The Falklands, Asymmetric Naval Warfare, and Iran

Yesterday, we read a very interesting piece in CIMSEC about tensions in the South Atlantic between Argentina and Great Britain. While we’ve maintained for some time that Argentine does not currently have a legitimate military capability to seize the Falkland Islands, Alex Calvo proposes some scenarios that would greatly complicate Great Britain’s hold on the territory:

The question is then, could Argentine choose asymmetric non-lethal force over conventional rearmament? A number of scenarios come to mind, from the occupation of a minor island by activists, special forces, or a combination of  both, to the operation of trawlers escorted by non-naval state vessels. Things may get more complex with the involvement of third parties. Could Argentina grant a Chinese company a licence to explore for oil in the Falklands’ EEZ? Or to fish there? Could Buenos Aires then deploy non-naval state vessels (coastguard units or simply law enforcement personnel on board civilian vessels) to protect Chinese trawlers or even a rig?  To make things more complex, Taiwanese trawlers operate in the region, under license by the Falklands Government.

China might be tempted to take up such an offer just to tweak the West’s nose. China, of course, has been using asymmetric non-kinetic naval power in the Western Pacific for some time now, and for arguably good reason.

China has been pretty good about not actively involving itself in its neighbors, actually. And from *China’s* perspective, the establishment of hegemony over the SCS and other first island chains is merely prudent DEFENSIVE planning. Early warning outposts, and establishment of strategic depth. They don’t see what they’ve been doing as offensive. And given the history of China being occupied in whole or part by everybody and their dog, to include even the damn Italians in the last century or so, it makes sense from where they sit.

And then there is Iran. Iran has long wanted to establish itself as a regional hegemon. Iran has, since the 1979 revolution, consistently made themselves a pain concerning shipping the the Arabian Gulf, particularly near the Straits of Hormuz.  The most obvious example of this policy was the 1987-88 Tanker War, but harassment has  continued at lower levels since then. Iran fared badly after Operation Praying Mantis in retaliation for their mining of the waters, and was relatively quiet for some time. Lately, however, they’ve been ratcheting up their mischief.

Today news comes that Iranian forces have seized a Marshall Islands flagged merchant vessel, the M/V Maersk Tigris, firing shots across its bow, and directing it toward Bandar Abbas.

The Marshall Islands are technically an independent and sovereign state. They’re also members of the Compact of Free Association, which is almost a kind of quasi-protectorate status with the United States. That is, they aren’t Americans, but for practical purposes, the US is the guarantor of their security interests.

Of course, the M/V Maersk Tigris isn’t really a Marshallese ship. It is operating under what is known as a flag of convenience. It’s really a Danish ship. But it is cheaper to register the ship with the Marshall Islands (or some other country- Panama and Liberia are popular nations for flags of convenience). Maersk pays less for registration, and the Marshall Islands get a nice little sum of money for not a lot of effort. I would be quite surprised if there were even any Marshallese aboard.  A lot of merchant shipping worldwide is crewed by nationals from places like Indonesia, the Philippines, and other third world nations, where what you and I would consider low wages are quite ruminative to them.

Still, it’s the sovereign flagged vessel of a nation which we, the United States, have agreed to act as shield and sword for. I suppose there might be some valid reason for Iran to seize the vessel, but you and I know that’s highly unlikely. The US has dispatched a warship to “monitor” the situation. Of course, it should take action to re-seize the vessel, but that simply won’t happen with the current administration.

As an acquaintance on Facebook noted, this is more than likely a counter to the recent US intervention to turn back Iranian ships en route to Yemen, not to mention leverage during the talks about just how to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons without appearing to be even more craven. 

Having behaved badly here, with little or no consequence, Iran will almost certainly be emboldened to act ever more brazenly.