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Basing U.S. Ships in Nearby Waters to Counter Threats in the Red Sea

Red Sea Topic Week

By Michael D. Purzycki

American missile strikes on Houthi forces threatening shipping in the Red Sea show the Navy’s importance in protecting one of the busiest trade routes on the planet. Aggression by Iran and its proxy forces throughout the Middle East shows no signs of abating. In light of this reality, the Navy’s workhorses, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, likely look forward to more action in the region as their construction continues thirty years on. Despite countering China in the Indo-Pacific becoming the primary focus of maritime strategy and deterring Russian aggression, the U.S. still benefits from maintaining a naval presence in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula.

Getting vessels to the Red Sea and other bodies of water east of the Suez Canal is resource- and time-consuming. For example, it takes approximately 20 days for an aircraft carrier homeported in San Diego to reach the Middle East. Moreover, any vessel from the Pacific Fleet deployed to the Middle East will not be available to protect American interests and allies in the western Pacific. Should China invade Taiwan and the U.S. find itself needing additional destroyers, America’s ability to patrol the Red Sea would be severely limited.

U.S. vessels can also sail from the East Coast, crossing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean before transiting through the Suez Canal; however, American access to the canal is not guaranteed. Egypt’s economy is far from stable. In March 2024, Egypt accepted a multibillion-dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund to decrease its large national debt. Furthermore, despite being a longstanding U.S. ally receiving over $1B a year in aid from Washington, Egypt’s military is increasingly reliant on Russia for its weaponry. Meanwhile, a $28.5B surge of Chinese money in 2018 and 2019 made Egypt the number one Arab recipient of Chinese investment.

These factors make Egypt vulnerable to pressure from America’s rivals. For example, Egypt may face another wheat shortage, as it did in the early stages of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia could offer Egypt food aid in exchange for denying the U.S. access to the Suez Canal. Similarly, China could seek to pressure Egypt via “debt trap diplomacy,” placing the country deep in debt with the promise of relief if Cairo ceased being friendly to Washington. When sending vessels eastward through the canal, the U.S. Navy needs a backup plan.

The need for a U.S. naval presence in and around the Red Sea, combined with the uncertainty of America’s ability to regularly send vessels to that region, portends the basing of U.S. vessels in or around the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility. First, a willing host country must be found. While the Navy’s Task Force 59 demonstrated the ability of unmanned vessels to perform certain tasks in countering Iranian naval forces, the need to confront the Houthis, future Iranian proxies, or similar threats on land points to destroyers as the weapons of choice. Basing destroyers in the region rather than rotating them through would demonstrate the U.S. is committed to protecting global trade and confronting Iran’s threats to it, even as it sees the Indo-Pacific as the Navy’s primary theater in the coming years. It would also reduce transit times, increasing responsiveness while preserving hull service life.

The Navy need not be alone in basing forces in this part of the world. In a Brookings Institution paper, “How to Be a “Cheap Hawk” in the 2020s,” defense expert Michael O’Hanlon advocated basing U.S. Air Force tactical fighter squadrons in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. This would help the U.S. deter Iranian aggression without the burden of rotating Air Force F-15Es or F-35As to the Gulf from other regions, incurring significant logistical burdens with each rotation. The basing of naval vessels is complementary to this logic.

The deployment of U.S. destroyers to Naval Station Rota, Spain, for more than a decade provides an example of the value of a similar deployment east of Suez would bring. While their primary mission is missile defense, protecting NATO members against potential Russian attack, their proximity to North Africa and the Levant provides availability for contingency operations. For instance, they may perform missions similar to the anti-Houthi strikes, or to quell a resurgent Islamic State. Pleased with the capabilities provided by the arrangement, the Navy is increasing the number of destroyers based in Rota from four to six. The question of where American ships should be based is difficult to answer. Several possibilities present themselves, all of which have pros and cons. Perhaps the most glaring issue is that all the countries discussed below are within range of Iran’s ballistic missiles, some fitted with maritime seekers to target ships. While this is an issue worth considering, the benefits of nearby basing account for almost every contingency other than full-blown war in the region. Discussed below are four potential host countries.

United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)

The U.A.E. has major ports potentially available for basing U.S. ships. For example, Jebel Ali is the Navy’s busiest foreign port. Political factors work in the Navy’s favor. The U.A.E. and Bahrain were among the first Arab countries to sign the Abraham Accords, ending their longstanding non-recognition of Israel. It is also part of I2U2, a multilateral partnership consisting of India, Israel, the U.A.E., and the U.S. While not primarily a security partnership, it can facilitate security cooperation between countries whose interests sometimes align.

Security may be an issue in the U.A.E., especially regarding China. The U.A.E. collaborated with China to provide domestic network services, acquire drones, and develop artificial intelligence systems. In 2021, China was forced to abandon constructing a major facility in the U.A.E. after the U.S. alleged that it had military purposes. Before the U.S. decided to base warships in U.A.E. ports, it would need to ensure the U.A.E. took strong measures to prevent China from compromising its utility.


Oman may offer the best geographical location. It is close enough to the Iranian coast and the Red Sea so that U.S. ships based there could quickly transit between them. Tying Oman to the U.S. through basing, and possibly with a major non-NATO ally status attached, could make up for the fact that Oman has refused to sign the Abraham Accords. Furthermore, the United Kingdom operates a major military presence in Oman, offering a chance to further Anglo-American cooperation on Middle East security threats.

On the other hand, Oman has worked for many years to maintain good relations with Iran and the U.S. It may refuse to be forced to choose between one or the other. The fact that the U.S. used Omani facilities does not mean that the interests of Omanis and Americans are aligned.


If the U.S. is looking for a location more suitable for operations in the Red Sea than for countering Iran, Kenya would be a good choice. The country has the potential to be an important partner for the U.S. in and beyond Africa, and its international actions in recent years have frequently been conducive to American interests. In 2022, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations gave a stirring condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine. More recently, Kenya signed a deal with Haiti to allow Kenyan police officers to serve as peacekeepers in the troubled Caribbean country. A presence in eastern Africa can also help the U.S. counter China in the western Indian Ocean. Also, as with Oman, the United Kingdom maintains a military presence in Kenya, which the U.S. could potentially build on for Anglo-American cooperation in Middle Eastern and Indo-Pacific security efforts.

A drawback is that Kenya is further away from the Red Sea than Oman. Thus, while basing destroyers there could help counter threats in the Red Sea, it may do little to help deter Iran in the Persian Gulf. Also, Nairobi may not want to place itself firmly in Washington’s corner, as there would still be times when it wanted to maintain good relations with Moscow and Beijing.


If the United States wants to make India a major partner in its efforts to balance China throughout the Indo-Pacific, basing U.S. ships on India’s western coast would help while offering a location to enter the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea. India is already a major U.S. defense partner, a status similar to a major non-NATO ally. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), of which India is a member, emerged in recent years as an important theater for security cooperation by powerful democracies to balance China. Tightening security cooperation while basing naval forces in southern Asia to counter Iranian threats nearby would be of great benefit.

There are several risks to this idea. India is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum that includes Russia and China. India probably does not want to stray too far from good relations with Russia, still a major arms supplier. It would also not want to pigeonhole itself as a U.S. ally, despite its worries about China’s rise threatening its interests. Also, France is pursuing major arms sales with India. Drawing India too close to the U.S. could threaten to scuttle the French deal, potentially repeating the kerfuffle over the AUKUS security partnership.

This is not an exhaustive list of possible host nations. While each of these suggested locations has drawbacks, unconventional thinking by the Navy is called for when confronting asymmetrical threats like the Houthis. The Indo-Pacific’s status as the major region of American maritime engagement does not mean the U.S. can afford to ignore the Red Sea. Finding ways to tackle both at once is a goal worth pursuing.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Featured Image: The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun (DDG 103), top, operates in the Red Sea, May 1, 2023, while supporting the Department of State’s efforts to evacuate U.S. citizens and others from Sudan.

Panda Express: A Proposed Convoy Operation in the Red Sea

Red Sea Topic Week

By Clay Robinson

It was a sunny morning with calm seas on March 6, 2024, a fine day for sailing the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Aden. The crew of M/V True Confidence, however, were on edge: less than 10 hours before, their ship had come under attack from a Houthi-launched Iranian missile. Through sheer luck, the missile missed its intended target, and the ship continued its westerly journey bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At 11:34 AM, the crew’s luck ran out: another Houthi missile ripped through the deck house, exploding in a massive fire ball that set the bridge ablaze.1 Two innocent civilian mariners were killed and four more critically injured. The captain ordered the fifteen surviving crew to abandon ship, leaving it adrift and in flames, yet another victim of the Houthis’ senseless and indiscriminate violence. 

Red Sea Fast Pass: Chinese Opportunism

Even as the tumultuous situation in the Red Sea takes ever more deadly and dangerous turns, China continues to sit idly by and reap the economic and diplomatic benefits thanks to the Houthis’ Iranian patronage and their own calculated self-interest. While much of the world’s shipping has been forced to take longer and more expensive routes to avoid Houthi missiles in the Red Sea, Chinese shipping continued virtually undisturbed, protected as it were under a modern day “non-aggression pact” between China and Houthi forces.2 However, just a few days after the Houthis granted this assurance to China that their ships would not be targeted in exchange for political support, on March 23, 2024, a Houthi missile struck the Chinese-owned M/V Huang Pu.3 Houthi spokesmen were unusually tight-lipped4 after this attack, likely the result of severe chastisement behind the scenes by both China and Iran, and will take extra efforts to avoid targeting Chinese shipping in the future.

It is not clear yet whether this Houthi attack should be attributed to an administrative oversight, missing that M/V Huang Pu’s ownership had recently transferred to China. Or perhaps the Houthis were targeting another vessel nearby. Either way, the safest place to transit the Red Sea is now onboard Chinese-owned ships.

The combination of the Houthi’s public agreement with China to not target their shipping and the likely private reprimand after striking the M/V Huang Pu sets up a scenario whereby Chinese shipping will be getting a free pass through the Red Sea. That provides China a significant competitive advantage at the precise moment its economy is starting to falter. There is a way, however, to both remove that advantage and force China to abide by its international obligations.

The time has come to exact a cost on this unbridled Chinese opportunism.

Panda Express: A Proposed Convoy Operation

The idea is simple: vulnerable multinational commercial vessels would closely shadow Chinese ships as they transit safely past Houthi missile launchers in a convoy-type operation. The Houthis, knowing their targeting is lacking, would refrain from shooting lest they accidentally hit a Chinese ship and anger both Beijing and Tehran. The U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces or the European Union Naval Forces’ Operation Aspides are the most obvious candidates to organize such a convoy – nicknamed Panda Express – but arguably it could be self-organizing or organized under an alternative multinational coalition. The shipping industry could institute a loosely organized program to surreptitiously appropriate passive escort of commercial vessels by Chinese vessels sharing the same shipping lanes. In short, these vessels will shadow Chinese vessels at a safe but proximate distance such as to keep the Chinese vessel between them and the direction of the Houthi missile threat. A limited handful of multinational commercial vessels will transit under the shield of the security that each of the Chinese vessels enjoy, taking advantage of a reliable and predictable, yet passive escort courtesy of China.

The current situation (Figure 1) consists of multinational commercial vessels transiting independently under the impressive but less-than-omnipresent protection of the multinational warships participating in Operation Prosperity Guardian and Operation Aspides. These warships endeavor to intercept Houthi missiles and attack drones targeting commercial shipping.

Figure 1: Status quo of Operation Prosperity Guardian. (Author graphic)

A brief vignette will serve as an example of what Panda Express might accomplish. Prior to a southbound transit of the Red Sea, a multinational commercial vessel will loiter temporarily at the southern end of the Suez Canal, awaiting the passage of another southbound Chinese vessel. This will occur ostensibly every few hours as an average of over five Chinese vessels transit the Suez Canal per day.5 The multinational vessel will then take station on the starboard quarter of the Chinese vessel at a safe distance, but in close proximity such that a sort of passive, perhaps even unwitting, screen of the vessel by the Chinese vessel will occur (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Panda Express concept. (Author graphic)

Some might argue that Panda Express would put innocent civilian mariners at risk by shadowing Chinese merchant vessels, and from a practical standpoint, that threat would exist. But therein lies its value as a deterrent because the Houthis have already stated that they will not attack Chinese shipping. As the two vessels reach the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, air defense vessels of Operation Prosperity Guardian and Operation Aspides can provide a more robust ability to detect and engage any Houthi missile that might be close enough to discern the multinational vessels from the Chinese one. Once through the western reaches of the Gulf of Aden and outside the threat area, the vessel can once again resume navigating independently.

Panda Express leverages opportunities fomented by China for both a protective and influence advantage. This concept is not an evaluation of the technical aspects of a possible tactical advantage on a notional battlefield. Assessments would need to be made about just how close these vessels would have to transit near their Chinese escorts to achieve sufficiently low levels of probability hit (PH) or probability of kill (PK) for inbound Houthi missiles. Similarly, there would be limits to how many vessels could safely transit in company with each Chinese vessel. This concept is rather about taking advantage of the deterrent value of the present situation and using it as a way to exact diplomatic costs on China for sticking to its opportunistic agenda in the Middle East. This is a way to erode China’s economic and diplomatic advantages by highlighting China’s malign opportunism and providing safe passage through the Red Sea. Panda Express is a low cost, legal, and pragmatic way to compete with China.

What will Panda Express accomplish? This escort tactic would begin to serve as a strategic deterrent against Houthi attacks in three ways. First and foremost, the risk of the Houthis accidentally hitting a Chinese vessel while targeting other vessels one would be too great, and it would deter attacks on any ships traveling in close company with Chinese ships. Additionally, Panda Express could reduce the strain on the contingent of warships supporting Operation Prosperity Guardian and Operation Aspides that are spread very thin by helping to better position these assets in order to more efficiently focus their layered defense on the places where they can be most effective. Lastly, diplomatically, China could be held accountable for malign hedging behavior and an opportunistic silent partnership with Iran. Panda Express could drive China to increase pressure on Iran to rein in all Houthi attacks, not just prevent attacks on Chinese vessels.

How long could Panda Express be sustained? There are risks to be sure, but most are worth accepting. China might stop sending its ships through the Red Sea, but this is extremely unlikely. The Suez Canal and Red Sea serve as the primary route for China’s westward shipments of goods, including around 60% of its exports to Europe, representing one-tenth of the Suez Canal’s annual traffic.6 China cannot afford to avoid the Red Sea route altogether.

The maritime shipping industry can determine that the cost of loitering at the entrances to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to wait for Chinese escort are too high. Yes, loitering temporarily for a few hours costs some money, but it is also likely to be far less than transiting around the Capes of Africa.

All this cat and mouse activity on the high seas might lead to collisions between vessels, but these are professional mariners with years of experience plying these waters. They can handle it. And, if Chinese ships were to be instructed to somehow attempt to disrupt this passive escort program, it will only cost them more in time and money.

China: A Silent Partner in the Axis of Insecurity

Is Panda Express worth it? Some points to consider: Chinese leaders have repeatedly claimed they hold very little sway over Iran, and by extension the Houthis; however, several key factors seem to indicate otherwise, and China’s opportunistic fingerprints are all over the Red Sea crisis. China asked Iran to rein in the Houthis.7 China is not alone in asking Houthis to cease the attacks.8 Yet, the Houthis publicly stated only Chinese and Russian ships have a free pass.9

China knows its ships are safe, too. Despite having a significant naval presence in the region, China has kept its Naval Escort Task Force (NETF) out of the Red Sea, choosing instead to loiter in the safer waters of the eastern Gulf of Aden. In late February, the Chinese Defense Ministry denied the 46th NETF deployment is related to the Red Sea crisis and reiterated that it is a “regular escort operation.”10 That none of these NETF vessels are needed in the Red Sea to ensure the safe passage of Chinese shipping is proof China knows its vessels are exempt from Houthi attack.

China does indeed have influence over Iran and, by extension, the Houthis in what has now become an “Axis of Insecurity.” Panda Express would reduce the likelihood of new attacks like that on M/V True Confidence and M/V Huang Pu and put direct pressure on China to either explain to the court of international opinion why shadowing Chinese vessels is a safe tactic, or influence Iran and the Houthis to end their aggression in the Red Sea altogether. Either way, China loses, and the rest of the world wins. It’s time to order Panda Express.

Commander Clay Robinson is a retired surface warfare officer and antiterrorism/force protection specialist. He has worked for the U.S. Department of Defense since 2017 as a strategic planning specialist and is currently an Adjunct History Instructor with the U.S. Naval Community College. He served on board the USS Russell (DDG-59), USS Laboon (DDG-58), and USS Nitze (DDG-94), and commanded Maritime Civil Affairs Squadron One (MCAS-1).


1. Jonathan Saul, “Ship evacuated after first civilian fatalities in Houthis’ Red Sea attacks,” Reuters, March 7, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/ship-evacuated-after-first-civilian-fatalities-houthis-red-sea-attacks-2024-03-07/.

2. Sam Dagher and Mohammed Hatem, “Yemen’s Houthis Tell China, Russia Their Ships Won’t Be Targeted,” Bloomberg, March 21, 2024, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-03-21/china-russia-reach-agreement-with-yemen-s-houthis-on-red-sea-ships

3. Luther Ray Abel, “Chinese Tanker Struck by Houthi Missile,” National Review, March 24, 2024, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/chinese-tanker-struck-by-houthi-missile/

4. Heather Mongilio, “Chinese Tanker Hit with Houthi Missile in the Red Sea,” USNI New, March 24, 2024, https://news.usni.org/2024/03/24/chinese-tanker-hit-with-houthi-missile-in-the-red-sea

5. “Suez Canal Blocking Could Hike Freight Fees between China and Europe If Not Cleared Soon: Analyst,” Global Times, March 24, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219372.shtml.

6. Amr Salah Mohamed, “China’s growing maritime presence in Egypt’s ports and the Suez Canal,” Middle East Institute, November 3, 2023, https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinas-growing-maritime-presence-egypts-ports-and-suez-canal.

7. Parisa Hafezi and Andrew Hayley, “Exclusive: China presses Iran to rein in Houthi attacks in Red Sea, sources say,” Reuters, January 25, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/china-presses-iran-rein-houthi-attacks-red-sea-sources-say-2024-01-26/.

8. Burak Bir, “24 countries condemn Houthi attacks in Red Sea,” Anadolu Agency (AA), January 24, 2024, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/world/24-countries-condemn-houthi-attacks-in-red-sea/3117236.

9. “China and Russia Get a Free Pass Through Houthis’ Red Sea Blockade,” The Maritime Executive, January 23, 2024,


10. Zhao Ziwen, “Why China’s Red Sea diplomatic mission is unlikely to stop Houthi shipping attacks,” South China Morning Post, March 4, 2024, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3253641/why-chinas-red-sea-diplomatic-mission-unlikely-stop-houthi-shipping-attacks.

Featured Image: Photo of the MV True Confidence after it was struck by a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile in the western Gulf of Aden, March 6, 2024. (Photo courtesy U.S. Central Command)

Evaluating the Naval Response to the Red Sea Crisis

Red Sea Topic Week

By Colin Barnard

Though Alfred Thayer Mahan is famous for his advocacy of strong naval fleets to win decisive battles at sea, he saw the enduring purpose of navies as something much broader and not constrained to war: enabling and, if necessary, disrupting maritime trade. Even though Mahan could not have imagined autonomous weapons, the Houthis’ campaign against merchant shipping in the Red Sea would have been familiar to him. Whatever technology is used, however, maritime trade has been disrupted before; and, as before, the U.S. Navy and several of its allies are fighting to enable it, demonstrating the Navy’s enduring purpose for all to see. This analysis evaluates the naval response so far, from cooperating with merchant shipping, the cost effectiveness and vulnerabilities of using warships and missiles to counter drones, and the role of allies, to the potential implications for a future conflict with China and current efforts in defense innovation to prepare for it.

Cooperating with Merchant Shipping

Threats against merchant shipping are not new: pirates, German U-boats, and even other merchant ships have disrupted merchant shipping in the past. Navies, coast guards, and the international shipping community have long feared the potential for terrorists to exploit the vulnerability of merchant ships in one of the world’s many maritime chokepoints, of which the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea is one of the most critical. A terrorist group backed by Iran, the Houthis have exploited the geography of the Red Sea to their advantage, targeting shipping to disrupt trade with disproportionate impact in order to effect political change–i.e., hindering Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Protecting shipping from such terrorism is a job for naval forces, but they must cooperate with merchant shipping in doing so, as they have in the past.

Enter Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS). An important NATO doctrine, NCAGS provides NATO navies with the tools to cooperate and guide merchant shipping during crisis and conflict. Its shortfalls arise because of the voluntary nature of this relationship. Though shipping can never be guaranteed full protection–especially without troops on the ground to mitigate land-based threats–navies must provide value to the shipping industry if it is to trust and rely on them for what protection they can provide. While the NCAGS doctrine has been practiced by NATO navies for decades, it does not seem to have worked as designed in the Red Sea. Early in the crisis, Reuters reported that shipping was “in the dark” on U.S. and allied naval efforts to counter Houthi attacks. The always candid John Konrad, founder and CEO of gCaptain, took to Twitter to highlight the perils of this apparent disconnect.

While communication between the NCAGS enterprise and shipping was likely better than publicly available information suggests, as Nathan Strang claimed, it would not be unreasonable to suggest the need for a closer relationship between the two. If they are not already, industry liaison officers could be used to better link the U.S. Navy and shipping, and foreign area officers could help allies get on the same page. Public affairs officers also have a role to play. If the NCAGS enterprise was doing its job per Strang, but efforts were difficult to surmise because of classification, carefully crafted news releases about these efforts could have helped put shipping at ease. Depending on NATO’s role in such a crisis, the NATO Shipping Center, NATO’s single point of contact for the international shipping community, would be the best link between the two. NATO has come to aid of merchant shipping before, even when the threat was outside its area of responsibility; and crises like this would help shore up its relationship with shipping in the event of crises or conflict closer to home.

Cost Effectiveness and Vulnerabilities: Destroyer vs. Drones

At the same time naval forces are demonstrating their enduring purpose in the Red Sea, outsiders are questioning the sustainability of manned, multi-billion warships facing off against much cheaper, unmanned drones. The missiles used to shoot down these drones cost upwards of $4 million, while the drones themselves cost only hundreds of thousands. But the issue of cost effectiveness in asymmetric warfare is not new. In the land campaigns of the Global War on Terror, for example, costly munitions were expended in the targeting of much less costly targets. That cost effectiveness is suddenly an issue for public discussion during a maritime campaign is yet another example of seablindness, but the concern is reasonable. Unmanned and easy to replicate, drones can be used to exhaust more expensive naval munitions before attacking warships directly without putting the drone operator at risk. The discussion of cost effectiveness has, therefore, extended to the vulnerability of warships.

This vulnerability was the subject of a recent article by Brandon Weichert, who bemoaned the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer as “a great navy warship past its prime.” Current and former naval officers were quick to criticize the article, which uses the 2000 attack on USS Cole as its prime example of such vulnerability but says nothing about weapon posture or layered defense (the Cole was moored in Yemen for refueling and unready when the attack occurred). While warship vulnerability against drones is concerning, all of history’s advances in weapon technology elicited similar concern. From the longbow and machine gun to the submarine and nuclear bomb, these advances created asymmetry even among peers, and only democratization of these technologies restored the balance. In the meantime, it should be obvious that the best course of action, as the United States (and now UK, too) is following, is to target bases and operators before drones become a threat–though it is doubtful that such strikes alone will be enough to make a difference.

While the Houthi’s use of autonomous systems is the latest example of their democratization, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was the first indication of such democratization on a mass scale, as well as the first instance of these systems being a decisive factor in war. Prior to the 2020 conflict, autonomous systems—drones—were the purview of major powers with the money to procure and employ them. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan employed them as a force of their own, devastating Armenian air defenses, tanks, artillery, and supply lines without putting traditional aircraft or their pilots in harm’s way. Similarly, in the Russo-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian forces have all but stopped the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, using drones to disrupt and in some cases destroy Russian warships. As John Antal warned in his detailed analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, autonomous systems, now employed by state and non-state actors alike, are here to stay. 

Absent Allies and Coalitions of the Willing

Due to the impact of Houthi attacks on world trade, the U.S. and several of its allies formed a coalition of the willing to respond to the crisis. Like the international response to piracy in the Horn of Africa, international naval cooperation has become a rule rather than an exception in the post-Cold War era. Globalization has necessitated this cooperation, increasing the impact of the threats to, and mitigations of maritime security relative to more traditional threats. But unlike the response to piracy, which saw NATO, the EU, and even China, India, and Russia deploy forces to protect maritime trade, NATO is notably absent from this crisis. The Israel-Hamas conflict has divided many allies on their response to the Houthi threat, even if all are affected by the disruption of merchant shipping in the Red Sea. NATO has the means to make a difference in this crisis, but politics as usual are in the way.

As of this writing, 14 states are supporting the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian. Of these 14, only eight are NATO members–the United States included. The EU’s Operation Aspides has even fewer supporters, though they include some of the NATO members absent from Prosperity Guardian. Of course, not all states supporting Prosperity Guardian are contributing warships; but the presence of staff officers, as Norway is contributing, will enhance cooperation. One of the merchant ships attacked early on in this crisis was Norwegian-flagged, incentivizing this contribution, but the general threat posed to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea should be incentive enough for all capable states to contribute. As should be obvious even to the seablind, the impact of supply chain disruption as seen during COVID, the grounding of the Ever Given, and, more recently, the destruction of the Francis Scott Key bridge, necessitates their contribution.

Whether or not it ultimately contributes to the crisis response, NATO must once again confront the challenge of deterring and defending against its perennial foe, Russia, while also contributing to maritime security. Worrisomely, NATO’s Allied Maritime Strategy is out-of-date. Its latest Strategic Concept, released in 2022, refocuses on Russia while maintaining NATO’s role as a maritime security actor; but it poorly articulates the maritime dimensions of NATO’s security environment. NATO is, first and foremost, a maritime alliance, and it needs a maritime strategy to guide its force structure and operational concepts. Such a strategy is more important considering the potential for a future conflict with China. If the U.S. Navy and potentially other NATO navies must surge to the Pacific, alliance buy-in will be needed to manage the varying threats to maritime security in and near NATO’s area of responsibility.

Implications for a Future Conflict with China 

As the U.S. Navy and coalition members stand off against Houthi drones (and missiles) in the Red Sea, the implications for future conflict are worth examining. As in the Russo-Ukrainian War, drones have reduced asymmetry in this crisis; and they were decisive in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Clearly, such technology must be at the forefront of the U.S. Navy’s planning for a future conflict with China, which has the industrial capacity to produce drones in far greater quantities than so far exhibited. Updates to strategy and the fleet design it informs need to be quick, as warships, submarines, aircraft, and their integration with this technology cannot happen overnight. The new U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations, Lisa Franchetti, called this state of affairs a “1930s moment.” In the 30s, the U.S. Navy was too small and insufficiently resourced for the coming Second World War, and the U.S. Navy is not much different today (shipbuilding delays being one of the most troubling examples).

While the U.S. Navy’s strategy prior to the Second World War was centered on battleships, as Franchetti explained, it shifted from this platform-centric strategy to one integrating naval forces above and below the sea to defeat the Nazis and Imperial Japan. The next shift in strategy is clearly toward autonomy. The Navy is already making significant efforts to this end. The Replicator Initiative, focused on commercially sourcing and mass producing drones to take on China, is the overarching example of these efforts. The Navy’s unmanned  Task Force 59 in the Middle East is the prime example of the Navy’s role at the pointy end of this strategy, developing and implementing its tactics. Likewise, other branches, especially the U.S. Marine Corps, are making efforts to better design themselves for next generation warfare. How exactly this next generation warfare will look is still unclear, but drones are likely to be used to counter drones. The era of drone-on-drone warfare is near.

One of the biggest lessons to be learned from the drone warfare experienced so far is offense-defense balance. Drones add to an already saturated battle space, increasing the burden on layered defenses. Leveraging emerging technology to improve offensive capabilities is critical, but defensive capabilities must be given corresponding weight. Importantly, however, neither offensive nor defensive capabilities need to be wholly reliant on emerging technology; “old ways” may prove to be more effective than imagined, as they were for Lieutenant General Van Riper in the infamous Millennium Challenge. The novel 2034, co-authored by retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman, imagines how these old ways might make the difference in a conflict with China, should new technology be defeated. New technology might win some wars and mitigate certain crises; where it is not the deciding factor, however, old ways—or some combination of the old and new, as is currently on display in Ukraine—may be.


Navies are demonstrating their enduring purpose in the Red Sea Crisis, but their response has been far from perfect. The seemingly strained relationship between navies and merchant shipping evident early in the crisis is concerning, but establishing better relationships between the two using liaison officers and the NATO Shipping Center–if NATO involves itself—could help in the future. The cost-effectiveness and vulnerabilities of the naval response are also concerning, as is the absence of certain allies. Regardless, the drone technology at the center of this crisis is here to stay, and the implications for a future conflict are the most concerning of all. Defense innovation efforts are already underway to prepare for such a conflict, but over reliance on emerging technology to go on offense, without simultaneously preparing for defense, could be fatal. Going forward, navies are at the center of these challenges, especially war with China. Thankfully, the Red Sea Crisis could prove their perfect test.

Colin Barnard is a PhD candidate at King’s College London and foreign area officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, currently assigned to a unit supporting U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy. He was formerly on active duty for ten years, during which he supported U.S. and NATO operations across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. He has previously written for CIMSEC and the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: The British-registered cargo ship Rubymar sinking, after it was targeted by Yemen’s Houthi forces in international waters in the Red Sea, on March 3, 2024, in the Red Sea. (Photo by Yemeni Al-Joumhouriah TV)

‘This Presence Will Continue Forever’: An Assessment of Iranian Naval Capabilities in the Red Sea

By James Fargher

International attention has focused on the possibilities of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz, and the catastrophic effect a blockade would likely have on global energy supplies. Even a temporary closure or military disruption in the waterway would cause energy prices to soar and could politically destabilize the Persian Gulf region. Far less attention has been paid to Iranian activity in the Red Sea, however, despite the crucial importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to world oil shipments. In 2013, an estimated combined total of 8.3 million barrels of oil passed through Bab-el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal at either ends of the Red Sea, making it the world’s third-busiest maritime oil transit chokepoint.1 A limited military conflict in the Sea or the presence of naval mines would cause major disruption to European energy supplies and would force oil tankers to take the much longer southern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In this event, oil prices would likely rise dramatically and remain high until security in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait was restored.

Iran has regularly deployed naval forces to the Red Sea since 2011. Although Iranian naval doctrine has typically concentrated on closing the Straits of Hormuz using asymmetric forces, more recent efforts by Iran’s naval leadership to project naval power beyond the Persian Gulf have resulted in a frequent Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea remains an important route for Iranian weapons smuggling to militants in Gaza and Syria,2 and senior Iranian naval officers have announced plans to maintain a permanent maritime presence in the region.3  At present, Iran does not possess the same level of naval capability in the Red Sea and the Gulf as it does in its coastal waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, given the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to global oil shipments, it would appear that more research is needed to assess Iran’s ability to disrupt shipping from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.

This article aims to outline Iran’s military capabilities in the Red Sea and the southern approach to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. It relies principally on open-source information published on the Islamic Republic’s naval forces, and attempts to make realistic projections about Iran’s ability to intercept the Suez shipping line, which remains limited at present. Even in the case of the much more heavily-guarded Strait of Hormuz, it is generally acknowledged that Iranian forces could only hope to close the waterway for a matter of days or, at best, a few weeks, given its crucial importance for Western oil supplies.4 Attacks on oil shipments to Western Europe and North America in the Red Sea would risk triggering a devastating Western response, and it is not clear whether the Iranians would be prepared to do so. Moreover, in the event of a conflict with Iran, clashes would almost certainly be primarily focused on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would likely be a secondary theatre. This analysis therefore attempts to understand what forces Iran would be able to deploy to the area in the event of conflict, and how effective they might be in closing the strait.

This essay begins with a review of recent Iranian involvement in the Red Sea beginning in 2011, as well as its current naval policy towards the region. It will then give a brief overview of Iran’s current naval forces at Iran’s disposal, and will discuss the types of vessels and weapons Iran is capable of deploying to the Red Sea. In so doing, this article will attempt to give a broad summary of Iran’s likely present military capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the kinds of threats which ships in the Red Sea could expect to face in the event of a conflict.

Iranian Involvement in the Sea

Between 1979 and 2011, there was no confirmed Iranian naval activity in the Red Sea. Iran was suspected to have supported a terrorist group which in 1984 claimed it had laid nearly 200 naval mines in the sea, but Tehran denied any involvement.5 In February 2011, however, a small flotilla of Iranian warships was dispatched on a mission to Syria, marking the first time that Iranian vessels had entered the Red Sea and transited the Suez Canal since the 1979 Revolution.6 Several months later, in July the Iranian government announced its intention to deploy one of its submarines on a patrol of the Red Sea. After completing its cruise, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy, declared that the Kilo-class submarine “could finish its 68-day mission in international waters with full preparation despite all sanctions and through the effort of domestic specialists.”7 Subsequently, at the end of 2011, Iran held naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, with units deployed in the Gulf of Aden as far as the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The purpose of this exercise, declared Tehran, was to show “Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and to test the newest military equipment.”8

After a year-long hiatus, Iran once again deployed units to the Red Sea in January 2013. The Iranian government reported that it would be sending its 24th Fleet on a three-month patrol of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea before transiting the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.9 Citing the need to protect its vessels from pirate attacks, Iran established its own small anti-piracy task force in the Gulf, and in March 2014 purportedly defended an Iranian tanker from an attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.10 In 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi fighters captured the strategic island of Perim in the Strait, and Sayyari announced that “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Navy has deployed in the North of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and this presence will continue forever.”11

These moves came as part of a wider Iranian drive to expand its regional influence by developing its blue-water capabilities. Iranian warships entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time in the Navy’s history in 2013, and dispatched a vessel to South Africa in 2014.12 The Iranian naval leadership has placed particular effort on projecting naval power onto sea lanes in the Arabian Sea,13 and as a report produced by the American intelligence firm Stratfor concluded, “Iran’s navy cannot project enough power to control key shipping lanes, but Tehran has emphasized its presence around Bab-el-Mandeb as a possible means of disrupting global trade in the event of an attack on Iran and a key point for negotiations in the future.”14

Stratfor’s report also highlighted Iran’s use of the Red Sea as an important shipment route to provide arms to its proxies and allied militant organizations in Gaza and Syria. Rockets bound for Hamas fighters, for example, were discovered in a ship on course for Port Sudan, where they were due to be unloaded and shipped across the Egyptian border to Gaza.15 Israeli aircraft have attacked alleged weapons convoys travelling from Sudan to Gaza, and the Red Sea forms a crucial link in this illicit supply line.16 Iran’s overt involvement in the ongoing Yemeni civil war has further increased the importance of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Tehran’s strategic aims.17

ARABIAN SEA (March 31, 2016) A cache of weapons is assembled on the deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107). The weapons were seized from a stateless dhow which was intercepted by the Coastal Patrol ship USS Sirocco (PC 6) on March 28. The illicit cargo included 1,500 AK-47s, 200 RPG launchers, and 21 .50 caliber machine guns bound for Yemen. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

In addition to using Sudan to supply weapons to its proxies, Iran has been cultivating good relations with Eritrea, which controls the remaining two large ports in the Red Sea.18 Iranian ships frequently dock in Massawa and Assab, and Iran is believed to be concentrating on building its regional influence with key East African states.19 Indeed, as early as 2008, rumors surfaced that Iran had secretly established a naval base in Assab. Whilst there is some satellite evidence suggesting that Iran has established a permanent naval facility in the port, these rumors cannot be confirmed.20

Iran’s Naval Forces

The Iranian fleet is divided between the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval Forces (IRGCNF). 18,000 sailors are enlisted in the regular navy, whilst the IRGCNF is comprised of 20,000 sailors and 5,000 marines.21 Iran has seven frigates and 32 fast-attack missile craft designed for green-water service which form the core of its surface fleet, all armed with the C-802 Noor long-range anti-ship missile.22 Iran has also invested in a large flotilla of small craft, ranging from offshore patrol boats to armed motorboats and dhows, intended for coastal service and for mounting swarm attacks in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has a squadron of five minelayers, as well as several mine countermeasures vessels, which can be supplemented by its small craft in laying naval mines in the Strait.23 The Iranian submarine service is made up of a total of 29 submarines, divided between the IRIN and IRGCNF.24 Five of these submarines are capable of operating in blue water, and the rest appear to be designed for service in the Persian Gulf. A number of ships and submarines are currently under construction, although information about these vessels remains limited.

The IRGCNF is tasked primarily with defending the Iranian coast and for interdicting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. IRGCNF controls Iran’s asymmetric capability force, including its small attack craft, suicide vessels, and batteries of relatively short-ranged anti-ship missiles. IRGCNF bases are located in the Persian Gulf, and as its focus is limited to Iran’s littoral zone, its vessels are constrained by a smaller operating radius than the regular surface fleet. The IRGCNF also commands over 17 Qadir­-class and Nahangclass midget submarines, the majority of Iran’s submarine force, which are designed for service exclusively in the Persian Gulf.

By contrast, the IRIN controls Iran’s blue-water capabilities. Although both the IRIN and IRGCNF share responsibility for protecting the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, since 2011 the IRIN has begun to focus on expanding Iran’s regional maritime reach. In the event of a conflict with the United States or with Iran’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals, the main Iranian effort would likely be focused on closing the Strait of Hormuz and on attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. Most of these operations would fall under the responsibility of the IRGCNF, which has the capability to interdict shipping through the Strait with its small vessels and missile batteries. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, however, falls out of the operating range of most of the IRGCNF’s vessels, and so any operations in the Red Sea or the upper Gulf of Aden would be undertaken by the IRIN.

Surface Ships

According to IISS’ Military Balance, the core of the IRIN’s main surface fleet consists of two Jamaran-class light frigates, three Alvand-class frigates, and two Bayandor-class patrol frigates. Five of these ships date from the 1960s; the Alvand ships were bought as refitted Vosper Mark 5 frigates from the Royal Navy in 1971,25 and the Bayandor ships were purchased from the U.S. between 1964 and 1969.26 The Jamaran frigates are based on the basic Vosper Mk 5 design, although unlike the Alvand and Bayandor ships, they are armed with anti-air defenses. The Jamaran-class is thought only to be armed with two single SAM launchers, firing the SM-1 anti-air missile which was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in 1967.27 The lack of anti-aircraft capabilities indicates that Iran’s core surface vessels are dangerously exposed to air attack, critically limiting their ability to be deployed outside the umbrella of Iran’s coastal defense anti-air batteries.

Iranian navy frigate IS Alvand passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal in February 2011 (AP)

All three classes are armed with the C-802 (CSS-N-8 Saccade) long-range anti-ship missile.28 The C-802 was developed by China to upgrade its own naval surface-to-surface missile (SSM) capabilities, and it is believed to be extremely accurate.29 The missile is powered by a turbojet with a range of at least 120km and carries a 165kg warhead.30 The C-802 is sea-skimming, and a successful Hezbollah attack on an Israeli missile ship in 2006 using the C-802 seriously damaged the Israeli vessel.31

Fourteen of Iran’s smaller missile boats also carry the C-802, although the remainder are armed with the C-704 Nasr short-range SSM.32 The Nasr is a domestically-manufactured missile with a range of 35km and a 150 kg warhead, capable of sinking medium-sized vessels.33 Three of Iran’s frigates received upgraded fire controls to better utilize the Nasr, but the Iranian missile stockpile is thought to be quite limited and mostly concentrated in coastal batteries.34

In theory, Iran could use its surface ships to mount a blockade of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by attacking ships attempting to pass through the Red Sea. The main Iranian surface fleet clearly has the operating radius to project power into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and its ships are armed with sufficiently long-ranged missiles to engage tankers in the narrow confines of the southern Red Sea. However, the extreme vulnerability of these ships to air attack with their lack of air defense cover suggests it is highly unlikely that these vessels would be capable of maintaining a blockade for long, or would even be risked attempting to do so. The disastrous losses inflicted on the Iranian fleet during the 1988 tanker war by U.S. aircraft highlighted this weaknesses, and prompted Iranian strategists to focus on asymmetric forces as an alternative.35 With both an American F-15 squadron based in Camp Lemonnier36 and ships from EUNAVFOR Atalanta stationed in Djibouti,37 it is doubtful whether any hostile Iranian surface ships would be able to successfully interdict Red Sea shipping.

Submarines and Mines

Since 1988, the main effort by the Iranian naval leadership has concentrated on building up Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, including acquiring a strong submarine force.38 Although most of Iran’s submarines are small or midget craft designed for operations in the shallow waters of Persian Gulf, Iran does possess at least four blue-water submarines.39

Three of these are diesel-electric Kilo­-class submarines, purchased from Russia in the 1990s.40 The Kilo-class was designed as a quiet attack submarine, but because they were intended for colder climates, Iran’s three Kilos do not operate well in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. For this reason, whilst they are currently based in the main Iranian naval station at Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz, a new submarine base for them is reportedly under construction at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman.41 Not much is yet known about the fourth submarine, the lead boat of the domestically-produced Fateh-class, but it is designed for service in blue water.42

The three Kilo submarines represent Iran’s main operating capability in the Red Sea. Whilst its surface ships are hampered by their vulnerability to air attack and small operating range, the Kilo-class submarine is designed for extended operations in open waters.43 Each Kilo is thought to be armed with wake-homing torpedoes, and they can carry a total payload of 24 mines, deployable through the torpedo tubes.44 A batch of 1,000 mines was included in the original purchase from Russia.45

Since then, Iran is estimated to have built up a stockpile of at least 2,000 mines, including the M-08 contact mine, the MDM-6 pressure mine, and the EM-52 smart mine.46 The Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are too deep for the M-08 contact mine, which operates at depths of up to 110 meters, but potentially within the range for both the MDM-6 and EM-52.47 The EM-52 is a particularly lethal threat, as it is laid on the sea floor and is a guided, rocket-propelled warhead. It is also powerful enough to penetrate a carrier hull.48

Seafloor mines are especially challenging to detect; it took a Royal Navy minesweeper six days to detect a single Iranian smart mine in the Red Sea in the 1980s.49 Caitlin Talmadge, in her analysis of Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, calculated that a task force of 12 NATO ships managed to clear an Iraqi minefield at a rate of 1.18 mines per day, a rate that was unusually fast and done under ideal conditions.50 Given the rugged geography of the Red Sea’s floor and the proliferation of smart mines, it is not clear whether another task force would be able to clear an Iranian minefield at the same rate.

However, the Kilo class is aging, and these vessels are vulnerable to U.S. and British hunter-killer groups. The proximity of Western forces to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the strategic importance of the Red Sea to Western interests suggests that the Kilo submarines would probably only get one voyage to the Red Sea before being neutralized in the case of hostilities. If Iran deployed all three of its blue-water submarines, which is unlikely, they could sow 72 mines at most. If a naval task force was to achieve the same rate of minesweeping as in Talmadge’s analysis, it would take 61 days to clear this minefield completely. Nevertheless, it is improbable that the Iranian leadership would risk all three of its largest submarines on such a risky, possibly one-way mission, and similarly it is unlikely that minesweepers would be able to operate with the same speed in the Red Sea as in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, a rough estimate of Iran’s submarine capabilities and mine stock would indicate that a single Kilo submarine with a well-trained crew could close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait for at least a week in an attempt to divert attention away from combat in the Persian Gulf.

Ballistic Missiles

Iran does not at present have any fixed-wing aircraft with sufficient range to operate from Iranian bases to the Red Sea. Besides its naval capabilities, it can only reach the Red Sea with ballistic missiles. Iran currently has nine types of missile able to reach the Red Sea; the Shahab-3, -4, -5, and -6, the Ghadr-101 and 110, the IRIS, SAJIL, and the new Emad rocket.51 All of these classes have the range to strike targets in the Red Sea, and all can reach the waterway within ten minutes of being launched.52

A variant of the Emad missile, the long range Shahab-3. (UPI/Ali Shaygan/Fars News Agency)

As a general rule, Iran’s long-range missiles are extremely inaccurate and are designed to hit strategic targets, not individual ships transiting the Red Sea.53 The sole exception is the latest Iranian missile, the Emad, which was designed as Iran’s first precision strike system. The Emad is equipped with an advanced guidance system in the nose cone, and has a reported accuracy radius of 500 meters.54 It also carries a 750 kg warhead with enough explosive power to cripple or sink even a heavy oil tanker.55

Whilst the Emad represents an improvement in Iran’s ballistic missile capability, it is not clear how effective it would be as an area-denial weapon in the Red Sea. It does not appear to be accurate enough to target individual ships, and it will take several years to perfect the guidance technology.56 Furthermore, in order to reach the Red Sea, a costly Emad missile would need to transit across the Arabian Peninsula through Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. The possibility of using ballistic missiles to attack Red Sea shipping is therefore remote.


Iran’s ability to interdict shipping in the Red Sea is limited by its aging surface fleet and by the small number of submarines and missiles it can deploy to the waterway. Despite Iran’s growing interest in expanding its influence into the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the southern Red Sea as a means of securing its regional power, its current naval forces are tasked primarily with shutting the Strait of Hormuz.

Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations, the Iranians do have a narrow range of capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Although its surface fleet is unlikely to risk its assets by deploying surface vessels so close to U.S. and Saudi airbases during wartime, Iran has demonstrated that it can send submarines on extended cruises of the Red Sea. Its aging Kilo-class submarines are equipped with sophisticated mines in quantities which would take weeks to clear, and could be used to apply pressure on both the U.S. and Western Europe as well as the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf. Iran is already suspected to have laid mines in the Red Sea in the 1980s, and it is capable of doing so again – either as a means of leveraging its position in the Greater Middle East, or as a way to disrupt oil shipping and to open a new theater of operations in the event of a war with its regional rivals.

James A. Fargher works as an intelligence analyst at a political risk firm in the UK, and is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. James holds a BA from Drew University and an MA in modern history from King’s. He specializes in Imperial history and naval theory, with a particular focus on the Red Sea region. 


1. Alexander Metelitsa & Megan Mercer, ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoins Critical to Global Energy Security,’ Today in Energy, US Energy Information Administration, 1 December 2014.

2. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.

3. ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

4. Caitlin Talmadge, ‘Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz,’ International Security, 33:1 (Summer 2008), 84.

5. Gerald F. Seib and Robert S. Greenberger, ‘Iran’s Signals Mixed on Mines in the Red Sea,’ The Wall Street Journal, 8 August 1984.

6. ‘Israel anger at Ian Suez Canal warship move,’ BBC News, 16 February 2011.

7. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.

8. ‘Iran Navy to Hold War Games Near Crucial Sea Lanes,’ The New York Times, 23 December 2011.

9. ‘Iran navy to deploy 24th fleet to Mediterranean Sea – commander,’ BBC News, 16 January 2013.

10. ‘Iran Navy counters pirate attack against oil tanker in Red Sea,’ BBC News, 4 Mach 2014.

11. ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

12. ‘Islamic Republic of Iran Navy IRIN / Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/navy.htm.

13. Tarek Fahmi, quoted in ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

14. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. ‘Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war – sources’, Reuters, 22 March 2017.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 328.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. ‘Alvand Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/alvand.htm.

26. ‘Bayandor Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/bayandor.htm

27. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.

28. Ibid.

29. ‘C-802 / YJ-2 / Ying Ji-802 / CSS-C-8 / SACCADE C-8xx / YJ-22 / YJ-82,’ Global Security, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/c-802.htm.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.

33. ‘Kosar / Nasr,’ Global Security, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/kosar.htm.

34. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 104.

35. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities,’ 21 August 2015, accessed on 22 June 2016, http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/iran-submarine-capabilities/.

36. Craig Whitlock, ‘Remote U.S. base at core of secret operations,’ The Washington Post, 25 October 2012.

37. David Styan, ‘Djibouti: Changing Influence in the Horn’s Strategic Hub,’ Briefing Paper (London: Chatham House, 2013), 4.

38. NTI, ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities’.

39. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ 329.

40. ‘Kilo Class Submarine,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/kilo.htm.

41. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities’.

42. ‘Fateh (Conqueror / Victor) “semi-heavy” submarine,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/fateh.htm.

43. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.

44. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ 329.

45. ‘Kilo Class Submarine,’ Global Security.

46. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 92.

47. Anthony H. Cordesman with Aaron Lin, The Iranian Sea-Air-Missile Threat to Gulf Shipping (Washington: Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2015), 21.

48. Ibid., 108.

49. Ibid.

50. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 95.

51. Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman, ‘GCC-Iran: Operational Analysis of Air, SAM and TBM Forces,’ Centre for Strategic & International Studies (Washington: CSIS, 2009), 37.

52. Ibid., 127.

53. Sam Wilkin, ‘Iran Tests New Precision-Guided Ballistic Missile,’ Reuters, 11 October 2015.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

Featured Image:Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard ride in their boat alongside an Iranian naval vessel (AFP: IRNA)