On 5 March, Israeli forces stopped and boarded a freighter in the Red Sea, KLOS-C, which was carrying a cargo of battlefield rockets from Iran to Port Sudan. The crew of the ship doesn’t appear to have known what was loaded in Iran; more on that later. Sudan has of course served for years as a waypoint for Iranian arms deliveries to Gaza. (See The Tower on this as well.)
According to the IDF, Israeli intelligence actually observed the rockets in question being transferred from Syria to Iran several months ago. The rockets are versions of the Syrian-made M-302, the rocket used in a 302mm multiple-rocket launch system (MLRS). The Assad regime has supplied the Syrian M-302, called the “Khaibar,” to Hezbollah in Lebanon for a number of years. Upgraded versions have ranges in excess of 200km (125 statute miles) when fired from their native launchers.
Quite as bad is the explosive power of the warhead an M-302 rocket can deliver. Again, getting the maximum bang out of it requires having a spec-grade launcher. Jerry-rigged launchers wouldn’t be able to toss rockets with the biggest warheads to the max ranges the Syrian-made launcher will achieve. (It’s quite possible Hamas already has the necessary launchers, which could be sneaked into Gaza in pieces. They’re not mentioned in the IDF report on the KLOS-C intercept, however.)
The warheads in question are much bigger than what Hamas has traditionally been able to target Israeli civilians with. Warhead weights for the versions of the M-302 range from 125 kg (275 lb) to 144 kg (317 lb) of high explosive. Hamas has been able to launch a 90 kg warhead on the (Iranian-designed) “Fajr-5” rocket in the last several years, but most of its Fajr warheads run to 45 kg of explosive. The Qassam rockets and Grad rounds are 20 kg or less. The ranges for all these rockets are substantially less than what the M-302 can achieve.
For additional comparison, the M31 high-explosive round for the U.S. Army’s M270 MLRS has a 90 kg warhead. A unitary high-explosive, 9M55K-variant round for the Russian BM-30 MLRS carries about a 160 kg warhead. The 500-lb class air-dropped bomb used by the U.S. and Israel has the equivalent of 226 kg of high explosive. And during World War II, the most common warhead sizes for bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe in the London Blitz ran from 50 kg to 250 kg.
The M-302 throws serious weight – and Hamas, like Hezbollah, would use it against the Israeli population.
A world enabling arms shipments
There’s more. There’s a sense in which various national policies colluded to suffer these arms to be shipped from Iran, and quite possibly – absent the alertness of Israeli intelligence and the IDF – to get to Gaza.
First of all, Syria manufactures these weapons as a modified version based on China’s WS-1 MLRS. China began exporting missile and rocket technology to Syria in the late 1980s, shortly before Syria first began manufacturing the M-302. China is now Syria’s largest trading partner, although Syria’s largest arms suppliers are Russia, Iran, and Belarus, which together provide 89% of Syria’s foreign-sourced weaponry.
The official flow of arms traffic may be a bit misleading today, as some Chinese arms, like the C802 anti-ship cruise missile, make their way into Syria via Iran. The M-302 has been manufactured in Syria long enough, however, that the “proliferation” occurred some time ago, and directly. (The U.S. in fact imposed sanctions on computer and other IT sales to China because of Beijing’s arms sales to Syria in the 1980s and 1990s. The sanctions were later relaxed under Bill Clinton.)
The Iran connection highlights another global facet of the arms-to-terrorists problem. Iraq and Sudan are serving as conduits for Iran’s arms exports (and now for an attempted Syrian-Iranian export to Hamas). Egypt’s uncertain control of the Sinai Peninsula is another key piece of the arms route. It’s worth reiterating that Iran is prohibited by UN Security Council Resolution 1737 (2006) from exporting arms.
In the case of this particular arms shipment, it transited Iraqi air space on its first hop from Syria – very much the path of least resistance for contraband moving in either direction. But the ship, the KLOS-C, also stopped in Umm Qasr, Iraq, to load cement after she left Bandar Abbas with the arms cargo. As we’ll see in a moment, other circumstances suggest the stop in Iraq was not an innocent one, from the standpoint of what the shipping agent there might have known. (Innocence was unlikely anyway, given the sensitive nature of the arms cargo coming out of Bandar Abbas. Knowing the focus of foreign intelligence on ships’ movements after departing her ports, Iran wouldn’t leave it to chance where KLOS-C was going next.)
Sudan, of course, has been implicated on several occasions in the movement of arms from Iran to Hamas. (The Iranian naval supply ship, Kharg, which is currently headed for the Americas, has visited Port Sudan on a number of occasions since multinational antipiracy patrols began in the Gulf of Aden in late 2008. We can assume Kharg is being used for arms deliveries on at least some occasions.)
But then there’s the ship, and its owner and manager. As indicated above, the crew of the KLOS-C appeared to have no knowledge of what they were carrying. The shipment documentation was presumably fraudulent. The ship herself, which is Panamanian flagged, is owned by a small, virtually anonymous shipping company named Whitesea Shipping & Trading Co, Ltd. Whitesea bought the ship, which had been named Klostertal, in 2012, renaming it KLOS-C. The company has only one ship, KLOS-C, and is incorporated in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) – the former U.S. trust territory, which gained independence in 1986, and has been in a Compact of Free Association with the United States ever since.
Alert readers will remember that the Karine-A, the ship at the center of a previous, well-known arms-smuggling attempt in 2002, had been purchased by an agent of the Palestinian Authority prior to her ill-fated smuggling expedition (and was captained by a Fatah operative). In 2009, the Francop, carrying a huge cargo of Iranian arms bound for Lebanon, was being operated, apparently unwittingly, by a legitimate, high-profile shipping company, Cyprus-based United Feeder Services, which manages a large fleet.
The option of operating with these more-detectable profiles has become increasingly risky for the arms-supply axis to Hamas and Hezbollah (which includes North Korea, of course, as well). The KLOS-C operating profile appears significantly less detectable, in part because Whitesea Shipping & Trading Co, Ltd is incorporated in RMI. Here are the benefits of incorporating in RMI:
There is no public registrar of companies thus the level of confidentiality is at its highest. The bearer shares as well as nominal directors and shareholders are also accepted. Furthermore, annual financial reporting and auditing is not required. There is also no requirement for annual general meetings, while if they do take place it can be carried out anywhere in the world by any means, e.g. telephone. …
The Marshall Islands is a perfect offshore location for companies that are planning to own and manage yachts and ships as the jurisdiction has one of the biggest ships registers.
I am in general a friend of light regulation, and do not suggest that the conditions for incorporation in the Marshall Islands need to be altered. But it’s a good question whether Israeli intelligence would have detected what was being planned for this shipment if the rockets had not started their journey from a facility in Syria which the Israelis watch 365 days a year.
We don’t know who the owner of Whitesea Shipping & Trading Co, Ltd is. It could certainly be an agent of the Iranian government, acting through proxies. Whitesea probably had no more than a P.O. Box and a phone number in the RMI, has probably already disbanded, and could reincorporate as something else – perhaps somewhere else – tomorrow. There are hundreds of shipping companies incorporated the world over to operate single vessels, in RMI and elsewhere, and on any given day it’s impossible to know what the unnamed affiliations of all of them are.
Trying to limit the options of the billions of people with honest intentions, or conduct surveillance of them all, is a fool’s errand. At some point, we will have to calculate that it’s more feasible to shut down the terrorism (Hamas, Hezbollah) and the sponsorship of terrorism (Iran, Syria, North Korea – and, yes, China and Russia, which sell or have sold arms to the others).
Israel lives with this threat on a daily basis. The “high-confidentiality” incorporation of Whitesea Shipping & Trading Co, Ltd is a reminder that Israel may well not be the only nation that has to worry about attempts at near-anonymous arms shipping, out there in the post-Pax Americana world.