Tag: Persian Gulf

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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This is How Iran Bombed Saudi Arabia [PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT]

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say.  The…

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say

The cruise missile and/or drone attack was likely staged from Iran’s Khuzestan province. As unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were spotted in Kuwait just before the attack, the kinetic platforms likely avoided the Persian Gulf, which is heavily monitored by the US Navy, and exploited a gap in Saudi Arabia’s SAM deployments. As PATRIOT radars (MPQ-53/65) have a 120 degree coverage (not 360 degrees), they were likely pointed towards the southwest and east to cover threats from Yemen and the Persian Gulf, leaving the northern approach largely exposed. When the (presumed) low-flying, slow moving and small RCS (radar cross-section) kinetic platforms entered “denied airspace” at the envelope edge of Saudi air defense systems, it was too late for the PATRIOTs detect the threat and react. 

Hypothetical path of Iranian air attack on Saudi oil facilities, visualized by T-Intelligence.

Even if the MPQ-53/65 radars were pointed northwards, the PATRIOT is inadequate to intercept small drones and tactical missiles, as it is primarily an anti-aircraft and (secondary) ballistic missile defense system. Modern short-range air defense systems (V/SHORAD) are the adequate aerial defense assets for such threats, preferably aided by networked sensors and including airborne coverage from AWACS planes. While the Shahine and Skyguard SHORAD systems were guarding Abqaiq, they have a 20 km engagement range against normal sized aircraft. As the Iranian kinetic “package” consisted of low-observable munition, the engagement range was much less shorter. Alternatively, the “package’s” terrain-hugging flight profile could have masked it with the “ground clutter” or its slow speed would have filtered it out on the radar doppler. However, Saturday’s attack was as much an air defense error as it was an intelligence failure. 

As Washington and Ryad disagree on how to retaliate against Iran, an official joint announcement blaming the IRGC for the attack has been repeatedly postponed. President Donald Trump is engaged in a re-election campaign and knows that the US public would not support a new conflict or military action in the Middle East. Therefore the White House opposes the US military spearheading a kinetic retribution against Iran. This leaves Saudi Arabia to either form a coalition of the willing with other Gulf states, an exhaustive and unlikely endeavour, or to act alone, which is not an option for the monarchy.



With the critical 72-hour time window for retaliation closed, it is possible that Iran might walk away unsanctioned for the “war-opening” attack on Abqaiq and Khurais. Absent red-lines, Tehran will potentially feel emboldened to prosecute other strategic targets, such as Saudi desalination plants or US bases in the Middle East. 


UPDATE September 19, 2019 – Saudi officials have showcased the wreckage recovered from the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks, confirming that the air attack was conducted by Iranian Delta Wing drones and cruise missiles. US Intelligence sources also confirmed that the attack was mounted from Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province and that the weapons were programmed to avoid the Persian Gulf. 

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