Iran continues escalation: Rocket attacks in Iraq, a political ultimatum; *UPDATE* Flying-bomb drones launched at Saudi Arabia

Iran continues escalation: Rocket attacks in Iraq, a political ultimatum; *UPDATE* Flying-bomb drones launched at Saudi Arabia
Iranian Gashti patrol craft seen near oil tanker Kokuka Courageous 13 June 2019. USN image via CNN video

[Warning: autoplay video below (the Fox News video); readers may want to mute audio until they can deal with it.  UPDATE is included at bottom of text.]

The place to start updates on the tanker saga near the Strait of Hormuz is a few hundred miles away in Iraq.  There, mortar attacks were launched Friday evening at Balad Air Base north of Baghdad (near Tikrit), where a mix of American troops and contractors is stationed.  The report is of three mortar rounds launched into the base from outside it.

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The Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. embassy complex is located, was also targeted with a rocket (see thread above).  Reportedly, the rocket landed on a building across the street from the embassy.

On Monday evening (17 June), there were reports of additional rocket attacks at Camp Taji northwest of Baghdad, where U.S. trainers work with Iraqi national army troops.

It isn’t clear at this point whether, or how quickly, harassment of this kind from inside Iraq will escalate.  But such attacks, presumably by Iran-backed militia forces in Iraq – using a signature weapon of Iran-backed paramilitary operatives throughout the Middle East – have been rare in spite of verbal threats from Iran over the past year.  The Iranian regime is apparently probing now to see how much harassment it can get away with.

The attacks in Iraq, along with the political situation and the overall nature of the maritime problem, explain the decision on Monday 17 June to deploy 1,000 additional U.S. troops to the region.  The troops are for force protection in theater and a plus-up in intelligence capability.  (The 1,000 are far too few to mount any sort of ground attack with.)

The initial reporting indicates they are actually part of the augmentation announced a few weeks ago; it sounds as if their deployment is being accelerated.

As for the political situation, the latest news, of course, is that Iran is giving the Europeans a deadline of 27 June to break with the U.S. and back Iran.  That date is when the Iranian regime vows to exceed the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 — unless the Europeans do something to guarantee Iran will get relief in some form from the U.S. sanctions.

A number of commentators have made the salient point that Iran’s ability to issue this threat is evidence of how flawed the JCPOA was from the start.  Nothing in it has prevented Iran from simply resuming uranium enrichment at a more robust level and rebuilding her stockpile.

Several scenarios could be gamed out as to what Iran’s particular play is here; the top-level goal is clearly to fatally split the EU-3 and U.S. on any way ahead.  The near-term objective is to open the spigot on oil and gas sales for Iran, and the money that goes with them.

The tanker saga

Most readers will be aware of the earlier update from CENTCOM with an event timeline and a video showing an Iranian patrol boat alongside one of the stricken oil tankers, Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, as the boat crew pulled what looks like a limpet mine off the tanker’s hull. That video, below, was from the afternoon of 13 June.  It’s described (by Fox News Monday evening) as coming from a “Navy surveillance plane,” but doesn’t compare well with video from the L3 Wescam MX-20 suite on a P-8 Poseidon.

The low resolution and jumpy, interlined refocusing aren’t characteristic in comparison with sample videos offered by the vendor (which are taken from a Caravan 208).  The sensor altitude, based on apparent slant angle to the target, would also be extremely low for a P-8 – a 737-based airframe that really doesn’t like to linger down at 5,000 feet or lower.

The video seems to compare best with a segment of the Raytheon Multi-Spectral Targeting Suite (MTS) on the MQ-9 Reaper (also found on platforms like the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk and MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV).  The Navy bought the same MTS for the MQ-4C Triton UAV, which reportedly made its operational debut in a deployment to Guam at the end of 2018.  There doesn’t appear to be a report that it’s in CENTCOM – although, of course, the MQ-9 is.

The video has consistently been referred to as coming from a Navy surveillance aircraft, however.  It was posted at YouTube by the Navy.  Further speculation isn’t particularly useful here.

All that said, the video is good enough for comparison with the clear images obtained by USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) of Kokuka Courageous’s damaged starboard side when the limpet mine-like object was still attached to the hull.  (See the link on the CENTCOM update for a further link to the Bainbridge images.)

USN image: USS Bainbridge via CENTCOM

A sample Iranian limpet mine of similar shape can be seen here:

The video is easily rectified to the image of Kokuka Courageous, with the probable mine being retrieved from the same location where it is seen in the photos from Bainbridge.  The patrol boat alongside the tanker is a Gashti class boat added to Iran’s inventory in 2016, and operated by the IRGC Navy (IRGCN).

Gashti class patrol boats arrive at Bandar Abbas in a 2016 ceremony. Iranian military via Pars Today

In a Monday update, CENTCOM provided addition images of the Kokuka Courageous hull in the location where the limpet mine was removed.  (So far these images have not been posted at a DOD website, and seem to be available only through news videos, of which two are embedded here.) A magnet is seen still stuck on the hull, along with silhouettes from the other magnets that held the mine in place.  The images were reportedly obtained by a helicopter, presumably an MH-60R Sea Hawk from the Bainbridge.

The nature of the attacks

The other tanker, Norwegian-owned Front Altair, sustained greater damage.  Front Altair is the ship we’ve seen immersed in flames and smoke in the reporting over the last four days.

There still hasn’t been enough forensic evidence presented to fully understand how the attacks on Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous were brought off.  (Kokuka Courageous only pulled into Sharjah, UAE, a little over 24 hours ago, so that’s not surprising.  Front Altair was being towed to Fujairah.  Incidentally, the crew of Front Altair, who had been pulled off the nearby ship that rescued them on 13 June by the Iranians, have now been transferred to Dubai.)

However, the emphasis on supposed contradictions in reporting about the attacks appears excessive.  There is actually only one currently unreconciled claim about the attacks, and that claim so far lacks evidence to back it up.

The short story on it is that the shipping operator of Kokuka Courageous, the head of the Japanese company Kokuka Sangyo, told the media over the weekend that his ship had been attacked on the port side.  I stress that Kokuka Courageous may very well have been attacked on the port side, so the point is not that the operator is wrong.  The point is that there has been no visual evidence I’ve seen showing damage to the port side of the ship.

There is clear evidence of damage to the starboard side.  The images from USS Bainbridge show  the hole blown in the hull on the starboard side above the water line.  Based on the last five digits of the ship’s IMO number on the stern (9568495), the ship is clearly Kokuka Courageous.  IMOs are unique.

The Kokuka Sangyo operator also said the ship reported being attacked by a flying object, and that may well have been the case.  But that doesn’t preclude a coordinated attack involving limpet mines as well.  Both could have happened.  The shipping company’s briefing isn’t in conflict with the visual evidence – but it does require resolution.

The images available to the public so far indicate the hole in Kokuka Courageous’s hull is similar to the holes in the tankers that were damaged back in May, off Fujairah, UAE, and is consistent with a blast from a limpet mine.  The crew initially reported a hit to the engineering spaces as well, which may be the one the owner spoke about in his media briefing.  I haven’t yet seen a post-attack image that covers other areas on the ship.

Front Altair’s damage is more extensive.  There appears to be a much larger breach in her hull on the starboard side, where the fire was raging in video and images from Thursday. It reaches from the water line to the main deck topside.

A blast hole is not really visible in this image but the discoloration from the fire is vivid.

A slightly better view of Front Altair from 16 June:

Satellite image Maxar via Twitter

The crew of Front Altair initially reported being hit by a torpedo.  If there had been a torpedo hit, I would have expected the damage to extend lower on the hull, and to have seen more dangerous flooding below decks.  So I’m skeptical about a torpedo, while not necessarily counting it out.

It’s conceivable that the visible damage to Front Altair was caused by a group of mines placed on the hull.

It’s noteworthy, meanwhile, that the ship’s insurer made a statement already suggesting the damage was done by an anti-ship missile.

With all those points established, there remain multiple possibilities.  I recounted some briefly on Thursday (top link); one is that the attackers placed magnetic mines and then either added the use of other attack assets to them, or simulated the use of other assets, while detonating the mines at coordinated times.

On Thursday, we didn’t know something we know now, which is that Iranian units, according to CENTCOM, were present near the tankers shortly after the attacks were reported, and that an Iranian asset of some kind (it isn’t specified in the reporting) tried to shoot down a U.S. drone that was operating over the Gulf of Oman.

 

One tweep does report having information on the shootdown attempt.  CENTCOM later issued a statement that the attempt on the U.S. drone was made with an SA-7 shoulder-fired anti-air missile, an older former-Soviet system than the Iranian-produced system seen in the tweet (which is based on the Chinese QW-1 series).

The MANPAD could have been used from just about any seaborne platform.

CNN’s report on the drone indicates that an MQ-9 Reaper was over the Gulf before the tankers were attacked, and according to an unnamed official observed Iranian vessels closing in on the tankers at that time.  Although that report describes it as the drone that was targeted, it hasn’t been clear in subsequent reporting that CNN had the story on “the” drone that was targeted by the shootdown attempt.  CENTCOM hasn’t identified it as such, so I’m not making that connection for the time being.

But CENTCOM did describe the Iranian boats that converged after the attack.  (There has been corroborating reporting from other sources as well.) That’s the information that tells us the IRGCN was there, and was engaged in the kind of activity that would fit the profile I’ve described.

The IRGCN has every kind of weapon system and “asymmetric” asset necessary for coordinated attacks on poorly defended commercial ships: patrol boats from which rockets and mortars can be launched, midget submarines from which torpedoes and antiship cruise missiles can be launched, and the use of innocent-looking coastal craft from which divers (and mines) can be deployed, and on which lookouts, phones, radios, and GPS devices can be arrayed for targeting support.

Iran also has a nearby coast from which a bomb-laden drone could be launched.  Controlling it in flight could be done from anywhere in the vicinity using a satellite or line-of-sight signal.

Right now, my bottom line on the two oil tankers is that one, the Kokuka Courageous, took a hit from a limpet mine like the ones used in May, and may have also been hit by a projectile from a nearby source (perhaps a rocket launched from an IRGCN patrol craft, or a “flying bomb” drone as described below).  There may have been an additional projectile or projectiles that didn’t achieve impact.  After the attack, the IRGCN – which had an asset watching the whole event – knew that a mine was left unexploded on the hull, and sent a boat to retrieve it.

The Front Altair seems to have taken a different kind of hit, which inflicted more damage on the hull and breached a cargo tank.  Not knowing exactly why the crew suspected a torpedo, I’m suspending judgment on that for now, although it doesn’t look like the money shot was low enough on the hull for a torpedo.

Without a closer inspection of the damage to Front Altair, the alternative possibilities are open.  One possibility, of course, is mines, as with the attacks in May.  One is a drone approaching on the surface to deliver a command- or fuse-detonated warhead.  Another is an airborne drone acting as a warhead delivery device.  That would be similar to the attack profile of the drone shot down by Israel in February 2018 (see here as well).

It could be that such a drone – essentially a flying bomb – was used against Kokuka Courageous as well, along with the limpet mines seen on the starboard side of the hull.  One thing I’m not aware of a body of knowledge on is how effective such a device would be in this scenario.

Note, again, that a Ghadir midget sub from Jask naval base could deliver torpedoes or Jask-2 cruise missiles.  In Kokuka Courageous’s case, this seems less likely to me.  Unless there is much greater damage on the port side than on the starboard side, it doesn’t look like Kokuka Courageous was hit anywhere by an anti-ship missile.

However, the damage to Front Altair would probably be consistent with a Jask-2 cruise missile.  That would fit the initial assessment of Front Altair’s insurer.

Other regional activity

I mentioned on Thursday that the Houthis in Yemen had launched a missile on 12 June at a southern Saudi airport, causing injury to 26 civilians.

Since then, a report has come out that on 6 June, a U.S. drone was shot down on the Yemeni Red Sea coast.  The U.S. is reported to have struck the downed drone afterward to ensure its destruction.

But the most interesting piece of information about this is another one.  According to the Wall Street Journal (later corroborated in a CENTCOM statement), the drone was shot down by a former-Soviet SA-6 (“Gainful”) anti-air missile: a workhorse of the late Cold War era, and still a formidable missile for all types of aircraft.  Yemen didn’t start this civil war out with SA-6s.  The SA-6s came in later – to the Houthi rebels, courtesy of Iran, which has been shipping arms through Yemen’s ill-policed hinterlands since at least 2015.

Iran, as long predicted, is digging in in Yemen.  We don’t know how long the SA-6 has been in country there, but the first use of it, against a U.S. aircraft, is a policy watershed for the entire region.

I’ve been pointing out since at least 2010 that Iran would like to use Yemen as a forward base for power projection assets like anti-air, cruise, and ballistic missiles.  Others have made the same case.  It’s happening.

Last look

A most peculiar report appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Monday, apparently sourced from Maariv.  It cites “diplomatic sources at UN headquarters” claiming they are “assessing the United States’ plans to carry out a tactical assault on Iran in response to the tanker attack in the Persian Gulf on Thursday.”

The report goes on to describe the White House “holding incessant discussions involving senior military commanders, Pentagon representatives and advisers to President Donald Trump,” with plans involving “aerial bombardment of an Iranian facility linked to its nuclear program.”

This sounds like utter and complete malarkey.  The likelihood of the United States previewing such plans to the UN is zero.  (We would make diplomatic notifications in the event of actually executing such a plan – which by the way is not worth doing as described, and I give our current leaders credit for knowing that – but there is no way we would let “diplomatic sources” at the UN review the operational plan in advance.)

The report includes this fascinating passage:

The sources added that President Trump himself was not enthusiastic about a military move against Iran, but lost his patience on the matter and would grant Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is pushing for action, what he wants.

I have to assume someone really told Maariv this, but the whole thing is outlandish.  I’m reserving judgment on the provenance and purpose of such informational beard-tweaking, but would not want to deprive readers of the opportunity to think it over.

*UPDATE*:  AP reports Tuesday morning that Houthis in Yemen launched two “bomb-laden drones” at Saudi Arabia.  Reportedly the Houthis have claimed one of the launches themselves.  A Saudi official provided details on both; one of the drones was shot down, according to the official, before it could enter Saudi air space.  The other targeted Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia.  See the text above for links on Iran’s use of a “flying-bomb” drone in an attack profile against Israel in February 2018.  The Israelis shot it down and discovered after examining the wreckage that it was a flying bomb.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.