At the beginning of May, a report came out in maritime-industry media that an Iranian oil tanker, M/V Happiness I, had lost both propulsion and steering in the Red Sea, and was in distress near the Saudi port of Jeddah. I thought that odd enough to look into at the time, given the ship’s identity, location, and comprehensive loss of maneuvering capability, which is relatively rare.
Happiness I (IMO 9212905; see here as well) was built in 2003 in South Korea and has been active ever since, including recently, so she is neither notably old nor likely to be out of proper maintenance. It’s more common to suffer either a steering or propulsion casualty, but both at once make for a radar blip that’s worth tracking.
At a maritime tracking website last week, I saw that Happiness I’s status was given as “not under command,” which in marine terms means a ship is unable because of exceptional circumstances to maneuver, and can’t keep out of the way of another vessel in accordance with the maritime “Rules of the Road.” That indicates comprehensive system failure.
The Saudis on 2 May were reporting that they had responded to the Happiness I and were rendering assistance. The latest report is that the tanker has been “rescued,” i.e., towed to port, and all 26 crew members are safe. There has been no report of an oil slick or other leakage from the hold. In fact, the social media team known as the Tanker Trackers is convinced there was no oil spill (and has a very good Twitter thread on this incident, to which I am indebted).
BREAKING NEWS: We are currently following up on a lead of a POSSIBLE incident involving not one, but two Iranian tankers sailing in parallel in the Red Sea. One of them is said to be leaking. We have imagery from time of incident, but are not drawing any conclusions yet. #OOTT pic.twitter.com/BLYCgEQv5d
— TankerTrackers.com ⚓️? (@TankerTrackers) May 1, 2019
The information on Happiness I came out about two days before the statements over the weekend by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the U.S. was moving the deployed carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) into the CENTCOM theater, and Lincoln’s presence should be read as a warning to Iran. The U.S. is also deploying an Air Force bomber task force to CENTCOM, which allows for a very rapid response in the theater with some of the most potent weapons in our inventory.
That was certainly interesting, especially since Happiness I transports oil for the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), on which sanctions have been tightened after their loosening under Obama. Tightened sanctions are one of the factors in the potential for an increased threat from Iran, including attempts to retaliate by attacking U.S. interests.
On Tuesday, 7 May, CNN reported U.S. defense officials saying that what was behind the pointed warning statements that accompanied these military movements was intelligence about Iran transporting “ballistic missiles” in ships. The report referenced an intent to attack U.S. bases as well, apparently in connection with the missile activity. (CNN used the word “boat,” but that seems quite doubtful, so I’ll use the word ship here.)
Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported the U.S. had unusually specific intelligence about Iranian plans to attack U.S. bases in the region.
CNN acknowledged that it wasn’t clear from the information they had whether Iran intended to launch the missiles from ships, or was merely transporting them from one place to another to facilitate launches from land somewhere outside Iran.
The implication, however, was that Iran was positioning to use missiles against U.S. bases in the Middle East. (More on that in a moment. The will to do it is one thing; the technical possibility of it is not as far-fetched as it might seem.)
Enter the “missile”
All of this together makes a social media report from 30 April, the day of the casualty on Happiness I, a very strong blip on the radar. The report adds a detail – which may or may not be valid – that the tanker was hit by a missile. Again, we have no way of verifying if that detail is valid. But it can’t fail to be of interest in the overall context.
The social media report appeared on Telegram, and in Farsi. I was able to obtain two translations of it from Farsi speakers in the last 24 hours, which clarify considerably the rather garbled product from Google Translate. (H/t: Tanker Trackers; see linked thread above.)
These are the translations:
Attention, attention, attention, attention.
Greetings to Dear Mr. Mohammadi.
Attention, attention, attention, attention
Greetings dear Mr. Mohammedi,
I am an old employee of the National Iranian Petroleum Transportation Company.
I wanted to advise you of an important piece of news that I received this morning from a colleague.
Today at 6:30 AM Iran time a 300,000 ton supertanker affiliated with the National Iranian Petroleum Transportation Company, by the name of hapiness[sic] that was carrying approximately 150,000 tons of natural gas condensate (the same content that the Sanchi ship was carrying) on its way to Syria via the Red Sea and at two days distance to the Suez Canal was attacked in the rear of the ship.
As per the account of colleagues on the ship the motor room of the ship is completely submerged in water but thank God none of all Iranian crew were hurt.
Currently all the personnel have been transferred to another ship belonging to the National Iranian Petroleum Transportation Company that was in the area.
After the incident it seems that due to extreme intelligence measures none of the personnel present on the ship were willing to divulge the true reason behind the incident, until I was able to discover the truth via an old colleague.
I will leave it up to you to decide if what I am reporting to you is correct, but be certain that my report is completely correct. The ship is under full blackout and its only source of power is being provided by a temporary generator. The motor room up to the control room in the upper level and the pump room are all under water according to my colleagues.
Looking forward to the Road of Freedom of Iran,
The second one:
Attention attention Attention attention.
Greetings Dear Mr. Mokhamedi,
I am a senior staff member of the National Iranian Oil Tanker Company. I wanted to inform you of an important piece of news that I received via my colleagues this morning.
This morning, at 6:30 a.m. a 300 thousand ton Super Tanker ship belonging to the National Iranian Oil Tank Company, named happiness, carrying about 150 thousand tons of Condensate (?) (the same cargo that was carried by the ship named Sanchi) and was headed to Syria via the Red Sea. Two days left to the Suez Canal, a missile hits the heel of the ship. According to my colleagues who were onboard, the ship’s engine room completely sank in water, but thank God, the ship personnel who are all Iranians were not harmed.
At the moment, everyone has been transferred to another ship of the National Iranian Tanker Fleet that was in the area…After the incident, apparently the intelligence sector has pressed for the information not to be divulged. Not even repeated calls from friends with their colleagues who were in the ship, none of them were willing to explain the real reason for the incident. I was able to act as intermediary with a close friend who was there and was able to figure it out.
Verifying the veracity, I entrust the information to you; but rest assured that my intel is spot on. FYI, the ship is currently in full black out and only emergency power is provided via an emergency generator. The engine room all the way up to the control room area, which is considered to be the highest section of the engine room, along with the compartment contains the pump to evacuate the ship (the pump room), is also under water, according to colleagues…..
Be resilient on the path to the freedom of Iran.
The Tanker Trackers didn’t attempt to account for the “missile attack” reference. But that’s what we will discuss here. (The Tanker Trackers’ post on ship-to-ship oil transfers at sea, and the probability that the Iranian crew members were indeed transferred to the other Iranian ship, the Sabiti, is well worth the time in its own right.)
The other tanker with the same cargo
A note at the outset: the allusion to Happiness I carrying “condensate” refers to a form of natural gas liquid (NGL) which is incident to oil products, and is also referred to as “ultra-light crude.” Although maritime export of NGL has been increasing, there are concerns about its safety during transport, and for several reasons, the U.S. has prohibited NGL exports for years.
The interesting aspect of the “condensate” reference, however, is that the NGL condensate cargo caused the social media user to mention M/V Sanchi, which alert readers will remember was the Iranian tanker that collided with a Chinese freighter off the East coast of China in January 2018. That collision turned into a conflagration when the Sanchi burst into flames; it also resulted in a vast gas leak across the East China Sea. Sanchi ultimately sank entirely, and was reportedly located afterward – a wrecked hull – on the seabed.
The original collision with the Chinese freighter was unrelated to the nature of the cargo, however. It appears to have been caused by a steering or propulsion casualty, or perhaps both. That is the interesting aspect. As we’ll see, the “things that make you go, Hmmm” count will continue to pile up in this saga. At the very least, it paints a striking impressionist image of what’s going on out there on the high seas.
Rockets and missiles
As for the rocket/missile reference in the Telegram post, my initial reaction is that – assuming the Telegram post itself is straightforward, and not some elaborate info-war ruse – it’s extremely unlikely to have been an actual missile attack from someone outside the tanker Happiness I.
That judgment is probably a major reason why Tanker Trackers basically ignored it. They may also have thought the Google Translate version might be unreliable enough that they shouldn’t get invested in the reference to a missile (or “rocket”). Either consideration is a sound one. But now that there is verification from Farsi speakers that the post refers to a missile, or rocket-propelled weapon, it’s worth analyzing it.
I consider the outside-attack scenario unlikely because there is no one with the motive to make such an attack, which is not only a belligerent act but an observable one that would inherently risk a major oil spill in the Red Sea. For some observers, the Saudis might be the obvious culprits, but that view is flawed.
An attack of this kind would not be in character for the Saudis in terms of their response to the Iran-backed threat from Yemen, which has been conventional, and focused on degrading the capabilities of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Nor does Saudi Arabia have a motive to attack Iranian shipping with military weapons at all – and especially not if a ship has already bypassed Yemen and is headed to the Suez Canal. The Saudis may applaud the tightening of U.S. sanctions, but that doesn’t reasonably translate into mounting belligerent attacks on Iranian tankers themselves.
There isn’t anyone else, either, with the motive to commit this act. If the U.S. or Israel had some reason to disable the tanker, we’d do it without a missile attack.
Note that that possibility – that there was a reason to disable the tanker – can’t be discounted. There’s more than one way to stop a ship at sea from continuing toward its destination. But as regards the “how” question, further speculation would be a fruitless diversion into blind alleys.
That said, the “reason” question is not to be dismissed. One possibility is that the tanker was carrying missiles. Ten days ago that scenario, although not impossible, would have seemed highly improbable. You don’t use an oil tanker to transport missiles.
But if CNN’s sources are right – anonymous sources, as usual, so apply the usual caveats – maybe, in this case, Iran was using a tanker to transport missiles.
As cargo, we would assume such missiles were being carried specially packed, probably in an area where they could escape particular notice if the ship were routinely inspected during transport. (See this generic explainer on tanker design for ideas. Happiness I is a “VLCC,” or Very Large Crude Carrier.)
The unique nature of such cargo and the national purpose behind it would be more important than the commercial efficiency of transport and storage. This isn’t a scenario in which moving standard-size shipping containers would necessarily apply. There’s not a lot of extra space for conventionally packed dry cargo on a tanker, but there should be enough space to slip in a few missiles. The missile bodies and warheads would probably be stored separately for transport.
… and commercial ships
There’s also the possibility that the ship itself might be used as a launch platform. Publicly available information is minimal on an Iranian line of effort in this regard, but it’s there, and relevant. In a 2001 National Intelligence Estimate of the foreign ballistic missile threat through 2015, the CIA outlined a sea-based ballistic missile threat to the U.S. that explicitly included the possibility of a threat nation using merchant ships as launch platforms (p. 14).
About three years before that, Iran had reportedly test-launched a sea-based ballistic missile from a barge in the Caspian Sea.
That summary was written in 1999. The likelihood that Iran has continued to pursue such a capability is reflected in what North Korea was doing in 2014: preparing a test stand for a vertical-launch sea-based missile at the Sinpo Shipyard complex.
In 2016, North Korea announced it successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submarine. U.S. and South Korean officials agreed the launch was a success, and video evidence from Pyongyang indicated it was a vertical launch (as opposed to a launch from a torpedo tube).
Another successful test followed in early 2017, although additional testing has been halted with the negotiations between North Korea and the Trump administration underway. The progress in North Korea is something the Iranians would almost certainly be benefiting from, given their history of extensive cooperation in both missile and nuclear warhead development. (Alternatively, as discussed in the 2001 NIA, Iran could simply attach a launcher to a ship’s deck deck and fire ballistic missiles that way. That would require few modifications to the ship, and no development work with vertical-launch capability. But the opportunities for the development work are there, along with the indications of interest by Iran.)
The Iranians could hide much of the work for preparing the means to launch missiles from commercial ships in either Iran (e.g., the vast military-industrial complexes east of Tehran) or North Korea. Detection of at-sea work could be minimized, though not eliminated, by performing it off North Korea, in the Caspian Sea, or, at a reach but not unreasonably, off Venezuela. This overall scenario is not impossible or even unlikely. It is unproven, however.
But with U.S. officials reportedly talking about it as a potential threat factor, and the emphatic rhetoric from Bolton and Pompeo over the weekend, it merits the discussion here.
One advantage of launching missiles at a U.S. base in the Middle East from a commercial ship is that the origin of the attack could remain mysterious for at least some period of time.
And with Happiness I reportedly headed for Syria, the possibility that she was to be a launch platform would implicate U.S. bases even further afield. (It could also, of course, indicate that the missiles were destined for Syrian territory, and were being transported in a way Israel was less likely to observe.)
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Happiness I was carrying missiles, perhaps even as a launch platform-in-waiting – and a warhead suffered a (probably partial or compromised) detonation, resulting in what felt like a missile attack on the ship. Most crew members would not be aware of the nature of highly sensitive cargo, even if they saw its outer packaging. In other words, they might not realize what could have happened other than an off-ship attack.
Additional scenario considerations
Keep in mind that the ship’s NGL cargo was not implicated in the casualty incident. Happiness I didn’t experience a massive blaze, nor has there been any evidence of an oil spill. An oil spill from a breached tank would be impossible to keep out of the media, just as a tanker on fire would have been highly noticeable and visible for miles. Neither observation has been reported, in spite of numerous reports in regional and global media.
According to the Telegram post, the engineering space (in the stern of the ship) was what was underwater after the phenomenon that apparently seemed like a missile attack. Might there have been a warhead detonation near enough to it cause a hull breach and allow water to pour in — but not affect the oil cargo tanks?
There are a couple of additional points to glance at, as regards this specific scenario. Obviously, the Iranians would want, if possible, to get any missiles they had on the ship off of it before a foreign rescue force arrived. One way to do that would be to just cut their losses and throw the items over the side. Another would be – if it were possible – to move them to the Sabiti, the ship Happiness I was traveling in company with, according to Tanker Trackers’ analysis.
Tanker Trackers makes an interesting case that Happiness I and Sabiti had time and position in their observed tracks to transfer the crew of Happiness I to Sabiti. It’s not clear that they would have had time to retrieve packed missile parts and move them between the ships (presumably via small boat); I’m liking the “over-the-side” option better myself.
Further speculation could be endless and mostly fruitless in the absence of more information. Two more points to emphasize. One, we have no way of vouching for the origins of the social media report. Consider at your leisure as many contra-indicative possibilities as you like; e.g., that the Telegram post was placed deliberately (by Iran) to be misleading, and in particular to allege that an Iranian ship had been attacked.
Two, nothing in this discussion or anything said by U.S. authorities in the last week was “the” reason for the Abraham Lincoln strike group’s deployment. The strike group deployed on 1 April, a month before Happiness I’s incident in the Red Sea. The timing would have been possible because the strike group was worked up and combat ready, after a program of preparation strike groups go through before deploying.
The window of the specific deployment date is chosen in advance, weeks or months as dictated by multiple factors. The particular timing selected allowed Lincoln to relieve USS John C Stennis (CVN-74) on station in the Mediterranean, at the right time for Stennis to proceed on to Norfolk on schedule (which Stennis has now done. Stennis is headed to the East coast for a refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH), a process with too many moving parts for her schedule to have much flexibility at this point. Delaying the extremely expensive and complex work needed to prepare her for this years-long evolution would be done only in the gravest emergency situation – or, as in the Obama “sequestration” years, as a draconian budgetary choice).
MT @stennis74: Last week the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group transited the Strait of Gibraltar with @MarineNationale FS Jean Bart and P8 Poseidon in the @USNavyEurope area of operations. #NavyLethality #NavyPartnerships pic.twitter.com/HAKf30uTRA
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) May 6, 2019
As laid out in my earlier post on this, the Abraham Lincoln appears to be moving to CENTCOM – where she was going to spend some of her deployment time anyway – at a moment when that movement could be used to add emphasis to the deterrence rhetoric from Bolton and Pompeo. That’s a time-honored use of “gray-hull diplomacy.”
Beyond that, the Happiness I incident on 30 April may well illuminate some of the threat background Bolton and Pompeo had in mind when they issued their warnings to Iran. The Saudis ought to get a closer look at Happiness I while she’s in Jeddah. But the public probably won’t be afforded more particulars about any of this.