Odin's Eye Commentary Special

Neglected Navl Forces Will Bear the Brunt of Iranian Attacks

Iranian-occupied rigs burn after an assault by US naval forces during the Tanker War of the 1980s.

Above: Iranian-occupied rigs burn after an assault by US naval forces during the Tanker War of the 1980s. With tensions rising over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, could similar actions be on the horizon? Photo: US DoD.


An Iranian Navy Kilo Class submarine.

An Iranian Navy Kilo Class submarine. Photo: US DoD.

There is nothing worse than someone who talks the talk but cannot walk the walk, as the late lamented Duke Wayne might have said, in one of his silver screen adventures. Listening to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s stirring speech to Israel’s parliament last month (July) the title of one of John Wayne’s classic war movies came to mind: ‘They Were Expendable.’ Telling the story of lightly armed, under-resourced PT boats fighting against overwhelming odds during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines - while waiting in vain to be rescued by a US Navy battle fleet - it benefited from being made in the immediate aftermath of WW2, with scriptwriter, actors and production crew having seen action. Wayne was not one of them but, possibly in awe of the veterans, he reined in his usual bombast. Wayne’s co-star (and the movie’s co-director) was Robert Montgomery, who had served as a Lieutenant Commander in the USN during the conflict. The tone of ‘They Were Expendable’ is dark, with plenty of bitter humour, and some gut-wrenching episodes, as the brave PT crews find themselves getting fewer and their options further limited. Their vessels become increasingly worn out and supplies, especially weapons, run short. However, the seadogs refuse to give in despite being considered expendable by political and military bosses. So, who is Gordon Brown comparable to? Duke Wayne - talking the talk and walking the walk? Robert Montgomery - the embodiment of quiet, dogged determination against the odds? Neither of course, for the Prime Minister’s speech to Israeli politicians was the kind of over-inflated hyperbole your typically Ostrich-like politician would have offered in the 1930s when faced with the twin menace of Hitler’s Germany and a rampant, ever more assertive Japanese fascism. It was full of hot air and fine words, but far removed from reality. Brown can talk of standing by Israel no matter what, but does he have the means to do so? “And let me tell the people of Israel today: Britain is your true friend,” declared Mr Brown. “A friend in difficult times as well as in good times; a friend who will stand beside you whenever your peace, your stability and your existence are under threat; a friend who shares an unbreakable partnership based on shared values of liberty, democracy and justice. And to those who mistakenly and outrageously call for the end of Israel let the message be: Britain will always stand firmly by Israel’s side.” That a UK politician could make such a speech in Israel, which was founded after its early leaders waged a terrorist campaign against British forces in the late 1940s, is truly remarkable.
But, setting aside dusty history, how does today’s British leader propose his country ‘will always stand firmly by Israel’s side’? If war comes to the Middle East with a pre-emptive strike against Iran by Israel, to forestall Tehran launching a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv, the principal front line will be at sea. However, it is in this very arena that Britain has been weakened by ten years of Gordon Brown grinding down the Royal Navy as both a tight-fisted Chancellor and now as a domestically indecisive Prime Minister. He primarily sees investment in the fleet as a job opportunity for his constituents and to shore up the Labour vote in Scotland rather than as buttressing the UK’s primary means of protection. Gordon Brown loves sucking up to the British Army, but he has displayed nothing that would convince us he is in the slightest bit interested in the relevance and vital importance of the Royal Navy. It is notable that on his way to Israel, the UK leader visited British troops for a photo opportunity in Iraq, but not the naval units on the front line in the Gulf. Yet, as this magazine saw during a visit to the northern Gulf by its Editor last month, it is those very ships and people who on a daily basis hold the line against Iranian aggression. When Tehran looks at its options to damage the West in retaliation, it will, as has happened so often in the past, seek to do so at sea. The fact that Iran is preparing for this is obvious: The Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy was in late 2007 given responsibility for the entire Gulf, with the more moderate Iranian Navy and Coast Guard ejected beyond the Straits of Hormuz. On an almost daily basis the Revolutionary Guards come out to test the will of coalition naval forces. On two occasions they have taken British marines and sailors hostage, humiliating the British nation and its navy, reducing it to a laughing stock in world opinion. The Royal Navy appears to have learned its lesson, but has the Prime Minister even any inkling that the Iranians will be looking to exploit maritime vulnerabilities again? This year there have been two potentially serious incidents involving the US Navy and one each for the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy, the latter occurring as Tehran rattled its sabres both on land and at sea a few weeks ago. Were Prime Minister Brown to take more than a cursory interest in naval matters - does he even do that? - he would be well advised to study episodes from the Tanker War of the 1980s, when the Revolutionary Guards launched numerous attacks. It all culminated in the biggest sea battle involving US naval forces since WW2 when, following the mining of an American frigate, Operation Praying Mantis was launched, in April 1988. The action was intense. A US Marine Corps helicopter gunship was lost during an attack on an oil rig, which had become a Revolutionary Guards’ base, an Iranian vessel launched a Harpoon missile at US warships, while Iran’s strike jets made attack runs, too. American carrier-based strike jets were forced to defend US Navy units from an assault by Iranian speedboats while one of Iran’s frigates also ventured out, unleashing a missile. The American response to all the attacks was crushing, using the full range of its weapon systems. Even that did not end Iranian aggression, with Tehran soon sending a warship to shell a British-registered tanker and American-owned oil rig. Having learned the lessons of Praying Mantis, the Iranians can be expected to adopt different tactics, possibly relying on swarm attacks by speedboats plus Swimmer-Delivery Vehicles (mini-submarines carrying Special Forces divers) and they have invested heavily in batteries of shore-based Anti-Shipping Missiles (ASMs). Legions of willing martyrs from across the Muslim world can also be expected to flock to the Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy colours, offering themselves up for suicide boat attacks in an attempt to claim another USS Cole. As we report in our first feature on coalition naval forces in the Gulf Al-Qaeda have already attempted suicide attacks at sea, claiming the lives of American sailors. If a single, small Iranian-manufactured explosive device can claim a vehicle containing several troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, why should the same ingenuity not be applied to striking back at sea? The scale of casualties if a suicide boat or a missile hits a warship could be the equivalent to several weeks’ casualties in Iraq or Afghanistan. The big question we would like to ask Gordon Brown is: Are you sure that the naval units holding the front line East of Suez for UK and Western security interests have all their capabilities fully functioning? To pay for construction of the new aircraft carriers that will so gainfully employ voters in both Gordon Brown’s constituency and other Labour seats, the government of which the Prime Minister has been a key player for so many damaging years, has forced the Royal Navy to dispense with its primary and best means of defence against marauding Iranian attack boats and sea-skimming missiles. As this magazine has pointed out more than once, Sea Harrier fighter jets armed with AMRAAM missiles are formidable counter-measures for just such a threat. However, instead of upgrading their engines to cope with Gulf conditions, the Sea Harriers have been retired from service, leaving a yawning gap in fleet defence. The Navy acknowledges the truth of this, but what else could it do if it was to secure the future aircraft carriers? It was a hard choice forced on the admirals by Gordon Brown’s Treasury refusing to substantially increase the Defence budget to cope with both future equipment and today’s operational needs. Similarly, it is now thought that rather than invest in the vastly more capable Super Lynx for British naval forces, which will have the endurance and the weapons to mount a similarly effective over-the-horizon defence, the British administration is to maintain its insane investment in the Eurofighter. Naturally the fact that manufacturing Eurofighters employs many Labour-voting people in the north of England has nothing to do with it. And what of the ships themselves? Current Defence Secretary Des Browne (the loyal lieutenant of Chancellor Gordon Brown during the golden days of hacking the Royal Navy’s present day capabilities and force levels to pieces) no doubt did not like it when he was told by a report from the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff that British warships frequently deploy on front line missions with vital weapons systems not fully functioning, all in the cause of saving money.

So, tell us Brown and Browne, are warships sent into the Gulf danger zone fully effective in all their key offensive and defensive systems? For example, when Britain stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel during the latter’s attacks on Iran, will the frigates facing multiple surface vessel attack be able to instantly defend themselves with their Harpoon Anti-Shipping Missiles? Or has that weapon system been deliberately downgraded due to lack of funds? And if, God forbid, the Iranians manage to get their stealthy Kilo Class submarines and Swimmer Delivery Vehicles to sea, will the frigates and destroyers be able to hunt them down before they start sinking oil tankers?  And will the British frigates and destroyers be able to even defend themselves against such threats? There was a time when no British warships would venture into such a potentially dangerous zone without all their capabilities intact, but we suspect that may no longer be the case, due to budget constraints. Perhaps Gordon Brown didn’t want to visit naval units in the Gulf in case somebody told him something he didn’t want to hear?

Of course, the usual excuses are trotted out when the British government is confronted with such shameful financial neglect of the fleet, namely that the Royal Navy will always be part of a coalition and can rely on the Americans to plug the gaps.  But, do you know what Prime Minister, if the poo hits the fan, the Americans will be busy looking after themselves, because their ships and people are NOT expendable. They are heavily armed and fully functioning. You can bet on it. Anyone who sees the Royal Navy on the front line, or training for its global deployments, cannot help but be impressed with the professionalism and determination of its young men and women. It is a Service that has struggled to introduce innovation into its deployment patterns and maximise the amount of capability it squeezes from its ‘platforms’. Unfortunately political donkeys lead the sea lions of Britain.

As Iran launched ballistic missiles and fired ship-killing torpedoes during a series of sabre-rattling exercises designed to deter an attack on its nuclear weapons facilities, WARSHIPS IFR was the only media organisation with a reporter up the sharp end, with naval forces in the northern Gulf. In the first part of a series on UK-led coalition naval forces East of Suez, Iain Ballantyne reports back from the Gulf danger zone. Here, we carry his a news report on Iranian aggression and Iain’s first in-depth despatch from the northern Gulf. See the bottom of this item for details of forthcoming instalments in the series.