Tensions in the Gulf continue to rise with another Iranian seizure of a merchant oil tanker. The confiscation of the Iraqi tanker follows two weeks of posturing after Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces seized a British tanker on July 19 for “failing to respect international maritime rules.” That incident came in response to British commandos detaining an Iranian ship near Gibraltar on July 4 suspected of smuggling oil to Syria. The importance of the Strait of Hormuz to world oil supplies is well documented, and history is familiar with naval coalitions escorting merchant tankers through the Gulf. However, recent calls for a new multinational mission in the Gulf have received a less-than-positive response. The ongoing events raise three important questions: Why can’t Arab navies provide security to merchant vessels? What is so difficult about forming and working as a coalition? And what may these events mean for the future maritime security in the Gulf?
Gulf Arab Naval Capabilities
Arab navies receive fewer resources and attention than their air and land counterparts. Most were created to serve in defensive coastal operations to deter or slow an Iranian attack. Despite Iran’s history of anti-ship mining, there remains a shortfall of mine warfare platforms in the Gulf. At the height of the Tanker War in the 1980s, the United States and its Arab allies operated 17 minesweepers in the region. Only 12 remain active today. The combined Gulf Arab states also operate only 12 frigates. In the cramped and shallow waters of the Gulf, shallow-water vessels like missile boats and patrol boats provide a major benefit to the user. Iran maintains a significant advantage in such ships, operating far greater numbers of warships, missile boats, and patrol boats than its Arab neighbors.
Recent arrangements by Gulf Arab states attempt to make up for this shortfall. The Saudi navy established joint ventures with French and Spanish companies to support naval engineering. It is also procuring approximately 50 new fast patrol boats from Germany. Saudi Arabia is paying Lockheed Martin $11.2 billion to build four modified versions of the United States’ Littoral Combat Ship. The United Arab Emirates also signed an $850 million contract with a French shipbuilder for up to four new corvettes.
Such measures may not be enough to affect the naval balance of power between the Gulf Arab states and Iran. The geography of the Gulf favors Iranian activities. Narrow seas, rugged coastlines, and scattered islands are conducive to disruption activities by the low-signature, fast-moving boats of the IRGC. Small populations and manpower shortages in the Gulf Arab states limit the number of ships that can be manned. For instance, the UAE can only field half of its corvettes at a time due to a lack of sailors. These factors, combined with a historical reliance on the United States to guarantee regional security, mean Gulf Arab navies lack the capabilities to lead a complex and enduring mission such as international merchant escorts.
Attempts at Coalition Formation
The United States has struggled to form a coalition to protect merchant shipping. President Donald J. Trump has argued for Middle Eastern countries and Asian oil consumers to play a larger role in Gulf security, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that London should take responsibility for protecting its merchant ships. Washington still seeks to form a coalition, dubbed Operation Sentinel, to deter Iranian activities but does not want to be the centerpiece. Various details about the mission have emerged, including the desire that an ally should lead the mission. The United Kingdom announced August 5 that it would join the United States in a “maritime security mission” and hopes to ultimately transition the operation to a European-led initiative. Actual details about the level of cooperation between the two navies are unclear, but the two governments and U.S. Central Command may be dropping the Sentinel title to attract more partners.
The United States intends to increase situational awareness, intelligence sharing, and communication among partner navies. Military leaders envision their role as a coordination and information exchange leader, equipping warships and merchant ships with cameras and sensors to monitor large portions of the sailing routes, analyze that information, and disseminate it to vessels and governments. The Center for Naval Analysis highlights the importance of information sharing as the “greatest force multiplier in meeting maritime security challenges.”
London initially shunned Washington’s requests to participate and instead looked to build a European maritime coalition. European countries had refused requests to cooperate with Washington’s measures for fear of being seen to support the U.S. pressure campaign against Iran. When the British government announced it would join the U.S. partnership, it emphasized that the United Kingdom would remain committed to the Iran nuclear deal and not participate in the U.S.-led sanctions and opposition to Tehran. Italy, Denmark, and France appeared willing to join the British in a European contribution to maritime security, though new arrangements between London and Washington may stifle these desires.
London’s decision corresponds with its renewed interest in Gulf security matters and could be an attempt to participate deeper in the region. British naval forces have demonstrated their ability to interdict hostile seizures by preventing Iran from stopping a British oil tanker. Through July, 35 British ships had been escorted through the Strait of Hormuz. While the Royal Navy possesses the capability to carry out maritime security missions, it faces capacity and resourcing challenges: It has fewer than 20 surface ships capable of patrolling the Gulf. Even with current desires for a surge, London has only been able to deploy a second warship.
One difficulty the United States faces in forming a Gulf coalition is locating available vessels from sympathetic navies. To participate, affected countries in Europe or Asia require a “blue-water” capability – large surface ships such as frigates and cruisers capable of sailing far from home. Few countries have significant numbers of these ships available, and fewer have excess ships available to deploy away from their shores. Japan has declined to contribute any ships to the operation, preferring to keep its forces closer to home in contested waters.
Other challenges are common to any coalition situation. The Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre-Narcotics in Lisbon, Portugal is a similar naval-oriented combined mission. Participating countries have different legal constraints and operating procedures. Units supporting the operation have both coalition and national priorities that may conflict with one another. Overclassification of intelligence and restrictions on information inhibit communication and the establishment of a common maritime picture. Other challenges include expected differences like language barriers, risk tolerance, and management styles. NATO, the oldest military alliance in the world, is still challenged by such issues. Despite years of warfare in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, frustration over national limitations, authorities, and missions frustrates senior government leaders.
An easier solution for a maritime coalition may be to build from existing task forces. The Combined Maritime Forces are a 33-country naval partnership consisting of three task forces that operate in the Gulf as well as the Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, and along the coast of Africa. Co-located with the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, the Combined Maritime Forces has almost two decades of coalition experience conducting counterterrorism, counterpiracy, and countertrafficking missions and promoting a “safe maritime environment.” One of its subordinate units, Combined Task Force 152, patrols the Gulf, promotes naval integration, and consists of units from the Gulf Arab states, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other partners. So far in 2019, the task force has coordinated more than 25 vessels from contributing states. Instead of spending diplomatic capital and hours establishing a new coalition, Combined Task Force 152 could be used as a framework for expanding maritime security operations.
Additional naval deployments from non-U.S. actors will likely become a norm as U.S. deployment rates fall and existing ships are redirected to the Pacific. Most visibly, the persistent presence of U.S. aircraft carriers has fallen in recent years. Earlier this summer, the United States redirected some assets to the Gulf but most were already deployed in nearby regions. This boosted the 5th Fleet to 23 ships, still a significant shortfall from the 37 that patrolled the Gulf in 1980.
Gulf Arab states appear to be pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, possibly indicating a lack of confidence in Washington’s ability to provide security while recognizing their own limitations. A delegation of Emirati coast guard officials met with Iranian border and coast guard officials for the first time since 2013 to discuss maritime border discrepancies and preventing illegal shipping. Oman also attended bilateral talks in Iran to discuss shipping incidents in the Strait of Hormuz.
China, a major Gulf oil importer, has hinted it may participate in a multinational security mission. Chinese ships are common to the region and could potentially take on a bigger role. China has sent more than 30 fleets to the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa to escort civilian ships and has a military base in Djibouti. These fleets have escorted more than 6,600 vessels since their first launch in 2008. The Indian navy announced that two of its ships and maritime surveillance aircraft are deploying to the Gulf, and security teams will embark on Indian oil tankers.
With the encouragement from Trump, Gulf maritime security may be morphing from a U.S. responsibility into a multinational responsibility. Countries may operate independently or magnify their efforts through cooperation, but some European countries may not be comfortable with diplomatic juggling between maritime security and the Iran nuclear agreement. Regardless, the difficulties the United States is facing in forming a coalition is a new development. The United States brings unique capabilities to military partnerships, including large numbers of units, a broad range of aircraft, numerous and varied intelligence collection platforms, and advanced communications infrastructure – the lack of which certainly degrades any combined operation. Its logistics support and ports will surely be required to sustain long-term operations by other participants. Operation Sentinel, or the renamed international mission that takes its place, may result in a formal military coalition or a routine coordination effort in the already cramped Strait of Hormuz. Coalitions, Gulf security, and naval cooperation are always difficult. Either path may have both the United States and European countries wishing for closer relations as they remember how much harder these missions are while operating alone.
These remarks do not reflect the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.