and Bartles, Russian Way of War (2017), p. 37-40

[18] The Soviets habitually task-organized their battalions into combined arms formations throughout the Great Patriotic War. Grau, Combined Arms Battalion, p. 31

[19] Les Grau Soviet Combined Arms Battalion – Reorganization for Tactical Flexibility, p. 14.

[20] Grau and Bartles, Russian Way of War, p. 224

[21] Ibid p. 210

[22] Ibid p. 148, 267, 334

[23]As a task organized group these numbers are only loose estimates.


[25] VES 1986 p. 229 Note that desant is seen as the same fundamental activity no matter the mode of transport.

[26] Bartles, Russian Naval Infantry – Increasing Amphibious Warfare Capabilities, Marine Corps Gazette, (Nov. 2018), p. 64

[27] ; Note that this was not described as a BTG landing. This is perhaps due to the limited support or specific mission planned.

[28] Военный энциклопедический словарь 1986 edition (VES86), p. 229.

[29] Further Reading can be found in Leavenworth Paper 17: The Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation and SSRC Report CR-57 Soviet Amphibious Operations: Implications for the Security of NATO’s Northern Flank.

[30]; this is nearly unchanged from the late-soviet definition. For more discussion see: FM 100-2-1 (1990) p. 1-35:1-41 and Советская военная энциклопедия 1979 Edition (SVE79) Vol. 2, p. 161-163

[31] Soviet Amphibious Operations p. 58-59

[32] Soviet Amphibious Operations p. 59

[33] Soviet Amphibious Operations p. 59, Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation p. 89-91

[34] Vertical envelopment is often supplemented by personnel landed from small assault boats like the Pr.03160 Raptor-class.



[37] A friend in the Danish Navy who saw them sortie confirmed they were lower in the water than typical even for exercises.

[38], citing

[39] The Alligator-class is known to the Russians as Project 1171 Tapir.

[40] Apalkov, Landing Ships p. 8-9



Featured image: A photograph of Russian Ropucha-class Korolev followed by the French patrol vessel Flamant while transiting the English Channel (Credit :

Argentina Deploys New Patrol Vessels to Combat IUU Fishing

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

The Argentine Navy has deployed its two newest offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), ARA Bouchard (P-51) and ARA Piedrabuena (P-52), to monitor an international fishing fleet traveling close to the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) en route to the South Atlantic. While there have been no confirmed reports of these vessels engaging in illegal, unregulated, or unreported (IUU) fishing, recent history suggests that this is occurring or will occur soon.

Putting the new units to good use

Bouchard and Piedrabuena are assigned to the Argentine Navy’s maritime patrol division (División de Patrullado Marítimo: DVPM). Along with a Beechcraft B-200 Super King Air aircraft assigned to the naval air squadron for maritime surveillance (Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Vigilancia Marítima), the two units monitored vessels traveling through the Magellan Strait en route to open seas in the South Atlantic, according to a 23 December press release. After departing from Admiral Zar base in Trelew, Chubut Province, the B-200 flew over “the fishing fleet, in coordination with the patrol boats, maintaining surveillance… of the activities carried out by these ships of different nationalities.”

ARA Bouchard (P-51) and ARA Piedrabuena (P-52) conduct patrol and surveillance operations in the Argentine Sea (Photo credit: Argentine Navy)

The support vessel ARA Estrecho de San Carlos (A-22) has reportedly replaced Bouchard as the main vessel assigned to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego province, which is near the Beagle Channel and Argentina’s border with Chile.

Argentina has acquired four Gowind-class OPVs from France, manufactured by Naval Group. The third unit, ARA Storni (P-53), was delivered in October 2021, while the fourth and final ship, ARA Bartolomé Cordero, was launched in September 2021 and will likely be delivered sometime in early 2022. The four units will help the Argentine Navy improve its patrol and surveillance operations.

There have also been developments from a bureaucratic standpoint. In late February 2021, the Ministry of Defence created the Joint Maritime Command (Comando Conjunto Marítimo: CCM) to “patrol and control of [Argentina’s] maritime and fluvial areas.” The MoD announced that starting this past 1 January, the CCM assumed command of surveillance maritime operations, which includes monitoring the international fishing fleet that is sailing near the country’s EEZ.

Boarding teams from ARA Bouchard (P-51) and ARA Piedrabuena (P-52) inspect fishing vessels in the Argentine Sea (Photo credit: Argentine Navy)

Good and Bad News

The Argentine Navy will have additional air and surface units in the near future. In late December, the Argentine government announced that the local shipyard Tandanor will construct a new icebreaker for Antarctic operations to replace the aging icebreaker Almirante Irízar (Q-5). In the same month, the Ministry of Defence announced that two refurbished Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King medium helicopters will be acquired to improve capabilities and operations, including search and rescue, in the country’s southern areas and during Antarctic operations. The price of the two helicopters, including personnel training and spare parts, is USD 12.8 million.

Alas, the service still has no operational submarines. Moreover, apart from the four new OPVs, the rest of the fleet has yet to be modernized, which limits the service’s capabilities for constant, long-range patrol operations to monitor illegal activities by the international fishing fleet.

IUU Fishing

Argentina has a history of combating IUU fishing. For example, in 2016, the Mantilla-class patrol boat Prefecto Derbes (GC-28) shot and sank the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010. The ship had reportedly ignored warning shots and attempted to flee, only to ram the Argentine patrol vessel. Lu Yan Yuan Yu was reportedly fishing without authorization in Argentina’s EEZ close to Chubut Province.

The author of this article has written several essays for CIMSEC about IUU fishing in Latin American waters (See 2016’s “Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing,” and 2020’s “The Ecuadorian Navy’s Constant Struggle Against IUU Fishing.” Regional cooperation is vital to solving this security challenge, which can be achieved by modernizing the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Tratado Interamericano de Asistencia Recíproca: TIAR) into a 21st-century agreement that is also tasked with combating IUU fishing. Turning TIAR into TIAR 21, as the author suggested in a July 2021 Regional Insight paper for the William J. Perry Center for hemispheric Defense Studies at the US National Defense University, would be an essential step forward to more effectively monitor South America’s vast waters and prevent the ongoing maritime pillaging of precious marine resources by extra-regional fishing fleets.

An international fishing fleet, comprising vessels from countries such as China, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan, continuously operates throughout South America, moving with the season. For example, the same fleet operated around Ecuador, close to the Galapagos Islands, in July-August 2021, then traveled south through Peru and Ecuador. It is currently crossing the Magellan Strait to operate in the South Atlantic for the Summer months below the Equator. In Argentina, fishing vessels are focused on fishing squid, spider crab (centolla), and crab.

According to a December report by the Argentine daily La Nación, the “fishing season” commenced in early December, as some 180 vessels, “mostly from China,” crossed the Magellan Strait after operating in waters close to Chile and Peru. “By April, there will be approximately 500 ships operating in the area,” explained Major Néstor Alberto Kiferling, head of Argentina’s maritime traffic service. As modern as the Gowind class ships are, the international fishing fleet vastly outnumbers the Argentine Navy’s current capabilities, even with support from aerial units and other vessels.


It has been argued that Argentina is in a better situation vis-à-vis IUU fishing today compared to five years ago. Indeed, the Argentine Navy is putting its two new OPVs to good use by deploying them to the Magellan Strait to monitor the international fishing fleet crossing through the country’s EEZs en route to the South Atlantic. As with many other South American countries, one of Argentina’s major environmental challenges is IUU fishing, But while IUU Fishing is problematic when perpetrated at low-scale by fishing vessels from Argentina or a neighboring country, it can become truly catastrophic when done so by hundreds of international fishing vessels with no interest in preserving the maritime environment.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: ARA Piedrabuena (P-52) at Piriou’s Concarneau shipyard (Photo Credit: Naval Group)

Iranian Maritime Threats: An Opportunity for the U.S. Navy

By Cameron Sothern

The volume of oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz gives it geostrategic importance. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “In 2018, its daily oil flow averaged 21 million barrels per day (b/d), or the equivalent of about 21% of global petroleum liquids consumption.”1 If freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz were hampered, an energy crisis would ensue. Maritime insecurities anywhere are a threat to the circulation of global trade. In the Persian Gulf and its adjacent seas, these insecurities mostly originate from Iran and its proxy forces, such as the Houthis in Yemen. “By controlling the Strait of Hormuz and placing forces along the Bab el-Mandeb in Yemen, Iran can contest energy flows to US allies as well as to China.”2 This article identifies Iranian maritime threats and proposes a course of action for the U.S. Navy to continue and improve upon its efforts in the region to deter them.

Iranian Maritime Capabilities

The Islamic Republic is well suited to draw on the rich millennial heritage of Iranian society and culture and the significant heritage of the Islamic Revolution, particularly its indigenously derived and sustained participatory model of governance. Iran can use such strengths to help realize the deeply cherished national aspirations of the Iranian people, including the achievement of long-term development and regional ascendance commensurate with the country’s capacities and stature. —Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif3

It is important to note that while the Islamic Republic of Iran is a relatively young state, its heritage stems from the legacy of the Persian Empire, and there are overtones of restoring a similar sense of greatness. Iran’s current strategic goal is to create a regionally hegemonic state. The goal is divided into four pillars: continuity of clerical rule, addressing internal and external threats, stabilizing regional influence, and attaining economic prosperity.4 Iran’s maritime and naval capabilities play an important role in supporting its strategic goal, especially when employed in the “gray zone.”5 By operating in the gray zone, Iran can make incremental changes to the status quo, which currently favors the U.S.-led International Rules Based Order (IRBO). When the United States and its partners in the region attempt to counter Iranian actions, Iran can fall back to its area of access denial, let things cool off, and reinitiate incremental changes.

Within the Persian Gulf, the naval arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Gard Corps, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), operates hundreds of small craft that are used in swarm tactics and special operations. The vessels are cheaper and faster than conventional military vessels, allowing them to respond quickly and in mass anywhere in the Persian Gulf or Strait of Hormuz. The IRGCN harasses military and commercial vessels. Their tactics involve surrounding the targeted vessel and cutting across its bow. The IRGCN has also diverted and detained certain foreign vessels in response to economic sanctions. Examples of aggressive IRGCN actions since 2019 include attacks on Norwegian, Japanese, Saudi Arabian, and Israeli vessels. The IRGCN vessels are often emboldened by ambitious regional commanders, acting without orders from the state or supreme leader.

If Iran were to attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz, it would rely heavily on the capabilities of the IRGCN. As stated above, Iran can move in and out of its area of access denial; but it also has the capacity to expand this area. In such a scenario, the IRGCN would likely lay naval mines and board or attack commercial vessels. Moreover, while not an exclusively maritime capability, Iran has shown an affinity for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to attack land-based infrastructure in the region. Regarding Iran, General McKenzie Jr. stated in the CENTCOM posture statement, “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”6 Iran has employed many of these tactics in the past without consequence, and the protentional for them to do so in a less limited manner could send shock waves through global markets.

Iran relies on two other maritime forces to support its state strategy. The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) is a traditional naval force comprised of surface ships and submarines. The IRIN operates in the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and beyond. The IRIN is an aging fleet and does not present a major security threat. It participates in counter piracy and escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and northern Indian Ocean; however, it is mostly employed by Iran as a diplomatic tool. The IRIN can train with Chinese and Russian naval forces, allowing Iran to project limited power outside of the region. The IRIN has also made port calls in Sri Lanka and China. For now, Iran’s maintenance of a green-water navy is more of a status and reputation builder than a threat to maritime security.

In addition to the IRIN, Iran maintains state control of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL). Iran manufactures much of its own military equipment and relies heavily on the IRISL to export it to Iranian proxies and state actors, often in violation of international sanctions. “Iran’s biggest customers include Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Iraqi Shia militias, but Iran has also provided weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, Palestinian groups, and the Taliban in Afghanistan… other state customers of Iranian military equipment have included Iraq and Sudan…”7 The military equipment includes small arms, ammunition, artillery systems, armored vehicles, equipment for unmanned explosive boats, and communications equipment. These exports benefit the Iranian economy; expand Iranian influence and power; and, when used by proxy forces, support Iranian military objectives.

Breaking Down Iran’s Maritime Threats

Iran’s geographic position and maritime capabilities have allowed the state to continue its pursuit of altering the status quo.8 Recurringly, Iran has acted aggressively to create short-term tension, while retaining the ability to prolong and diversify its actions as a means to avoid escalation to war. It is commonly agreed that Iran’s desire to avoid direct warfare is a result of its experience in the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, in which both sides of the conflict lost tens of thousands.9 In this conflict, Iran learned the necessity of a passive defense. Passive defense tactics focus on denial and deception to mitigate vulnerabilities and increase survivability, ensuring a strong retaliation. “Examples of this [denial and deception] include, using camouflage and concealment, hiding, and dispersing forces, building underground facilities, and developing highly mobile units.”10

These tactics contribute to Iran’s deterrent strategy, which seeks to highlight how long and costly a direct conflict with Iran would be. The denial and deception aspects of passive defense are also used by the IRGCN. “The IRGCN is the primary operator of Iran’s hundreds of fast attack craft (FAC) and fast inshore attack craft (FIAC). These platforms have been the mainstay of the IRGCN since its inception in the 1980s, although the Iranian FAC/FIAC inventory has grown significantly in terms of size and lethality since that time.”11 These vessels are highly mobile and allow for the dispersion of equipment and personnel along Iran’s coastline in the Persian Gulf, which would help mitigate Iran’s losses should they endure a strike.

Iran’s maritime threats closely align with contemporary academic knowledge regarding hybridized maritime threats. The four necessary components of hybridized aggression in the maritime domain are: a state with major power, deniable but clear orchestration on behalf of the state, illegal action, and control over levels of aggression to match responses.12 Iran has performed elements of hybridized maritime aggression in the past, especially through its proxies. In early March 2021, Houthi forces in Yemen used over a dozen drones to attack the Ras Tanura oil facility in Saudi Arabia.13 “The Houthis are increasing their missile salvos against Saudi Arabia because they have no fear of shortages. As the Biden administration and the UN have pointed out, the rebels can draw on covert shipments of Iranian-supplied drone engines, ballistic missile motors, and electronics.”14 The attack on the oil port shows Iran’s ability to direct proxy attacks on maritime infrastructure.

Iran also uses state forces to perform hybridized maritime aggression. While the most blatant example is the use of the IRGCN to place limpet mines on commercial vessels, the conduct of IRGCN vessels at sea also qualifies. In late April of 2021, several Iranian FIAC quickly approached the USS Firebolt and the USCGC Baranof, “To an unnecessarily close range with unknown intent, including a closest point of 68 yards.”15 The article continued, “The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the IRGCN vessels continued their close-range maneuvers.” Again, in May 2021, thirteen Iranian FAC rapidly approached U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels that were transiting the Strait of Hormuz. After failing to respond to radio and horn signals, and coming within 300 yards of U.S. vessels, USCGC Maui fired warning shots towards the Iranian FAC.16

The conduct of these vessels was hazardous and violated the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, which establishes standard practices for vessels maneuvering in proximity to one another. The Iranian FAC/FIAC acted without regard for proper communication, signaling, or the safety of life at sea. Although none of the incidents resulted in a collision or loss of life, the risk was significant, as was the potential to escalate tensions between the United States and Iran to dangerous levels. The variety of Iran’s maritime aggression, from proxy attacks on oil ports to dangerous maneuvering at sea, highlights Iran’s ability to use varying levels of maritime tactics and fulfills the requirements to categorize Iran as a hybrid actor in the maritime domain.

A Course of Action for the U.S. Navy

Several actors and ongoing initiatives are working towards greater security in the Persian Gulf. These include U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and its naval element, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which oversees the operations of U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). Comprising 34 member states, “CMF’s main focus areas are counter-narcotics, counter-smuggling, suppressing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and engaging with regional and other partners to strengthen relevant capabilities in order to improve overall security and stability, and promoting a safe maritime environment free from illicit non-state actors.”17 Additionally, the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) was formed in July 2019 to provide updated information for merchant vessels that transit the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.

Many states benefit from the security provided by these initiatives and contribute to them, but the U.S. Navy plays an especially important leadership role. In addition to the frequent presence of a U.S. carrier strike group and independently deployed destroyers within and outside of the Persian Gulf, the latter of which often support CMF operations, the United States has led the multinational Combined Task Force 152 (CTF 152), one of three task forces under the CMF, 10 times. CTF 152 oversees maritime security operations within the Persian Gulf. Other states that have commanded CTF 152 have done so four times or less.18 Due to its large capacity and leadership experience, there are several things that the U.S. Navy should do, or oversee, to further increase Persian Gulf security.

The U.S. Navy should continue to increase its mine countermeasure and air defense capabilities. Anti-mine capabilities will create higher assurances of safe navigation and further mitigate the threat of naval mines. It is already part of CENTCOM’s effort to increase the number of Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships and Sea Dragon helicopters to protect the navigation of vessels in the Persian Gulf.19

The threat of drones, rockets, and missiles to vessels, port facilities, and other key points. The U.S. Navy should work with CENTCOM and regional states to solidify potential targets and work collaboratively on air defense. The March 2021 drone attack on Ras Tanura oil facility was thwarted by Saudi Arabia, who received early warning from U.S. systems and a U.S. airborne early warning aircraft.20 This has also been identified by CENTCOM as a significant threat and area for further regional development.

An additional approach to limiting Iranian proxy groups is the continuation of patrols by CTF 150 and CTF 152, which patrol within and outside of the Persian Gulf, respectively. These patrols often intercept weapons and narcotics shipments, although they are not explicitly targeting shipments from Iran. In May 2021, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard intercepted, “…dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers.”21 Participation in CMF is not mandatory, but the United States could encourage additional states to participate and help manage their contributions.

The U.S. Navy should continue to work with other naval forces and regional states to quantify Iranian capabilities. Quantifying Iran’s capabilities will help decision makers in the U.S. Navy, U.S. government, and U.S. partners to create more accurate risk assessments in order to dispatch the most appropriate resources to mitigate or respond to threats.

There are diverging legal perspectives between the United States and Iran regarding passage through the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Navy should continue to exercise its right to transit passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran recognizes its own maritime laws, which incorporate a modified version of innocent passage through the Strait of Hormuz.22 The United States recognizes the Strait of Hormuz as an international strait and does not recognize the strait as territorial waters of Iran. Therefore, the United States makes its passages according to transit passage, which is the movement of a vessel from one part of the high seas/Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to another part of the high seas/EEZ. In transit passage, U.S. vessels and aircraft maintain normal operations, such as flying in a defensive formation.


In combination, these actions could further mitigate and deter Iranian maritime threats while supporting the IRBO. As a highly capable and influential naval force, the U.S. Navy should continue to strongly advocate for and lead maritime security efforts in the Persian Gulf and its adjacent seas. An increased naval approach to the region will provide the United States flexibility and mobility in addressing challenges. While Iranian maritime threats present an immediate challenge in the Persian Gulf, they also prompt larger questions about how the U.S. Navy can better address gray zone operations and hybrid aggression in the maritime domain. Considering the economic and military strength of the United States relative to Iran, the United States should focus on Iran to gain insights into effective strategies that could apply to similar challenges elsewhere, such as those posed by Russia in the Black Sea and China in the South China Sea.

Cameron Sothern is a 2021 graduate of the California State University Maritime Academy. He holds a BA in Global Studies and Maritime Affairs summa cum laude and has been accept to attend the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in November. 


[1] Barden, J. (2019, June). The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint. U.S. Energy Information Administration.

[2] Clark, B., Walton, T. A., & Cropsey, S. (2020). American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage. Hudson Institute, 72.

[3] Zarif, M. J. (2014). What Iran Really Wants: Iranian Foreign Policy in the Rouhani Era. Foreign Affairs, 93(3), 49–59.

[4, 7, 11] Defense Intelligence Agency. (2019). Iran military power: Ensuring regime survival and securing regional dominance. Defense Intelligence Agency.

[5] Mazaar, M.J. (2015). “Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict.” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. War College Press, p.1–7.


[8] Eisensdadt, M. (2020-b, January). Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran’s Asymmetric Way of War. The Washington Institute.

[9] Kurzman, C. (2013, October). Death Tolls of the Iran-Iraq War – Charles Kurzman. Death Tolls of the Iran-Iraq War.

[10] Office of Naval Intelligence. (2017). Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies ((DOPSR Case 17-S-0836)).

[12]  Ralby, I. (2017). Examining Hybrid Maritime Threats. Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence: Cutting the Bow Wave, 13–17.

[13-14, 20] Knights, M. (2021, March). Continued Houthi Strikes Threaten Saudi Oil and the Global Economic Recovery. The Washington Institute.

[15] U.S. Navy Office of Information. (2021, April). IRGCN Interaction with U.S. Naval Vessels in the North Arabian Gulf. United States Navy.

[16] U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs. (2021-a, May). Unsafe and Unprofessional Interaction with IRGCN FIAC in Strait of Hormuz. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

[17-18] Combined Maritime Forces. (2021, May). CTF 152: Gulf Maritime Security. CTF 152: GULF MARITIME SECURITY.

[21] U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs. (2021-b, May). USS Monterey Seizes Illicit Weapons in the North Arabian Sea. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

[22] Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 433.

Featured image: April 2020 – Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels approach the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) at close range while conducting joint interoperability operations in support of maritime security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

The Implications of Simultaneous Conflicts in South Korea and Taiwan

By Ki Suh Jung

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War. The following day, President Harry Truman ordered U.S. air and naval forces to support South Korea’s defense, which the United States would soon thereafter bolster with ground forces. On the same day, President Truman directed the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent any conflict between the Republic of China (henceforth Taiwan) and People’s Republic of China (henceforth China), each of which had been vying to unify with the other under its leadership. Had China taken advantage of the U.S. focus on the Korean peninsula by launching a large-scale invasion of Taiwan (for which it had been preparing), U.S. leadership would have faced the difficult decision between leaving Taiwan to fend for itself or diverting resources from the Korean War to support Taiwan. Although the United States was able to deter China from invading Taiwan in 1950 despite its concurrent commitment of forces to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, it may not be so successful today or in the near future given the current trend in the balance of military power. Therefore, South Korea and Taiwan must develop credible self-defense capabilities with an eye toward future North Korean and Chinese threats to better support the joint response effort with the United States, which may find itself engaging in a two-front conflict.

Today, both the Korean peninsula and Taiwan Strait remain as flashpoints. South Korea and North Korea are still in a state of war with each other, and the risk of a forcible unification with Taiwan by China has been increasing in conjunction with China’s growing assertiveness in both rhetoric and action. If South Korea is attacked again, the United States has already committed to “mutually meet the common danger,” as stated in the two countries’ mutual defense treaty. While the United States does not make a similar commitment to Taiwan – the U.S.-unilateral Taiwan Relations Act only states that the United States will “maintain the capacity…to resist any resort to force…on Taiwan” – President Joe Biden has thus far for Taiwan. Also, a recent survey showed that the majority of Americans would favor defending Taiwan with U.S. forces if China were to invade the island. Certainly, neither Biden’s statements nor the survey results equate to a shift in the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” but they do indicate that in a Taiwan Strait contingency, U.S. leadership will seriously consider the level of support for Taiwan, as it did during the mid-20th century.

If the challenges facing the United States in those flashpoint areas have largely remained unchanged, so have the opportunities for China. A future Korean peninsula conflict would consume much of the focus and resources of the U.S. military in the region, which China can exploit to attempt to solve the Taiwan question. However, a scenario in the reverse sequence is also plausible. If China’s leaders determine that a peaceful unification with Taiwan will not be possible by 2049 – the date by which the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is to be achieved – they may decide to resort to force. If the United States commits forces in defense of Taiwan, North Korea may sense a weakness in the U.S.-South Korea alliance and also launch an attack on its southern neighbor. As China and North Korea are treaty allies, they may discuss, plan, and execute such a two-pronged attack specifically designed to split US forces. After all, in 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung sought and received approval from China’s (and the Soviet Union’s) leaders prior to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.

While there are presently no indications that a major conflict in the Korean peninsula is imminent or even brewing, the two Koreas have come close to war before, perhaps most recently in 2010 following the sinking of South Korean navy ship Cheonan and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Even as South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in pushes for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations in his final months in office, however, the two countries are seemingly engaged in an arms race, with North Korea recently having tested a hypersonic missile and South Korea a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

On the other hand, cross-strait relations have deteriorated in recent years and Taiwan has come to dominate the discussion surrounding the U.S.-China strategic competition. Amid revelations of U.S. forces training the Taiwanese military, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has expressed “faith” that the United States would support the defense of the island. China has reinforced its vows for unification with Taiwan with its military aircraft’s incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone at an unprecedented frequency and numbers as well as military exercises in the vicinity of the island. And unlike in 1950, when the U.S. military was undeniably superior to China’s, China has embarked on an impressive modernization streak and has “achieved parity with – or even exceeded – the United States in several military modernization areas.” If China is determined to unify with Taiwan by force, it will most likely be undeterred by a U.S. show of force.

How can the United States best prepare for two simultaneous major conflicts in East Asia? The answers are numerous and range from posturing additional forces in the region to securing commitments from other allies and partners to deter aggression from North Korea and China. Another key mechanism that must not be overlooked is incentivizing South Korea and Taiwan to acquire the appropriate capabilities required to specifically defeat North Korean and Chinese invasion forces, respectively. For South Korea, that might include anti-missile systems, platforms to counter maritime special operations forces insertion, and advanced weaponry and equipment for its ground forces. For Taiwan, acquisition of anti-ship and -air missiles and hardening of critical infrastructure may be the wisest investments. Taiwan has previously been criticized for both lackluster defense spending and purchasing tanks and howitzers with questionable operational value in the face of the growing Chinese threat, but relevant defense investments become dire when accounting for the potential division in U.S. attention and resources towards multiple contingencies.

The purpose of this article is not to specify which equipment South Korea and Taiwan must acquire; rather, it is to emphasize that the military equipment they do acquire must be based on North Korea and China’s current and future military capabilities that are expected to be employed for an attack on South Korea and Taiwan. By acquiring appropriate capabilities, the two countries will significantly raise the risk of attack by their adversaries, perhaps to the degree that they reassess the likelihood of a successful invasion. At a minimum, by developing the ability for a self-sufficient defense, South Korea and Taiwan will be helping themselves by enabling the United States to employ its limited resources efficiently to support the defense of the two countries, especially if anticipating simultaneous conflicts.

The acquisition of “flashy” capabilities may be tempting in general and more so if they are perceived to signify an advanced military; however, all military equipment has a limited scope, and acquiring a specific capability creates an opportunity cost that prevents a country from acquiring another, more-justified capability. This is an especially important point to consider for South Korea and Taiwan, which have an aggressive neighbor whose stated policy is to unify with each country.

In both the U.S.-South Korea mutual defense treaty and Taiwan Relations Act, the United States effectively declared that peace and security in the Western Pacific is of national interest and it will strive to maintain them; but the United States cannot go alone, and it needs allies and partners. South Korea and Taiwan can support this common endeavor by investing in the appropriate capabilities vis-à-vis their adversaries’. Such deliberate choices are not for the primary benefit of the United States, but for South Korea and Taiwan themselves. History hints that in the future, the fate of the two countries might be more-closely-linked than currently realized. For the United States to support the continued security and stability of the two countries and the greater region, South Korea and Taiwan must themselves make wise decisions to bolster their security.

Ki Suh Jung is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer with experience in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured image: U.S.-made CM-11 tanks are fired in front of two 8-inch self-propelled artillery guns during military drills in southern Taiwan on May 30, 2019. (Photo via Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)