Sunday, September 16, 2012

On the Brink of War: Armada of U.S. and British Naval Power is Massing in the Gulf

Sean Rayment is reporting for the UK's Telegraph:
Battleships, aircraft carriers, minesweepers and submarines from 25 nations are converging on the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in an unprecedented show of force as Israel and Iran move towards the brink of war.

Western leaders are convinced that Iran will retaliate to any attack by attempting to mine or blockade the shipping lane through which passes around 18 million barrels of oil every day, approximately 35 per cent of the world’s petroleum traded by sea.

A blockade would have a catastrophic effect on the fragile economies of Britain, Europe the United States and Japan, all of which rely heavily on oil and gas supplies from the Gulf. 
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most congested international waterways. It is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point and is bordered by the Iranian coast to the north and the United Arab Emirates to the south.

Can Iran close the Strait of Hormuz?

This is what I reported in the EPJ Daily Alert in November 2010:
This afternoon I attended a meeting where the speaker was Capitan Jeffrey Kline. Kline is the Program Director, Maritime Defense and Security Research Programs, Naval Postgraduate School. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Naval War College where he teaches, "Joint Analysis for the Warfare Commander".

While his speech was about piracy on the high seas, I took the opportunity after his speech to ask him about the Strait of Hormuz. The strait is a very strategically important waterway between the Gulf of Oman in the southeast and the Persian Gulf. A lot of oil passes through the straight, 20% of all world oil trade. You can't spend more than 5 minutes with an oil trader after bringing up the possibility of war with Iran before talk turns to the closure of the Strait.

There are many, many opinions as to the whether the strait can be closed. I even heard Boone Pickens (Who knows more about oil than any other man I have met) say at a Michael Milken Conference that he couldn't imagine that the strait could be closed, given that at its narrowest point, the traffic lanes are 6 miles wide.

I thought I would ask Kline, who might have a pretty damn good idea if the Straight could be closed by Iran. His answer was it could. When I asked him how long it would take, he said 3 or 4 days for Iran to position ships and lay mines. He did say that the blockade could eventually be broken, but it would depend upon international co-operation and that it would take "some time". He said that Iran has missiles onshore aimed at the strait that would have to be taken out, and that Iran had other sophisticated equipment in the area including drones that could listen in on ship communications. He said ship mine sweeping can also get "very tricky".
I am not sure  how much of Kline's analysis holds up if there is already a major joint U.S.-U.K.  presence in the area. My guess this would make the operation more difficult, but notice Kline did mention that Iran has drones that can listen to ship communications. Thus, if Iran is capable of knowing where U.S. and U.K. ships are presumably they will have limited ability to place some mines.


  1. Battleships? We have battleships?

  2. Geographically the strait is hard to block. The narrowest point is about 21 miles. But realistically for oil traffic the real width of the shipping lanes under normal conditions is narrower because of depth and obstacles.

    In the shipping lanes the strait is between 60 and 90 meters deep. Outside the lanes it varies from 25-30 meters nearer to the conventional lanes sloping upwards toward the shores on each side.

    Militarily, Iran would have to place tethered or powered mines not just in the normal shipping lanes but also a significant area around them to prevent bypass. This is because the lanes are not a hard limit to traffic, but a 'safety' limit. There are a lot of places a tanker can transit outside the lanes, but it involves much greater risk of running aground.

    To prevent clearance of the strait a power that wanted to block it would then also have to have direct and indirect fire observation of the sea obstacles - offensive submarines and anti-ship missiles.

    So, while it sounds easy, and easy for a politician to propose to block it by simply targeting any ships transiting the area, the real tactical means would be more difficult.

    Strategically, actually blocking the strait would be a disaster for Iran that would put them at War with ALL of the great powers of the world.

    The whole point of mines is that they are difficult to detect. So blockage necessarily means they have to allow commercial shipping to actually be destroyed there. This means oil-slick and all the ecological consequences, in addition to the geopolitical consequences.

    More, the whole point of the anti-ship missiles, submarines, and/or aircraft coverage of the sea-mines would be to fire upon any military ships that attempted to clear the mines. So, this involves acts of war directly against military assets that CAN eventually clear the strait. Moreover, it would be useless for a military to attempt to clear the strait if they were not subsequently prepared to remove the physical capacity to block the strait.

    It would rapidly (within a week or so) result in the total loss of the Irani Air Force, and likely every Naval base and Naval Port in Iran. Then over the next few weeks - months at the very outside - the complete loss of the Iranian Navy.

    Likely this would shortly thereafter be followed by a removal of coastal Iran from Iranian control in a horse-shoe shape with Bandar Abas at the top.

    Going this route would be too expensive for Iran.

    A more profitable course of action from their point of view would be to DISRUPT the strait periodically with threats, and or politically justifiable attacks on only selected targets. This approach makes use of the strait by those unfriendly to Iran EXPENSIVE while avoiding war.

    In short, a game of chicken.

  3. There may be a good deal of uncertainty about the time frames and the total effectiveness, but I don't think there's much doubt that Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz for a while, and that re-opening them would require substantial hostilities.

    But it would also be an act of desperation on Iran's part. Personally, I doubt that Iran would attempt it in the event of an attack by Israel unsupported by Western allies. They would probably respond against Israel and probaly Saudi Arabia, who would have to allow Israel the airspace for an attack. But I would think their response would be limited and definitely designed NOT to provoke any of the Western powers.