Attacks on Saudi Arabia ‘from the sea,’ and a deterrence environment that has already changed (Part I)

Attacks on Saudi Arabia ‘from the sea,’ and a deterrence environment that has already changed (Part I)
Drone strike on Ras Tanura oil complex in Saudi Arabia, 7 Mar 2021. YouTube video

Saudi officials confirmed on Monday, 8 March, that infrastructure in eastern Saudi Arabia was targeted with ballistic missiles and drones in a late-Sunday strike attributed to Houthi insurgents in Yemen.

The Houthis took credit for the attack quite promptly.  Impacts occurred in Saudi Arabia in the city of Dhahran and the oil complex at Ras Tanura on the Persian Gulf.  Saudi defenses also took out incoming missiles and drones.

The attack was part of an escalating series in recent weeks, which continued with additional missile launches and drone attempts by the Houthis on Monday.

As noted before, the Biden administration essentially green-lighted this escalation when it delisted the Houthis as a terrorist group, effectively relaxing U.S. sanctions on third parties that tacitly cooperate in Iran’s arming and training of the Houthis.

Reversing U.S. policy on the Irani sanctions “snapback” under the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is also opening up cash flows for Iran, enabling the mullahs to better arm the Houthis.

But one aspect of the 7 March attack on the Saudi oil complex raises the question whether Iran may be doing even more.

The Saudi brief on Monday was clear on that aspect.  According to the Saudis, the drone that hit a tank farm at Ras Tanura was launched from the sea.

Google map; author annotation

In other words, it wasn’t launched from Houthi-held territory in Yemen.

If the Saudis’ statement has a precise meaning – and it may – it also means the drone wasn’t launched from Iraqi or Iranian territory.  Such an origin from territory across the Persian Gulf has been suspected before, although not firmly established (see here and here).

The latter may still be the meaning this time, given that early reporting on 7 May indicated the Saudis weren’t certain of the drone’s origin.

But they have now said multiple times, in informal statements on Sunday and their official communications on Monday, that the drone was “launched from the sea.”

And if the drone was launched from sea in the Persian Gulf, it wasn’t launched by the Houthis.

It is worth developing that point, because we know the Iranians are pursuing such a seaborne operational capability: one that would support larger, explosive-laden drones as well as drones used only for reconnaissance.

There’s more than one potential platform for such a launch, and there’s too little public information to draw conclusions from.  But one possibility has been raised by analysts who have been following Iran’s new version of an expeditionary support vessel, the naval-commissioned Shahid Roudaki, an IRGCN asset, which debuted via Iranian media in November 2020.

Shahid Roudaki, given the naval pennant number L110-1, is thought to be the former Galaxy F (previously Altinia), an Italian-built roll-on/roll-off ship (RO/RO) which loads large-scale cargo via a stern ramp, and is constructed with an interior ramp that allows vehicles to ascend to secured positions on the deck. This is an obvious advantage for loading such weapon systems as mobile surface-to-air missile launchers and fast boats towed on trailers.

Ramp from Shahid Roudaki’s RO/RO cargo hold. Seee a view of the stern in the video below. IranPress video via USNI, YouTube

Shahid Roudaki was decked out with these and more – including two classes of drones – in the promotional video aired for her debut in November.  H.I. Sutton has a good summary of the systems seen in the video at his Covert Shores website.  (Be sure to see Lenny Ben-David’s discussion at JCPA as well, linked from his tweet above.)

Missiles and helos and drones, oh my. Shahid Roudaki shows off her collection in Nov 2020. IranPress video via USNI, YouTube

The ship has machine guns and an anti-aircraft gun for self-defense, although as Sutton implies, those are not robust defenses against a fast, agile, purpose-built warship like a frigate or destroyer.

It’s worth pointing out that it’s not just the U.S. and our formally allied navies (e.g., NATO, Australia, Japan, South Korea) that have such warships.  The Saudis have them too.  A ship like Shahid Roudaki would require significant escort protection to be effective as a “force multiplier” in regional operations.

But we can assume Iran didn’t have Galaxy F transformed into Shahid Roudaki just for kicks.  There are reasons, in fact, why now might be the time to give her an operational test.  And her history is convincing as to what Iran wants to do with her, and how motivated Iran probably is.

The timing of a birth

Let’s take a brief look at the history.  We haven’t looked at this for a while, but assuming the Galaxy F connection,  Shahid Roudaki’s timeline dovetails with action tracked in 2019, when Iran was mining merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz and the Houthis were attacking Saudi Arabia.  I won’t recount the history at length; you can refresh your memory at the posts from that time.  But the induction of Galaxy F into naval service for Iran ensued closely on that period, which occurred in April, May, and June 2019.

Galaxy F was actually still Altinia, her old name, when the 2019 activity started on the Arabian Peninsula.  Altinia was operating as the sole asset of a niche, Italian-run shipping line, Procargo, which had begun a route from Italy to Tunisia in May 2018.  It was noted in promotional material that Altinia was configured to accommodate rolling stock (i.e., rail freight carriages) via her stern ramp.  She’s a modern, capable platform, suited for multiple types of bulky cargo.

As described in 2019, the signal events that included drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, as well as the mine attacks on shipping, began in late April and went on through mid-June.  An arresting episode in this period was the damage to an Iranian tanker, Happiness I, in the Red Sea in the last couple of days of April.

And it’s interesting to keep in mind a couple of oddities connected with that episode.  One was the coincidence that the ship was said to have suffered an explosion like a missile attack (although that was never confirmed – nor categorically denied).  At the same time, U.S. officials were reportedly warning of intelligence that Iran was trying to move ballistic missiles via commercial shipping, and possibly to actually deploy them operationally that way.

Happiness I in 2018. image credit: Dennis Adriaanse,

(The other oddity was that Happiness I was carrying natural gas liquid (NGL), a volatile oil byproduct also known as ultralight crude:  the same thing that had been carried by Iranian tanker M/V Sanchi in January 2018, when Sanchi collided with a Chinese freighter off the eastern coast of China, and burned for days before sinking to the sea bottom.)

So it is very interesting to note that by 30 May 2019, the Procargo line had decided to abruptly terminate its runs to Tunisia, and indeed, to sell Altinia to a Greek firm, Go Shipping, out of Piraeus.  A group of Iranian anti-regime activists, operating under the acronym IFMAT, identifies Go Shipping as linked to the Iranian entities National Iranian Tanker Co. and National Iranian Oil Co.  (IFMAT has Galaxy F miscategorized as a tanker, which is what most of the shipping IFMAT tracks consists of.  But other than that the information looks sound, and consonant with related data maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department.)

Altinia was renamed Galaxy F in that transaction and reflagged from Italy to Panama.  The ship reportedly made cargo runs for the company Mario’s Superfast, apparently from Malta.  But that didn’t last long (which is often a sign that a ship is being eyed for something other than the most obvious or ostensible purpose for obtaining it).

According to an invaluable chronology (in Greek) by a user at the forum Ship Friends, from July to at least September 2019, the Galaxy F sat idle at the pier.  In November 2019 the ship went to Sagunto, Spain.  The Ship Friends user (Nick the Greek) thought, by early 2020, that Galaxy F had been making AIS-silent runs to Libya since December, when she was detected in Misurata.  (A ship of dubious employment making silent runs to Libya is, of course, highly characteristic of connection with Iran.)

Apparently her AIS remained off for a good chunk of time in the first half of 2020.  Another user posted in May that Galaxy F had been in Greece’s Spanopoulos Shipyard, west of Piraeus, since 10 April 2020, which of course is always interesting.

And on 13 May, user Nick the Greek noted that Galaxy F had departed for Sharjah, UAE the day before – obviously out of pattern for the ship, and seeming to herald an operating change in store for her.

Nick the Greek posted about her subsequent appearance in Bandar Abbas, Iran, on 19 August 2020.  This would now be closing in on her big media debut as a special-purpose naval vessel in November.

But the ship seemingly had one more run to make in relative – apparently deliberate – anonymity.  She showed up in Singapore on 8 September 2020, reportedly after a transit of 17 days from Iran’s ISOICO shipyard near Bandar Abbas.

Screen cap by author

Here’s where things get weird, and demonstrate why tracking Iranian ships is often a dicey proposition.  Notice that Galaxy F seems to have become HA Spring for the trip.  The ship’s unique identifier, IMO number 9048471, is present (although not visible in the screen cap), and a search with that IMO and “HA Spring” turns up numerous search results showing the ship in Singapore on that date, and reflecting her as the former Galaxy F and Altinia.  At the ShipSpotting website (next link), there is information that the ship was shifted to the Comoros flag for at least some of this voyage, and was operated by a shell company, HA Marine, registered as so many are in the Marshall Islands.  (See the comments section at this entry for Shahid Roudaki.)

Practically nothing is known about HA Marine.  It may well be the elusive company HA Marine S.A., which is reflected in shipping index sources as having a headquarters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  (It’s quite common to nevertheless have a corporate registration in the Marshall Islands.)

If that’s our company, it has this telling feature in its profile: it has only been associated with one other ship, the Lily-HA.  Lily-HA’s history goes back to Syria, where it was the Ahmad-S and was nationally flagged for a number of years, until 2011 when it was reflagged to Cook Islands (and now Togo), probably in an effort to avoid the post-Arab Spring sanctions.

The HA Marine connection can’t be fully confirmed via available resources online, but this overall profile has Iran written all over it.

That said, the weirdness continues, because the ship with the Galaxy F/Shahid Roudaki IMO number, 9048471, continued to show tracking in Southeast Asia and even China through late October 2020.  One site shows Galaxy F leaving the area of Hong Kong on 25 October 2020 and being in the Yellow Sea on 29 October 2020.

Another site also has IMO 9048471, this time as Shahid Roudaki, in the Bohai Gulf, just west of the Yellow Sea, on an unspecified date.

That site, Fleet Mon, continues to track IMO 9048471 through 7 March 2021 in the Singapore Strait, reflecting it as Shahid Roudaki.

The ship in the tracking data presenting as IMO 9048471 is not reflected as being in the Far East at the time of Shahid Roudaki’s media debut in November 2020.  That gap serves to bolster the theory that Galaxy F, confirmed in the shipping world as the last commercial incarnation of IMO 9048471, did become Shahid Roudaki.  “Shahid Roudaki” was at least not in two places at once.

However, it is extremely unlikely that Shahid Roudaki went back to Southeast Asia after November and is sitting at anchor in the Singapore Strait right now.

One theory would be that the AIS the ship was installed with as Altinia, and had throughout its time under that name and as Galaxy F, was shifted to another hull in the fall of 2020.  There is no form of typical evidence other than automated tracking and port declaration updates that IMO 9048471, the original hull, has been in the Far East in the last few months.  (The last image of Galaxy F online is the one from the Spanopoulos Shipyard in May of 2020, featured in the tweet above.)

It’s possible that another ship is reporting as IMO 9048471, and Shahid Roudaki — which is not updating in the vicinity of Iran as far as I can discover — is the hull she is thought to be, but has gone incognito AIS-wise.  It’s also possible, although I believe less likely, that some other hull has become Shahid Roudaki, and the Galaxy F is gallivanting invisibly around East Asia today.

But Galaxy F lost any sensible operational history — with an owner, manager, and recorded employment — at the time Shahid Roudaki came on the scene.  The simplest solution is that Galaxy F indeed became Shahid Roudaki, and some other hull is squawking in the Far East as IMO 9048471.

We can’t be certain, however.  This conundrum is a good reminder of (a) how Iran manipulates ship tracking, and (b) the wisdom of using caveats when talking about Iranian ship identities.

Curiously, meanwhile, another connection emerged from the past in the latter half of 2020.  Happiness I had sat, probably rather unhappily, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia through the end of July 2019, after its painful episode in the Red Sea in April 2019.  The ship did little if anything on its return to Iran.  But on 9 August 2020, Happiness I turned up in Dongjiakou, China, south of the megaport of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea.

China thus crops up twice in the histories of Iranian ships caught recently doing strange things.  That isn’t surprising.

In Part II, we will look at the operational context and its impact on how likely the use of Shahid Roudaki is.

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.


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