The USS Porter, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, collided with a Panamanian flagged bulk oil tanker M/V Otowasan in the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 1 a.m. local time Sunday, according to U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
When an obviously lost tourist approached Arthur Rubenstein on a Manhattan street and asked how to get to Carnegie Hall, the piano virtuoso replied: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So it is for the U.S. Navy and partner navies’ mine countermeasures (MCM) forces operating in the Arabian Gulf in mid-2012. Hosted by the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT), the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 (IMCMEX 12) is an international symposium and associated afloat exercise of mine countermeasure capabilities, scheduled for 16 to 27 September at multiple locations in the USNAVCENT area of operations. MCM assets from more than 20 countries on four continents will participate, making it the largest MCM exercise to date.
The operation is “a defensive exercise aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in international waterways in the Middle East,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said. Washington has warned Tehran not to mine the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which the Islamic republic has threatened to do unless international sanctions against its nuclear program are pulled back.
Although IMCMEX 12 is taking place in the Arabian Gulf, it won’t be conducted in the Strait of Hormuz, said Lt. Greg Raelson, Commander Fifth Fleet public affairs in a 20 July telephone interview. “The exercise focuses on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.”
A version of this story originally appeared in June. It has been updated by the author to reflect recent events.
Iran threatens to mine the Strait of Hormuz, petroleum markets react, world economies take notice, and more U.S. and allied naval forces are sent to the region, upping the ante for Tehran and the U.S. Navy.
Iran’s top naval commander, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, late last year warned that closin the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” The Obama administration publicly dismissed the threat as “aber rattling,” but also privately informed Tehran that attempting to close the strait would trigger a U.S. military response.
“The laying of mines in international waters is an act of war,” Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said in a Feb. 12 interview.
“We would, under the direction of the national leadership, prevent that from happening. We always have the right and obligation of self-defense and this falls in self-defense. If we did nothing and allowed some mining,” he noted, “it would be a long and difficult process to clear them.”
Whether an “act of war” or not (the international rules — admittedly more honored in their breach than observation— do allow for peacetime mining of high-seas areas under certain strict conditions. Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to U.S. and international sanctions over its nuclear program.
Reports in early June indicated that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in the early stages of developing nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. The initial response from many observers, myself included, was to concentrate on the mechanics. Iran has no tradition of building submarines, apart from a few mini-subs and, apparently, plans for a 1,000-ton “semi-heavy” boat. Iran’s navy thus has no working Nautilus onto which to retrofit a nuclear plant. There are no shortcuts.
Iranian Kilo-class Nahang-class diesel submarine
Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has no tradition of naval nuclear propulsion. Combine the naval-architecture challenge with the nuclear challenge, and Tehran’s entry into the SSN club confronts steep engineering and financial barriers. Considering these barriers and the time it will take to surmount them, it appears whimsical for Iranian officials to assign much priority to an SSN program.
On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that it appeared far-fetched to think China would invest lavishly in refitting an unfinished, 20-year-old hulk of an aircraft carrier it had purchased for scrap. And yet it did. Today the ex-Varyag plies the sea as a training platform for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. We kid ourselves if we project our own assumptions and cost-benefit calculations onto foreign nations with very different histories, customs and worldviews.
Tension levels between Iran and the U.S. are high after Iranian officials voiced threats to cut off the Strait of Hormuz with sea mines in December. As the U.S. and Israel become more vocal about limiting Iran’s ability to develop its nuclear program, Iran has threatened to disrupt the oil supply that passes through the strait. From miniature submarines, to mines and the U.S. Navy’s response what follows is an analysis of the threat Iran could potentially pose to merchant and naval vessels. ~Editor, Sam LaGrone
View Iranian Navy in a larger map
A U.S. Naval Institute overview of Iranian naval forces and capabilities and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Information from the upcoming Combat Fleets of the World 16th Edition, Jane’s World Navies, the U.S. Navy and globalsecurity.org.
Icons from mapicons.nicolasmollet.com
“Any ship can be a minesweeper –- once,” goes the old naval joke, but top American commanders in the Middle East are not laughing. Amid the roller coaster of tensions with Iran and a new high-level order to confirm that it can “shoot straight,” the Navy is beefing up its mine warfare capabilities in the Persian Gulf.
Big surprises often come in small packages and the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) seems to be betting on this adage with its accelerated acquisition of midget submarines in recent years. Open-source reporting indicates that Iran now possesses at least 14 Yono-class mini-submarines. Iranians say these North Korean-designed boats are now being indigenously manufactured in their domestic shipyards. Called the Ghadir-class, production has accelerated since the reported launch of the first Iranian-manufactured unit in 2007 with four of these units launched in 2010 and, according to Jane’s Fighting Ships, another two were launched in the past year.
The lethal threat loaded in this small package is illustrated by the March 2010 attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan. The North Korean torpedo attack on the Cheonan broke the ship in half and killed 46 ROK sailors. Forensic evidence, provided by an international team of weapons experts, subsequently revealed that it was a North Korean manufactured CHT-02D acoustic-wake homing torpedo that was used to sink the South Korean ship. The connection to the threat from Iran’s Yono submarines is that many analysts suspect that it was a North Korean Yono mini-sub that launched the attack on the Cheonan. Each North Korean Yono mini-sub is believed to be armed with two such CHT-02D (21-inch) heavy weight torpedoes. It is likely the Iranian Yono units are likely to be armed with the same type of torpedoes.
The IRIN also has three relatively modern, Russian-built, Kilo-class submarines that were purchased in the 1990s. However, the recent emphasis on mini-subs may indicate either a shift in tactics and/or dissatisfaction with the Kilos. The cost, or size and complexity of the Kilos may have caused the IRIN and Islamic Republic of Iran Revolutionary Guard Navy force to seek a more reliable and tactically compatible alternative. The Yono mini-sub is by all observations better matched to the challenging conditions for submarine operations in the gulf than the much larger Kilos. Just as the North Koreans have found the utility of mini-subs in the shallow waters of the Yellow Sea, the Iranians seem to be following suit in the Persian Gulf.
Iran seems to be putting their money where its mouth is when it comes to procurement. By all appearances its investments are matching its naval strategy of waging a guerrilla war at sea. For instance, the procurement of the Yono class boats is paralleled by reported investments in anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines and the modification of hundreds of fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft armed with a wide variety of antiship weapons. The ambush tactics for which the mini-sub is designed seem to fit the pattern of recent Iranian weapons procurement and their expressed interest in building a robust anti-access/area denial capability. The relatively short range and endurance of the Yono-class boats makes these units compatible with the Iranian Navy’s coastal defense mission and their presence puts teeth into Iran’s claims to being able to close the vital Strait of Hormuz. It is also noteworthy that as a less than capital asset, these platforms are potentially more expendable than a high value asset like a Kilo submarine. The proliferation of these units, like that of their mini-warship FAC/FIAC cousins, suggests that the Iranian Navy may be willing to lose a few of these units in defense of the nation.
The proliferation of these units presents a number of tactical challenges to the US Navy. As with FAC/FIAC, there is a definite tactical quality to quantity. The sheer number of small but lethal threats that have to be considered when operating in the Persian Gulf, when added up, creates an overall high threat environment. Just like FAC/FIAC, only one Yono needs to slip through a friendly force defensive perimeter and get within torpedo range to possibly achieve success. The threat to friendly vessels is further exacerbated when operating within the confines of the Persian Gulf where, in most areas, the threat axis represents a 360 spin of the compass. Further complicating the problem for blue forces is the inherent difficulty in detecting these small targets amidst the flotsam and jetsam of the cluttered Persian Gulf waters. One conclusion is certain–the development of squadrons of mini-subs and FAC/FIAC are a warning sign that asymmetric threats are on the upswing in the Persian Gulf.
Iran threatens to mine the Strait of Hormuz, petroleum markets react, world economies take notice, and more naval forces are sent to the region, upping the ante for Tehran and the U.S. Navy.
Iran’s top naval commander, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, late last year warned that closing the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” The Obama administration has publicly dismissed the threat as “saber rattling,” but also privately informed Tehran that attempting to close the strait would trigger a U.S. military response.
“The laying of mines in international waters is an act of war,” Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said in a Feb. 12 interview.
“We would, under the direction of the national leadership, prevent that from happening. We always have the right and obligation of self-defense and this falls in self-defense. If we did nothing and allowed some mining, it would be a long and difficult process to clear them.”
Whether an act of war or not (the international rules––admittedly more honored in their breach than observation––do allow for peacetime mining of high-seas areas under certain strict conditions), Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to Western sanctions over its nuclear program.
But the ultimate impact of such an escalation––if only in rhetoric––is unclear. According to a Jan. 23 report by the Congressional Research Service “…as in the past, the prospect of a major disruption of maritime traffic in the Strait risks damaging Iranian interests. U.S. and allied military capabilities in the region remain formidable. This makes a prolonged outright closure of the Strait appear unlikely. Nevertheless, such threats can and do raise tensions in global energy markets and leave the United States and other global oil consumers to consider the risks of another potential conflict in the Middle East.”
A key transportation route for a daily flow of 17 million barrels of oil––about 35 percent of world seaborne petroleum trade––according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Strait of Hormuz is approximately 175 nautical miles in length and narrows to 21 nautical miles wide, making it an “international strait” under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Such international straits, which are completely enclosed by the 12-mile territorial seas of the littoral states, have special protections under the UNCLOS regime, even as the United States has yet to ratify the treaty.
Since the end of World War II mines have seriously damaged or sunk four times more U.S. Navy ships than all other means of attack combined. Fifteen of 19 ships have been mine victims. And that doesn’t include many more ships sunk or damaged by mines, from the Corfu Channel crisis of 1946 to the Arabian Gulf Tanker War of the 1980s to the Tamil Sea Tigers sinking of the MV Invincible in 2008.
During the Tanker War in the Arabian Gulf, Iraq and Iran indiscriminately deployed several types of mines, including variants of the 1908 Russian-design contact mine that nearly sank the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in April 1988. After the United States agreed to provide protection for convoys of oil tankers, the first convoy ran into trouble when the U.S.-flagged supertanker MV Bridgeton struck a mine that blew a large hole in its hull. Almost immediately, the U.S. Navy surface warships fell in line abaft Bridgeton, giving lie to the adage that every ship can be a minesweeper once. If more mines were present, Bridgeton was to clear the way.
In 1990 and 1991, Iraq deployed more than 1,300 mines in the northern gulf––including a weapon never before seen in the West. In the early morning of 18 February 1991, the USS Tripoli (LPH-10), which had embarked airborne mine-countermeasure helicopters, struck an Iraqi contact mine; four hours later, the Aegis cruiser Princeton (CG-59) fell victim to a Manta mine, a “mission-kill” that took the cruiser out of the war and cost about $100 million to bring her back on line. More to the point of the impact of a possible Iranian mining campaign in 2012, it took the Multinational Coalition forces more than two years of intensive mine-countermeasure operations to declare the northern Gulf mine free.
According to then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, in 2009 more than 1 million mines of 300 types were in the inventories of more than 65 navies. Russia had about 250,000 mines. The Chinese navy was estimated to have about 100,000 mines, including a rising mine that could be deployed in waters deeper than 6,000 feet. And North Korea had about 50,000 mines. All three sell weapons to virtually any navy or terrorist group, anywhere, any time, as do another 17 or so countries.
Iran has acquired a stockpile of 3,000 to 6,000 mines, mostly of Soviet/Russian, Chinese or North Korean origin. Most are unsophisticated but still dangerous bottom-moored buoyant contact mines, like those that damaged Roberts and Tripoli. Other mines, like the Manta that struck Princeton, are bottom mines that come to rest on the bottom and wait for a target to satisfy various parameters. These influence mines fire when increasingly sophisticate target detection devices sense magnetic, acoustic, seismic, water pressure, electric-potential signatures of their victims.
One Iranian mine, the Chinese-produced EM-52, is a multiple-influence (acoustic, magnetic, pressure) rocket-propelled straight-rising mine, armed with a 600-pound high-explosive warhead, that can be deployed by surface vessels in waters as deep as 600 feet.
The inventory also reportedly includes about 600 advanced, multiple-influence mines bought from Russia, including the MDM-3 that can be dropped from an aircraft.
Mines can be put in place by virtually any submarine, surface and airborne platform. To mine the entirety of the Strait of Hormuz effectively would take thousands of mines and several weeks if not longer. Iran could use Kilo-class submarines, which can carry 24 mines. But a larger operation would have to involve small craft and possibly commercial vessels, as well. A 2010 report by the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis shows these Iranian mine-laying platform capacities:
Physics will help bound the problem. Generally, the water depth of the strait varies from about 200 feet to 300 feet, but its approaches from the northwest are shallower, on the order of 120 feet deep. In the strait itself, depths can reach 1,000 feet and currents make deploying bottom mines an uncertain tactic. If deployed in deep water, even large-warhead bottom mines would have limited effect of surface traffic.
Libya’s mining of the Red Sea in the summer of 1984, for example, used East German-export multiple-influence bottom mines completely unknown in the West. Ships that detonated mines in deeper water had much less damage than those in shallower water. (A total of 23 ships claimed to be mine victims, although four were assessed later to be insurance scams.)
Not that bottom mines wouldn’t be employed where it made operational sense, but Iran would likely rely on bottom-moored contact mines that lurk close to the surface but remain difficult to detect and defeat.
Mines are only one element of Iranian anti-access/area-denial weapons, which include speedboats armed with guns and missiles, small and mini-submarines armed with torpedoes, shore-based anti-ship missiles, and aircraft.
In response to Iran’s mine-rattling, the Navy is deploying four additional Avenger-class MCM ships to the region, for a total of eight Avengers, as well as two more MH-53E airborne MCM helicopters added to the two already in-theater. The additional units will be based in Bahrain, home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “I came to the conclusion we could do better setting the theater,” Chief of Naval Operation Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Navy budget hearing earlier this year. “I wanted to be sure … that we are ready, that our folks are proficient, they’re confident, and they’re good at what they do in case called upon.”
The Navy has also announced that the USS Ponce (LPD-15) is being refitted to support naval forces in the region, primarily focused on the MCM mission. An interim Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), her “main battery” will be AMCM helos and support craft. This, too, has been done before, with the conversion in the mid-1990s of the USS Inchon (LPH/MCS-12) as an MCM command-and-control ship.
In addition, the naval MCM “order of battle” include several Royal Navy MCM vessels and Royal Australian Navy assets, as well as MCM capabilities of America’s regional maritime partners.
“It’s a volume issue more than a technical challenge,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Liebold, the skipper of the USS Gladiator (MCM-11), one of the Bahrain-based Avenger MCM vessels, told The Huffington Post. “My concern is going out there and having to search a large volume of water with large quantities of mines,” said Liebold, who has done three MCM deployments to the gulf.
Though easily detectable, the laying of several hundred mines in a matter of days could have a significant, albeit only temporary, effect on commercial and naval mobility. More broadly, however, the impact on world petroleum markets is unclear. During the Red Sea/Gulf of Suez mine crisis of 1984, commercial and naval traffic continued unabated, despite reports of underwater explosions, and world petroleum prices were virtually unaffected.
“Conventional wisdom might suggest that the initiation of hostilities in the Strait of Hormuz or Persian Gulf would stop or significantly deter the flow of maritime traffic through the strait,” Cmdr. Rodney A. Mills wrote in a 2008 Naval War College study, “but the ‘Tanker Wars’ between Iran and Iraq in 1980s show a different behavior by the shipping industry. During the eight years of the conflict, 544 attacks were carried out against all shipping in the Gulf, including more than 400 civilians killed and another 400 injured. However, after an initial 25 percent drop, the shipping industry adjusted to the risk and the flow of commerce resumed. Despite the threat, oil and other maritime commerce continued to flow even as the conflict intensified through 1987, when a total of 179 attacks were carried out, or roughly an attack every other day.”
In short, while Iran’s mines might not be show-stoppers, they certainly can be speed bumps that attack strategies, plans and timelines, in addition to ships and submarines.