Persian Gulf de-mining exercise sends message to IranPosted: 26/09/2012
If you were a theocratic regime hell-bent on disrupting shipping in the Persian Gulf, how would you go about it?
Anti-ship missiles are selective but dangerous; torpedoes would need to be launched surreptitiously with a relatively small fleet of submarines. Perhaps the most effective method, and certainly the one concerning the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and its allies the most, is the possibility of mining areas of the Gulf.
Little wonder, then, that a huge multinational mine-countermeasures exercise is being held in the area, which began on 16 September and will continue until 27 September. The reasons for the exercises appear to be twofold. First, there is a genuine need to test and build multinational capacity in the region for mine-clearance operations. The number of different countries that might be involved in any rapid de-mining operations makes coordination supremely difficult, and hence testing the ability of navies to work together in assigned roles is vital.
In addition, there is significant new capability in the region, particularly the US’s four newly deployed mine-countermeasures vessels that arrived in the Gulf in June, SeaFox unmanned underwater vessels bought from Atlas Elektronik in February and the USS Ponce.
The Ponce is a particularly interesting addition to the Fifth Fleet: a former landing platform dock, she underwent a rush refit in early 2012 and was deployed to the Gulf in July to act as an afloat forward staging base (AFSB), a new designation that will see the ship deployed to act as a ‘lilypad’ to refuel and resupply the mine-countermeasures vessels and MH-53 Sea Dragon long-range minesweeping helicopters.
Second, there is a clear maritime diplomatic motivation for the exercises. They have a clear target audience: Iran. The aim is to prove that any attempt to mine the Persian Gulf would largely be fruitless as a multinational coalition is ready and waiting to swiftly clear the lanes. How successful the coalition would be in a limited time is questionable, as ensuring an area is completely free of mines is a time-intensive exercise fraught with uncertainty. Nonetheless, such a substantial coalition of assets, most likely involving mine-countermeasures vessels from the US, UK, France and other NATO allies and patrol vessels as escorts from Gulf Arab countries, would most likely be able to create corridors for shipping within days.
This is not coercive diplomacy as such: it is not intended to compel or deter Iran, but simply to dissuade it from attempting to mine the Gulf. Indeed, the media relations within the exercise were carefully calibrated, as naval officials were keen to stress that they would avoid the Gulf of Hormuz itself to prevent any possible confrontation with or misinterpretation from the Iranians. Moreover, the exercises, dubbed INCMEX, included assets from 30 countries, but officially only 12 countries were mentioned in the press releases, 10 of which were European, North American or Australasian. Presumably this was to avoid the controversy of the Arab rivals of Iran being mentioned and thus making the exercise appear more bellicose. The fact that one of Iraq’s US-donated and -built Swiftships 35 patrol boats, P-307, was deployed in the exercises could be a particular bone of contention for Iran.
The US media engagement bolsters the theory that INCMEX is not just a technical exercise, but a message to Iran: ‘don’t try it, it’s not worth it’. Iran, for its part, engaged in similar message sending, by announcing on 25 September that the IRGC had the day before test-fired four Khalij-e Fars ‘anti-ship ballistic missiles’ and sunk a vessel ‘the size of a warship’ in 50 seconds. The fact that the report was almost certainly false – it failed to mention whether the target was moving, there are significant doubts about the technical capability of Iran’s guidance system to ensure sufficient accuracy and the US said later that no missiles were fired – was less important than the timing of the report, coinciding as it did with INCMEX.
The propaganda battle is therefore in full flight. Ironically, the greater danger exists if Iran loses this publicity fight. If the US is able to convince its Middle Eastern allies that such threats from Iran can easily be countered, it would undermine Iran’s deterrence posture and remove restraints on an Israeli attack.