04 April 2009

Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz

In Iran: Obama, Brown and Rudd I expressed cautious optimism that President Obama’s video message to the Islamic Republic of Iran on 20 March might mark a step towards real engagement between the United States and Iran – a much more constructive and less confrontationist approach. The careful response of the Iranian leadership was about what I expected, and my cautious optimism about a better U.S.-Iranian relationship remains.

We are not out of the woods yet, however. We do not know where these more promising developments will end; the U.S. agenda is still that Iran must give up its uranium enrichment program, and I see no prospect that Iran will do that. Further, the new Government of Israel, like its predecessor, is quite public about what it will “permit” Iran to do, and its willingness at the end of the day to carry out pre-emptive (it would say “defensive”) military strikes against Iran.

In Time to rethink our approach to Iran, I noted that Iran had many means of retaliation against a military strike from the United States or Israel, among them closure of the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

With the easing of oil prices consequent upon the current economic contraction, the world is feeling more relaxed about eventualities that might lead to a disruption to oil supplies. It should not be. Even with modest glimmers of hope on the world economic scene, the price of oil has edged up the best part of $US10 per barrel over the last month, and any convincing sign of recovery will see a sharp rise in prices, reminding us all that oil is a scarce resource and access to it is not to be taken for granted.

When that happens, we will all begin to think again about the consequences of a disruption of the world’s oil supply, and the circumstances in which this is most likely to occur.

The prospect of closure of the Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s energy security nightmares; roughly 90 per cent of Persian Gulf oil passes through it in tankers, and its closure would take about 25 per cent of the world’s oil off the market virtually overnight.

The feasibility of closing it is therefore a vitally important issue, and Iran’s capability to do it is a matter of some debate. I incline to the view that Iran has the capability to achieve the geopolitical effect it would want, but what follows is designed to assist readers to reach their own conclusions.

In a well-researched article in the scholarly journal International Security, Ms Caitlin Talmadge, a Ph. D. candidate in political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Research Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, presents an open-source analysis of whether Iran could close the Strait, what might prompt it to take such a drastic measure, what a military campaign in the Strait might look like, and what the United States would have to do to defend the Strait in the event of Iranian interference.

The article, entitled Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz, is downloadable in full from here. It is another splendid example of what a diligent analyst can accomplish from open sources, even though Ms Talmadge herself acknowledges the limitations of such an analysis.

Although the paper runs to 36 closely argued and footnoted pages, its main thrust is summed up in four early paragraphs:

This article attempts ... an open-source analysis of the potential interaction of Iranian and U.S. military forces in the strait. This type of analysis has its limits. It cannot draw on classified information. It cannot say much about intentions, only apparent capabilities. It cannot predict how a particular war will turn out, because such outcomes often depend on a host of nonmilitary factors. What it can do is encourage rigor in the public debates that inevitably occur, by showing how different assumptions and data about military capabilities generate different predictions about the parameters of potential conflict. From these results come different policy implications. Analysts may still disagree, but at least they and those listening to them can ascertain the basis of their differences.

The analysis presented here suggests that the notion that Iran could truly blockade the strait is wrong—but so too is the notion that U.S. operations in response to any Iranian action in the area would be short and simple. The key question is not whether Iran can sink dozens of oil tankers, which would be difficult. Tankers are resilient targets. Their immense size, internal compartmentalization, and thick hull plates allow them to survive hits by mines and missiles that would sink warships. Their crude oil absorbs the impact of an explosion and is difficult to ignite. Historically, their captains have proven receptive to the strong financial incentives to sustain shipping.

The question is whether Iran can harass shipping enough to prompt U.S. intervention in defense of the sea-lanes. Given that the United States has staked its credibility on promises to do just that, this is a threshold that Iran’s significant and growing littoral warfare capabilities can cross, even with fairly conservative assumptions about Iranian capabilities. In particular, Iran possesses a larger stockpile of missiles and mines ten times as powerful as those used in the tanker wars of the 1980s, the last period of sustained naval conflict in the gulf. If Iran managed to lay even a relatively small number of these mines in the strait, the United States certainly would act to clear the area. But the experience of past mine-warfare campaigns suggests that it could take many weeks, even months, to restore the full flow of commerce, and more time still for the oil markets to be convinced that stability had returned.

More important, once the United States decided to clear the strait of mines, the potential for further military escalation would be high, especially given U.S. casualty sensitivity. The United States’ mine warfare assets are designed to be used only in permissive—that is, nonthreatening—environments. The United States would want to locate and destroy any sources of Iranian fire on its mine countermeasure (MCM) ships. In particular, it would want to eliminate Iran’s land-based, antiship cruise missile (ASCM) batteries and targeting radars, which are mobile and likely protected by Iranian air defenses. The aerial hunt for these assets could add days, weeks, or even months to the time needed to clear the strait, and quickly develop into a large and sustained air and naval campaign, depending on Iran’s strategy for expending the missiles and its skill in hiding the batteries and radars. The United States might then face the dilemma of continuing this difficult search, or ending it by engaging in an even broader coercion campaign against other targets in Iran or escalating to the use of ground forces. These options would be about as palatable to the United States as they would be comforting to the world oil markets.

This analysis prompted a response from William D. O’Neil, a former naval officer who has also served in the Office of the Secretary for Defense, and a reply from Ms Talmadge, who describes O’Neil as “an analyst who brings both operational experience and scholarly expertise to the study of naval issues in the Persian Gulf”.

This exchange is published in the Winter 2009 issue of International Security, and may be downloaded from that site, but appears to be available only to subscribers.

O’Neil begins his critique by saying that Talmadge should have put more weight on the costs that Iran would be likely to bear in the wake of any closure attempt, eg the likelihood that world opinion would be inflamed against Iran. To this Talmadge responds, convincingly in my view, that if pushed to a point of desperation Iran might indeed lash out in the strait, and that in that event “world opinion” would likely hinge on what had happened to cause Iran to close the strait in the first place e.g. if it were responding to a U.S or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. For this reason Talamdge’s focus is as much on what Iran could do as what it is likely to do, and I think that is a very useful issue to consider in depth.

On the technical issues O’Neil expresses the view that Talmadge exaggerates the threat that Iran can pose in respect of both its capacity to lay mines and its capacity to mount a missile threat to mine clearance operations.

In relation to mine-laying O’Neil adds to the picture about the issues for the Iranians in attempting to lay enough mines in the specific waters in which they would need to be laid, before being detected and attacked. He presents a map which shows the limits of the waters at least 25 metres deep which are required for large tankers, and the 60 metres-deep water that would be required for Iran’s Kilo-class submarines to lay mines without colliding with tankers passing overhead. The rest of the mines would have to be laid by surface craft, which would have to make several trips in and out of Bandar Abbas, which they are unlikely to accomplish undetected.

O’Neil argues in the light of this analysis that US-Iranian conflict could well start before the Iranian preparations were complete, with important areas left unmined. He points out that not all mines would need to be cleared before normal shipping operations could resume – all that would be needed would be two clear shipping lanes approximately two nautical miles wide, preferably separated by two nautical miles. This represents less than 20 percent of the usable width between 25-meter contours, even in the most constricted areas.

He also raises important technical issues concerning Iranian anti-ship missile threats. There are problems in this area which impose strict location requirements for surveillance radars – for example to avoid looking down into sea clutter, and preferably to view hostile ships against the horizon. The limited choice of good sites combined with the ease of detecting radar emissions makes the radars highly vulnerable.

In addition, O’Neil says that the region surrounding the Strait of Hormuz is so unfavourable for the operation of anti-ship missile seekers that most missiles may be defeated by a combination of tactical and technical means to exploit and exacerbate natural difficulties.

He raises a number of other issues, and concludes:

Notwithstanding these reservations regarding important details, the essential point of Talmadge’s argument remains valid. While any attempt by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz would be self-destructive folly, it is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. Although an attempt would be defeated more swiftly than Talmadge suggests, there would nevertheless be a cost both in ships and in lives, as well as widespread economic disruption. Because the costs would be great, it is important to take precautions even though the contingency is unlikely. But the precautions should be tailored to the true nature and extent of the threat.

Talmadge responds in some detail to aspects of O’Neil’s critique of her analysis, but it is not necessary to recount her points here. To my mind the most important element of her response is her observation that

...O’Neil is perhaps more sanguine than I am about the Iranians’ tactical proficiency. Is it safe to assume that Iran will leave its radars on long enough and frequently enough for the United States to destroy its targeting abilities almost immediately? If Iran operates its radars less like the hapless Iraqis in 1991 and more like the clever Serbs in 1999, then this assumption may prove invalid. Can the United States be sure that Iran will not develop alternative targeting methods? It is hard to say. Hence my effort to develop a complete concept of operations for detecting and defending against antiship missile launches, as well as for finding the mobile launchers—just in case the Iranians stay in the game longer than planned.

Very wise, in my view, for Talmadge to concentrate on what the Iranians could do, without too much of an overlay of what they would be likely to do, and in considering that to make no reliance on Iranian under-performance. Further, I think that in today’s circumstances the perception that Iran was even considering any kind of disruption in the strait would so spook both the oil and the financial markets that major disruption would be achieved without a shot being fired in anger.

The whole question of the potential for the closure of the strait and how the United States might respond is of course an operational one and the larger question is how to avoid this situation arising in the first place. The consequences of an unprovoked attack on this country the size of Queensland with its population of 66 million would be grave indeed.

At the moment I see no appetite in Washington for an attack on Iran. About Israel one cannot be so sure. It is to be hoped that President Obama will use his formidable powers of persuasion to convince Mr Netanyahu to stay his hand, now and into the future. He has the leverage to do so if he cares to use it. The first test of that will be for the Obama Administration to persuade the new Israeli Government to do a 180 degree turn and move promptly into the negotiation of an acceptable two-state solution of the Palestinian question.

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