The seizing of the British–flagged tanker in the Straits of Hormuz last weekend was a stark reminder to the Western world of just how difficult it will be to respond effectively to what some might regard as relatively minor acts of aggression on the part of wayward states such as Iran.
Short of visiting a Trump-style pre-emptive conflagration upon them, there are in fact precious few options left open to countries such as the UK, other than to try to get other nations to follow them in tightening sanctions on an already cash-strapped country.
(The incident also highlighted the question of just who is actually supposed to protect the ships that transit the Straits – and indeed any other international waters. The Stena vessel is owned by a Swedish company, operated by Stena Bulk (also Swedish), and crewed by Indian, Latvian, Philippine and Russian nationals. However, because it sails under a British flag of convenience (Stena might have chosen to register it in Panama, the US, Germany and so on), it has become a British problem. It could have given rise to a rather curious situation where the UK might have engaged in armed conflict to protect, amongst others, citizens of Iran’s ally, Russia.)
Some naval commentators have suggested that the presence of the two British warships is a tangible indicator of Britain’s intent, but not of its capability. As one pointed out recently, although the British frigate was some 60 minutes from the scene of the hijacking, (for this is what it was in reality), even with RN helicopters in the area, all the Iranians had to do was to wait till they had to return to re-fuel and then make their move.
British helicopters might be the solution to the problem. As was shown in the Iranian video, they used their own helicopters to drop troops on board the Stena ship. How likely would it be that they would have done so if a team of Royal Marines had already been put on board? In that case, we, the UK, should despatch a helicopter carrier of some sort.
Not long ago we might have sent HMS Ocean, capable of carrying up to 18 helicopters – but of course someone decided to sell this perfectly serviceable ship to Brazil. Today, therefore, we have a choice of either the Albion or Bulwark, or our only in-service carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, currently in port for “minor repairs” of course.
Our somewhat “third-best” choice would be one of the LPD vessels. HMS Albion and Bulwark are Landing Platform Docks which are able to carry a few helicopters but which have no hangar space as such. As the photo above shows, they have very limited flight-deck area compared to a more conventional carrier, or even the former HMS Ocean. They are designed to support amphibious landings but would at least have the facilities to carry and support a number of ship protection parties.
It would be a matter of importance to be able to signify to any circling Iranian vessels or aircraft that a ship was carrying a British military protection team. The aim would be to pre-empt a possible hijacking rather than to fight off such an attempt which might lead to the sort of escalation that everyone fears. Iranian drone footage suggests that they do in fact spend some time assessing a ship before making a move – and indeed it is not impossible that someone on board the Stena ship was able to provide information or advice to the Iranians about its likely reaction and any security measures in place. If that were in fact the case, then a source of that sort would make it clear that British troops were on board.
All the above assumes that the Iranians are going to continue to try to board ships. It is entirely possible that, having taken one ship, honour has been satisfied and no further action is required on their part other than to play politics with the “hostages”.
There might be a reason that they chose a ship crewed by non-British personnel (as far as we are aware). They might be able to release all the crew members without loss of face in terms of domestic politics, as well as to show consideration to their allies such as Russia. It also meant that the UK was possibly less likely to react as strongly as they might, had British citizens been taken.
In view of recent changes in Downing Street, it remains to be seen whether Mrs Mordaunt or someone else has to handle the immediate naval situation, as well as the longer term consequences of the UK’s limited naval capability.
Photos of HMS Albion: copyright MOD Navy