Following the harassment of a US flagged merchant vessel last week, and the seizure of a Marshall flagged vessel recently by Iran, the US Navy is preparing to escort all US flagged merchant vessels through the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow chokepoint that separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman.
Of course, this hearkens back to the late 1980s, when Kuwaiti oil tankers, frequently attacked by Iran, were reflagged under the US colors, and escorted by US Navy warships. That was Operation Earnest Will.
Iran, for the most part, shied away from direct attacks upon escorted shipping. They instead used Silkworm missiles to attack ships before the convoys formed up, resulting in Operation Prime Chance and Operation Nimble Archer, and they covertly mined the straits, which eventually resulted in Operation Praying Mantis.
Of course, that was back in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was willing to negotiate with the Iranians, but he wasn’t willing to put up with a lot of tomfoolery. After the drubbing the Iranians received in Praying Mantis, they greatly reduced their confrontations with the US for a considerable period of time. One suspects the current administration is somewhat less likely to militarily punish Iran for bad behavior.
Incidentally, the convoying operation just announced has us thinking once again of the very useful Cyclone class patrol boats, and it turns out, David Axe is featured in Rueters talking about them as well.
For more than a decade, a small force of 10 patrol boats has plied the shallow waters of the northern Persian Gulf, guarding Iraq’s strategic oil terminals and keeping an eye on Iranian military moves. The 10 Cyclone-class boats, based in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain, are some of America’s busiest warships and would likely be the first to see action if the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program ever turned violent.
For the vast majority of maritime security operations, you don’t need a major warship and its associated weap0ns, so much as you need the sensors, and most importantly, the physical presence. As someone once mocked the Air Force concept of “virtual presence*”, it’s “actual absence.”
The Cyclone PCs have a huge advantage over other warships available for escort duty. They’re there in the Gulf. And numbers matter. As a practical matter, the area a surface warship can surveil is pretty much the same, be it a Burke class destroyer, or a Cyclone PC. Yes, the Burke can better integrate outside information. But the organic surface sensors for both classes are pretty much the same- surface search radar, and binoculars. They both have roughly the same range. Given that a Burke ties up almost 300 sailors, versus about 28 for a PC, and you could buy replacements for all the current PCs for probably less than the cost of a single Burke, it plain makes sense to have a small fleet of them available for operations like this.
Further, using assets like the PCs for the actual escort (which would have had little difficulty dealing with the four small craft that actually seized the M/V Maersk Tigris) allows you to use Burkes or other major warships in wide support. That is, rather than tying down your most effective weapon to the slow convoy, it can maneuver to where it can best influence events, be it by conducting surveillance, or by actual combat, or simply by keeping it less vulnerable to Iranian weapons. Using the cheaper assets as an escort is an economy of force, and allows you to devote your prime assets to the main effort, which, should shooting start, isn’t so much actually protecting the convoy, as it is degrading Iranian capabilities. That is, attacking their assets.
What steps Iran will take next to counter us is an open question, but if I were on the NavCent staff, I’d sure take a look back at previous operations like Prime Chance and Nimble Archer.
*Virtual presence was an Air Force term for its ability to reach any point of the globe in a matter of hours. Which, when minutes count, the Air Force is only hours away.