Tag: Arabian Sea

U.S. Navy Intercepts Iranian Weapons Shipment to Yemen

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by…

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by the crew of USS Normandy (CG 60), a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser. The CG 60 launched a search party that boarded the stateless dhow and found a cache of weapons. The maritime security operation was conducted under international law.

The weapons seized from the dhow consist of:

  • 150 “Dehlavieh” missiles, which are the Iranian version of the Russian-made “Kornet” anti-tank missiles;
  • Three unidentified Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles;
  • Thermal imaging scopes;
  • Components of manned and unmanned aerial systems and surface vessels;
  • Munition;
  • Other weapon parts. 

Many of these weapons systems are identical to the advanced weapons and weapon components seized by the guided-missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98) in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 25, 2019. Those weapons were determined to be of Iranian origin and assessed to be destined for the “Ansar Allah” militia (the Houthis) in Yemen, which would be in violation of a UN Security Council Resolution 2216 that prohibits the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of weapons to the Houthis. The same resolution encourages all states to inspect the sea and air cargo to Yemen.

The seized weapons are in U.S. custody awaiting final disposition. The assessment of the material will be an interagency and international effort. International partner nations and organizations have also been invited to inspect the cache.

IRANIAN WEAPONS SMUGGLING OPERATION IN YEMEN

Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ external operations branch, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), has illegally transferred large quantities of weapons to Houthi rebels. Tehran’s giveaways include Borkan ballistic missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Qi’am”), “Quds” cruise missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Ya-Ali”), the Iranian-made Sayyad 2-C surface-to-air missile, expandable-unmanned aerial vehicles and thousands of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and rockets. Iran uses small, low-visibility and elusive vessels, such as fishing boats and dhows, to freight weapons into Yemen. Sometimes the small vessels use ship-to-ship transfers to move or distribute cargo along the way. The U.S. Navy has periodically intercepted illicit weapons shipments in the Arabian Sea. However, the number of weapons interdicted represents a tiny fraction of the overall illicit seaborne cargo outbound from Iran. 

The Houthi has used these capabilities to attack petrochemical facilities, military installations and urban centers deep inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates in the past years. The Houthis also attacked oil tankers transiting the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. Similar to the “Hezbollah model”, the Iranian support for Houthi has transformed the irregular militia into a hybrid force armed with advanced weaponry. A strong Houthi enables Iran to attack targets deep in the KSA and the Red Sea and to open a second front in case of a direct conflict with Riyadh. 

Waging war on the KSA is only one of Iran’s two strategic interests in Yemen. As part of its maritime strategy, Iran aims to control the two main checkpoints vital for international maritime shipping. Iran already controls the main one, the Hormuz strait, due to its territorial boundaries. But control over the second one, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, requires ashore dominance in Yemen. However, the Houthi only control Yemen’s western seaboard. An intervention by the UAE in 2015 managed to deny the Houthi and al-Qa’ida control over Yemen’s main ports in the south, Aden and Mukalla. 

Iran proved that it is willing to go beyond rhetoric in 2019 when the IRGC covertly attacked the Emirati port of Fujairah, oil refineries in KSA, and oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, causing chaos on the oil market and temporarily disrupting international sea trade. 

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U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf…

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf on November 19. Carrier Air Wing Seven (encompassing over 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornets), the guided-missile cruiser Leyte Gulf, and guided-missile destroyers Bainbridge, Mason, and Nitze are assigned to the strike group. 

This was the first SH transit for the Nimitz-class USS “Abraham Lincoln” (CVN-72) ever since it was hurried to the Middle East in May 5, 2019, in response to undisclosed intelligence warning of an imminent Iranian attack. However, after decades of American aircraft carriers sailing through the SH, the U.S. Navy made the decision to keep the CVN-72 in open waters for security reasons. Satellite imagery showed the CVN-72 loitering in a “tight operational box” in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and occasionally conducting port calls at Duqm, Oman for the past five months. 


The Iranian militaries regularly rehearse asymmetric tactics to trap and sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf in case of conflict. Aircraft carriers are particularly vulnerable when passing through the SH, which is 30 km at its narrowest. The recent decision to forward deploy CVN-72 into the enclosed Gulf could indicate that the threat posed by Iran decreased to an acceptable level for transiting the strait.

THE IRANIAN THREAT

The intelligence alerting to an imminent Iranian threat proved valid as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) staged numerous – convert and overt – attacks and provocations against commercial vessels and Western navies transiting the local waterways and even raided petrochemical facilities onshore: 

  • On June 13, 2019, The Panama-flagged “KOKUKA COURAGEOUS” (KG) and the Marshall Islands-flagged “FRONT ALTAIR” (FA) were attacked with seaborne ordnance (limpet mines or anti-ship missiles) by an unconfirmed aggressor in the Strait of Hormuz (SH). The US Navy has since released a video, filmed by a P-8 maritime security aircraft, which allegedly shows an Iranian naval unit removing an unexploded limpet charge from the KG’s hull, likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. 

  • The covert attack on KG and FA took place nearly a month after four commercial vessels (two Saudi Arabian tankers, one Norwegian tanker, and an Emirati bunkering ship) were damaged using limpet mines in the Emirati port of Fujairah (Gulf of Oman). Both operations are believed to have been conducted by the IRGC-Navy’s special operations forces known as the “Sepah” specialized in underwater demolition, sabotage, search & destroy and unconventional operations – a loose equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s DEVGRU (or “SEALs”). 
  • On June 20, 2019, the IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) downed a U.S. Global Hawk BAMS-D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the SH using a “3rd Khordad” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Tehran accused the U.S. of violating its airspace while Washington claimed that it remained in international airspace. The Department of Defense drafted plans for retaliation against Iran’s coastal aerial defense systems and radars but the operation was later aborted by President Trump. The attack was a major milestone for Tehran. The IRGC proved that it can attack the U.S. and get away with it while also validating its indigenous defense technologies. 

  • On July 18, 2019, the USS Boxer downed an IRGC-AF UAV that closed within a threatening range, as the amphibious ship was transiting through the SH. The Marines on board the Boxer neutralized the threat through a “soft kill” approach (i.e. electronic attack) using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). The day before, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter chased away an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter that approached the Boxer shortly after it entered the SH. 
  • On July 20, 2019 the IRGC-Navy seized the British-flagged STENA IMPERO (SI) through an air-naval assault on the commercial ship near the SH. Tehran justified the operation as “tit-for-tat” after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian-owned Panemese-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) vessel (“GRACE-1”) in Gibraltar found to be in breach of European Union (E.U.) oil embargo against the Syrian regime. Gibraltar authorities released the vessel (renamed as “ADRIAN DARYA-1”) in good faith on August 15, after receiving assurances from Tehran that it will not sell oil to Syria. However, DARYA-1 sailed to the Syrian coastline, where satellite imagery showed it unload oil via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Iran was late to reciprocate and only released the SI on September 27, 2019. 

  • On September 15, 2019, the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were the subject of a low-observable and clandestine air attack involving nearly 20 expandable-UAVs and cruise missiles. In comparison to the countless other missile attacks mounted by the IRGC’s Yemenite partner force, “Ansar Allah” (Houthi) on Saudi/ Emirati oil facilities in the past, the September 15 raid was conducted directly by IRGC elements, and likely from Iranian territory. 

TF-IMSC

The growing asymmetric maritime threat posed by Iran prompted Washington to establish a multinational operational task force that would police the Middle Eastern seas and ensure the freedom of navigation in the region. The Task Force (TF) is known as the “International Maritime Security Construct” (IMSC) and encompasses the United Kingdom, Australia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, besides the U.S. TF-IMSC is headquartered with the U.S. Fifth Fleet command center in Manila, Bahrain. 

While the TF-IMSC is likely in the lengthy process of joint force integration, the CVN-72 is expected to project power and deter attacks on commercial shipping until its substitute, the USS Harry S. Truman” (CVN-75)  enters the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

UPDATE: CVN-72 LEAVES THE PERSIAN GULF

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