Additional reporting today on maritime encounters with Iranian patrol boats indicates that the severity of the incidents really is increasing – along with their frequency.
A number of sites have picked up on the reporting Thursday that a U.S. Navy patrol ship in the Gulf had to fire warning shots at Iranian boats on Wednesday, 24 August. But each of the other incidents just this week — four so far — is of concern in its own right. Things are starting to spiral.
In the warning-shots situation, USS Squall, a Cyclone class “PC” or coastal patrol ship – smaller than a frigate – had to fire shots from the deck-mounted .50-cal machine gun, to ward off Iranian patrol boats that approached to within 200 yards of her sister ship, USS Tempest. The two PCs were operating in the northern Persian Gulf, and had actually been harassed by the Iranians in a separate incident earlier on Wednesday.
Said U.S. Fifth Fleet/NAVCENT spokesman Commander Bill Urban:
Later that same day Tempest and Squall were harassed by an Iranian Naser-class patrol boat, of a type known to be operated by the Guards. That vessel approached Tempest head-on to within 200 yards, said Cmdr. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US Navy’s Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain.
“This situation presented a drastically increased risk of collision,” Urban said, “and the Iranian vessel refused to safely maneuver in accordance with internationally recognized maritime rules of the road, despite several request and warnings via radio, and visual and audible warnings from both US ships.”
During the encounter Tempest fired three warning flares in the direction of the vessel, Urban said, while also attempting radio communications and sounding loud audible warnings via loudspeaker.
Squall fired three warning shots from a .50-caliber gun and that caused the Iranian vessel to turn away.
This incident, and the one preceding it involving the same two PCs, occurred the day after the harassment of the destroyers USS Nitze and USS Mason, at the other end of the Gulf.
The earlier incident Wednesday morning is described as follows:
In the first incident, as reported by US defense officials, the US patrol coastal ships Tempest and Squall were patrolling in international waters in the northern Gulf. Three IRGCN vessels approached at high speed and crossed the bow of the Tempest at 600 yards on three separate occasions. Tempest sounded five short blasts from the ship’s whistle, indicating the maneuvers were unsafe, and attempted to establish radio communications, apparently without success.
A third event, also on Wednesday, involved the Aegis destroyer USS Stout (DDG-55). It also took place in the northern Persian Gulf, apparently with the same Iranian patrol boat:
In a third event, the destroyer Stout was underway in the northern Gulf when, Urban said, the same Naser vessel conducted an “unsafe intercept,” crossing the bow of Stout three times “at close range.” The destroyer, capable of much higher speeds than the Naser, maneuvered away from the vessel to avoid collision and, Urban added, “employed devices to discourage the IRGCN vessel from continuing their approach towards Stout.”
The Cyclone class PCs would fire actual warning shots where destroyers might not, because the PCs are smaller and more susceptible to damage from the weapons wielded by an IRGCN patrol boat.
But in the final encounter on Wednesday, the Iranian boat(s) also came closer to one of the PCs than the approaches described in any of the other incidents (to within 200 yards), and were approaching head-on and at high speed – an extremely unsafe maneuver.
Will the firing of live warning shots put this thing to bed, at least for the moment? Maybe. If the Iranians keep doubling down, however, it will be clear that they’re trying to get something started.
The reason would not be that they want to escalate to an out-of-control situation. It would be that they want to make Obama pay through the nose to avoid escalation. (North Korea has been working this extortion angle for years.)
Iran’s goals could relate to a number of issues. Things are pretty much going their way in Syria, at least as far as Obama can do anything about it. But relief from the last vestiges of sanctions is certainly on their list. They could want a free hand to shoulder out the Kurds in the battle for Mosul, so that Iran-backed forces are the ones that actually gain control of the city.
Their main intention may be to dirty the U.S. up in the Persian Gulf: force concessions out of Obama that affect our operating profile, making us less effective and eroding our credibility with local partners.
The little Cyclone PCs are actually a “deckplate-level” target for a goal of the latter kind. They do yeoman work now in the fleet’s day-to-day tasking, stopping suspect vessels, protecting maritime infrastructure, and coming to the aid of ships that call for help, whether due to typical mariners’ problems or to more dangerous security attacks. (The report here, from 2015, is a good summary of the indispensable role the Cyclone PCs have taken on since the Navy repurposed them a decade ago and stationed 10 of them in the Persian Gulf.)
The Cyclones may be small, but they pack a punch. Besides the .50-cal, they have Mk 38 25mm cannons, and have been retrofitted with the anti-surface Griffin missile system, as well as Stingers for air defense. Two of the Persian Gulf PCs, including Squall, can deploy UAVs (drones) for area surveillance.
In March 2016, the last time a U.S. Navy ship intercepted an Iranian arms carrier (an exceedingly rare occurrence in the Obama years), the intercepting ship was a Cyclone PC, USS Sirocco. The arms cargo was bound for Yemen, in support of Iran’s Houthi insurgent clients.
It’s quite possible that the Iranians have chosen now as the time to for a full-court press on hindering U.S. maritime operations in the Gulf, in such a way that Iran will have a freer hand there and less to worry about from our longstanding enforcement profile, which promotes order and stability. Erosion on the margins becomes significant over time.
That said, this flurry of challenges has a different feel to it (starting with the persistent refusal to communicate with our warships on bridge-to-bridge, which is a big change in the Iranians’ profile). We’ll see which way this goes. It is axiomatic that no nation changes its naval profile because it is satisfied with the status quo. Whether she moves fast or slow, Iran wants to bring about a significant change here.