REPORT FROM THE GULF

BRITISH AND AUSTRALIAN FRIGATES MENACED

Report from the Gulf by WARSHIPS IFR Editor Iain Ballantyne

IRANIAN Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy speedboats menaced the British warship HMS Chatham in July, as weapons tests ordered by the Tehran regime to deter strikes on its nuclear weapons facilities raised tension in the Gulf. The encounter occurred as the Type 22 frigate patrolled the same waters where sister ship HMS Cornwall suffered the kidnapping and detention of 15 of her sailors and marines in spring 2007. Some 16 months on from the notorious HMS Cornwall incident, UK servicemen and women are still going eyeball-to-eyeball with the Revolutionary Guards on an almost daily basis. In last month’s incident, which took place as WARSHIPS IFR arrived in the northern Gulf for a visit to the frigate, the Iranian vessels came within a few hundred yards of HMS Chatham as the latter patrolled on the edge of Iraqi territorial waters. At the same time, the Australian frigate HMAS Stuart, which was heading north to relieve Chatham on station, so the Plymouth frigate’s sailors and marines could enjoy a well-earned stand down, was also approached aggressively by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels. It all appeared to be part of a co-ordinated effort at sabre-rattling by Tehran, which also allegedly tested new ship-killing torpedoes as well as land-based ballistic missiles. Until now, the Chatham and Stuart incidents were unreported in the media.

Often the Iranians deliberately trespass in Iraqi territorial waters, to taunt the Coalition naval units visually while largely ignoring attempts to establish radio communications.

“There are misunderstandings between ourselves and them,” revealed one British naval officer in the northern Gulf.   “Whenever they occur, we aim to communicate with the Revolutionary Guards to clarify the situation. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten they ignore us.” When the Revolutionary Guard Corps do respond, it is often to tell Coalition naval forces to ‘stick it’ or perform some other rude act. British, American and Australian naval forces and their allies, including the fledgling Iraqi Navy, are attempting to establish maritime security in the Northern Arabian Gulf, with the authority of the United Nations Security Council. They are securing vital oil infrastructure that is providing more than 90 per cent of Iraqi GDP, therefore underwriting efforts to bring stability to war-torn Iraq.
While guarding two oil terminals off the Iraqi coast from potential Al-Qaeda attack, HMS Chatham and other Coalition warships also have to maintain a state of constant vigilance against the Iranians, for nobody wants to be caught out like HMS Cornwall’s sailors and marines. The British Royal Fleet Auxiliary amphibious landing ship RFA Cardigan Bay is also forward deployed in the northern Gulf, acting as a floating operations base, with heavily-armed US Navy patrol boats operating from her floodable stern dock. These vessels help provide extra protection for the Chatham’s boarding teams, which are assisting Iraqi Marines in their searches of super-tankers waiting to take on oil, and in policing exclusion zones around two vital terminals. Operational procedures governing Royal Navy boarding teams have been tightened up while the small boats they use are now fitted with heavy machine guns. The captain of HMS Chatham, Commander Martin Connell, is phlegmatic about the Iranians, acknowledging that they have the right to conduct their patrols, within reason and in their own territorial waters. He is glad that the Royal Navy did not retreat from the northern Gulf following the humiliation of the HMS Cornwall incident. Cdr Connell believes “the ghost of the Cornwall has been laid to rest.”

“Perhaps the safest thing to do after that experience would have been to change the posture of the forces up here - don’t take that risk, don’t send out boarding teams. Thankfully, we have not gone down that route. I do understand that the Royal Navy cannot afford to make the same mistake again. Can I guarantee that what happened to Cornwall won’t happen again? Yes, I can. Can I guarantee there will not be some kind of other incident? No, I can’t.”

Cdr Connell said that his sailors were kept informed of events beyond the confines of HMS Chatham and were therefore aware of escalating tensions in the Gulf. He observed: “Their main focus is protecting Iraq’s oil but they are also aware of the Iranian nuclear issue playing out. It is the backdrop to what we are doing out here.” Elsewhere, the head of the American armed forces, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said he believed the Iranians were “on a path to get a nuclear weapon.” He went on: “I think that's something that needs to be deterred.”

FACE-OFF WITH IRAN: THE TIP OF THE SPEAR

Iain Ballantyne reveals how coalition sailors and marines go eyeball-to-eyeball with the Iranians on a daily basis while standing by to repel attacks by Al-Qaeda suicide squads.

THIS is the tip of the spear in the confrontation between Tehran and the West: A shell-torn oil terminal platform, perched on rusting, over-sized stilts on the maritime fault line between the two sides. I am using a pair of binoculars to pick out a sunken crane lurking in the haze, watching the Iranians watching me watching them. It is a latter day equivalent to the NATO-Warsaw Pact face-off, except instead of outposts to East and West of the Berlin Wall, we are studying each other across contested waters in the sweltering northern Gulf.  The crane, which sits on a sunken barge, actually belongs to the Iraqis but has been claimed by Iran, which has built living quarters and installed sophisticated spy equipment, enabling the fanatical Revolutionary Guards Corps - the shock troops of the Tehran regime - to keep close watch on Coalition naval activities. It is reckoned that it played a key role in spotting that boarding teams from Devonport-based frigate HMS Cornwall might be vulnerable to capture during the infamous March 2007 episode in which 15 sailors and marines were taken prisoner by Revolutionary Guard boats. As I study the notorious crane, to my left and right Iraqi marines sweating under the weight of helmets and body armour, man ancient Russian-origin Dushka heavy machine guns. In brain-boiling heat, they are trying to remain alert for Al-Qaeda suicide attack, for aside from Revolutionary Guards bringing their boats out on a daily basis to play cat and mouse with the Coalition, water-borne insurgents are a very real threat. In late April 2004, just such an attack was unleashed by Al-Qaeda against the Al-Basrah Oil Terminal, or ABOT, upon which I stand today. Three vessels lunged at ABOT and its sister terminal, the Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal (or KAAOT) five nautical miles to the south. Two of the boats headed for ABOT  and, as Coalition security teams approached, were detonated. No casualties or damage to ABOT were sustained but, when a US boarding team intercepted a mystery dhow heading for KAAOT, it exploded, killing three American sailors. Today, I notice a memorial plaque mounted aboard ABOT, which observes: ‘In memory of those that made the ultimate sacrifice’. Could Al-Qaeda today be lurking in the dozens of fishing dhows that loiter on the edge of an exclusion zone imposed to give Coalition forces time to destroy incoming attackers? Very possibly, looking for a chink in the protective screen around the two oil terminals through which flows the lifeblood for Iraq’s fragile recovery from decades of war. Coalition officers have pointed out to me that 93 per cent of Iraq’s GDP is generated by the oil flowing through KAAOT and ABOT. Sailors and marines doing the, often thankless, task of protecting the terminals are not beyond reminding their colleagues operating on land that all efforts at establishing peace and security in Iraq will count for nothing if the oil stops flowing into supertankers. Indeed, the world economy would suffer from any interruption, possibly sending petrol pump prices even higher. Today one Indian tanker is alongside ABOT while two bigger ones from India are filling up at KAAOT, illustrating the stark fact that the rising economic superpower once ruled over by the British Raj is competing for energy with the West, in order to fuel its burgeoning economy and global aspirations.

Scanning the water surrounding ABOT with me is Lieutenant Rolf Williams, who used to work at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, but is now an officer on the staff of Combined Task Force 158 (or CTF-158), the naval unit primarily tasked with protecting Iraq’s oil terminals from terrorist attack. For some months Britain has led CTF-158, with several warships at its disposal as well as security teams based aboard ABOT and KAAOT. Despite being the most heavily damaged of the two terminals during various wars that have blighted the northern Gulf - indeed, many of the shell holes and bomb hits on it were caused by Coalition forces in the 1991 and 2003 wars against Saddam - ABOT remains sturdy enough to provide a key base. At the time of my visit, dozens of other sailors and marines were actually living aboard ABOT, which is home to a high-tech command and control centre that oversees naval operations in congested and contested waters. Lt Williams is fascinated by the bird life that the terminals attract and in his off-watch hours has conducted a survey that has revealed ABOT and KAAOT lie on major migration routes. In a throwback to his old job in Plymouth’s aquarium, Lt Williams has also studied signs of marine life around the ABOT. He tells me fisheries around the terminals are among the best in the entire Gulf, due to the young fish being given a chance to reach adulthood by unwitting Coalition protection. Fishing dhows are prevented by the Coalition from entering within 3,000 metres of each terminal, with attempts to pluck a catch or two from the exclusion zone swiftly repelled by warships.

VISIBLE in the heat haze just to the south of ABOT is the powerful, multi-role frigate HMS Chatham, sister ship to the ill-fated Cornwall. As Chatham sails off the ABOT on her patrol patterns, elsewhere in the Gulf the Iranians are launching ballistic missiles and testing torpedoes allegedly powerful enough to totally destroy submarines and ships. It is all a show of force designed to deter not only Israel from striking Iran’s nuclear weapons programme facilities but also the forces of the mighty United States, which spearheads the Coalition. The Iranians, bristling with bluster, declare that they will hit not only the hated Israelis, but also bases belonging to the Americans (and their allies), using predetermined targeting data. No doubt, if such a capability is more than just Iranian bombast, targets could include the naval HQ in Bahrain where British sailors and marines work alongside American and other coalition colleagues - for the UK has the second biggest military and naval presence in the Gulf - but also possibly even the oil terminals visible through the windows of Chatham’s bridge. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responds by warning Tehran that America will “defend American interests and the interests of our allies.” However, for sailors on Chatham’s bridge this is all beyond their paygrade, with their main focus being the job at hand. A key tool in their mission is evident on the screens of an extraordinary Warship Electronic Chart Display System (WECDIS) that fuses survey data gathered from RN Hydrographic Squadron vessels with the latest intelligence reports and other inputs, to provide a multi-layered battlespace picture. WECDIS is the brainchild and product of the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) in Taunton, which has for decades produced the renowned Admiralty charts that are used by naval and merchant mariners the world over. On Chatham’s bridge, the WECDIS display is criss-crossed by lines of demarcation - clearly showing where Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters are, plus zones illegally claimed by the latter. It also shows depth of water, ship locations, underwater hazards and other essential detail including the frigate’s current heading and track. With only several metres on average under the Chatham’s keel, the incredible accuracy of WECDIS, together with the information it provides at a glance, enables her to be navigated on the edge of the envelope. Sometimes the ship needs to deploy her speed to intercept fishing dhows or other (potentially suspect) vessels, chasing them out of the exclusion zone. With close to 5,000 tonnes of metal hurtling at around 20 knots, possibly saving the terminals from a potentially mortal blow, the confidence WECDIS provides is a weapon in itself. If the Royal Navy deployed a smaller vessel to the northern Gulf then it would not have the on-station endurance, the weapons to blow an intruder out the water if need be, or the sensors to detect the threat in the first place. Therefore, despite the navigational hazards a Type 22 frigate faces, it is truly a ship fit for task. The superb seamanship that has been the hallmark of the British fleet for centuries remains a key asset in the post 9-11 world. These are waters that even the mighty US Navy fears to tread with its major warships, for they draw too much water, hence the USN’s 9,000 tonnes on-call missile cruiser is stationed in deeper waters, around the more southerly KAAOT. In the more shallow waters, Chatham is working with small US Coast Guard, US Navy and Iraqi Navy patrol craft, which can enforce the Coalition’s will in waters in which even the Type 22 frigate cannot venture (although her embarked small boats can). Less than 24 hours earlier, Revolutionary Guard Corps armed speedboats, Iranian colours flying from their sterns, had come within a few hundred yards of the Chatham as the warship patrolled on the edge of Iraqi waters.

On the upper decks of the Chatham, sentries and gun crews stared back at the defiant Revolutionary Guards, who refused to respond to radio interrogation from Coalition vessels, except to hurl insults of a scatological and anatomically invasive nature. It would be easy to be lured into a state of complacency - believing that it is all just a game, but of course, as the HMS Cornwall incident showed, it can all turn very serious in a split second. Nobody in HMS Chatham laughs at the sight of a Revolutionary Guard jet-ski zooming around carrying a figure with a Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) over one shoulder, or a puny-looking Boghammer boat racing about in a juvenile fashion. They may look like daft, naughty schoolboys thumbing their noses at the Coalition, but these are serious characters. In late 2007, Tehran gave the Revolutionary Guards the lead in the confrontation at sea throughout the length of the Gulf. The Revolutionary Guards displaced the better mannered Iranian Navy and Coast Guard into waters beyond the Straits of Hormuz. There is no zone of relaxation in the Gulf, as there might have been in past eras, when Al-Qaeda was just a twinkle in bin-Laden’s eye and the Mullahs were locked in war with Saddam. Maintaining a watch over a period of several months is no easy task, especially through a cruel Arabian summer.

HMS Chatham patrolling the exclusion zone around the ABOT (background) in the northern Gulf.

Above: HMS Chatham patrolling the exclusion zone around the ABOT (background) in the northern Gulf. Photo: LA (Phot) Chris Winter/Royal Navy.

The notorious Iranian crane spy platform.

Above: The notorious Iranian crane spy platform. Photo: Lt Rolf Williams RN.

Chatham’s Lieutenant Commander Chris Smith watches the Iranians from a gun position aboard the ABOT. Photo: Used courtesy of Lt Cdr Chris Smith RN.

Above: Chatham’s Lieutenant Commander Chris Smith watches the Iranians from a gun position aboard the ABOT. Photo: Used courtesy of Lt Cdr Chris Smith RN.

HMS Chatham patrols off the KAAOT.

Above: HMS Chatham patrols off the KAAOT. Photo: LA (Phot) Chris Winter/Royal Navy.

HMS Chatham’s Royal Marines heading off to carry out a tanker sweep in the deepwater anchorage near ABOT.

Above: HMS Chatham’s Royal Marines heading off to carry out a tanker sweep in the deepwater anchorage near ABOT. All photos: LA (Phot) Chris Winter/Royal Navy.

COMING IN THIS SERIES
In forthcoming instalments of this series Iain Ballantyne talks to the sailors of HMS Chatham, including the frigate’s captain, about the challenges of maintaining vigilance in the northern Gulf danger zone. The WARSHIPS IFR Editor also

  • Meets the man in command of all Royal Navy vessels in the region, who also acts as the deputy commander of Coalition maritime forces East of Suez. 
  • Finds out what it was like to be in the hot seat commanding Combined Task Force 158 (CTF-158), facing down the Iranians and countering the terrorist threat.
  • Interviews the at-sea commander of Combined Task Force 152 (CTF-152), tasked with patrolling the central and southern Gulf.
  • Visits the USS Typhoon, a heavily-armed former Special Forces patrol craft tasked with protecting Iraqi territorial waters and the country’s vital oil platforms.
  • Gains an exclusive insight into a unique military task from American and British sailors based on the terminals.
  • Sees sea-basing at work aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay, as the new British LPD plays a leading role in training the Iraqi Navy and Iraqi Marines to take over the task of Maritime Security in the northern Gulf.
BOOK ON NAVIES IN THE GULF

Iain Ballantyne is also the author of the book ‘STRIKE FROM THE SEA’, which tells the story of British and American naval forces in action in the Gulf from the late 1940s to the 21st Century. It is available from HPC Publishing. E-mail: subs2@hpcpublishing.com for details on how to purchase ‘STRIKE FROM THE SEA’.