The changed deterrence environment for attacks on Saudi Arabia from the sea (Part II)

The changed deterrence environment for attacks on Saudi Arabia from the sea (Part II)
Missiles and helos and drones, oh my. Shahid Roudaki shows off her collection in Nov 2020. IranPress video via USNI, YouTube

In Part I, we looked at a new maritime weapons platform Iran unveiled in November 2020, a modified roll-on/roll-off ship (RO/RO), the Shahid RoudakiShahid Roudaki, a commercial cargo hull, does not have the characteristics of a fighting ship, but will apparently be used to move weapon systems and possibly force packages (e.g., for special forces) around the Middle East.

The topic came up because of the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones, one of which the Saudis stated was “launched from the sea.”  While that could mean the drone was launched from Iraqi or Iranian territory and flew overwater – something suspected in attacks as early as 2019 – the Shahid Roudaki platform adds another dimension to the problem.

We left the story of Shahid Roudaki with the ship’s identity possibly being spoofed in recent months in East Asia, after her debut with the IRGCN, and the intriguing possibility as well that Shahid Roudaki went to China in October 2020, shortly before the Iranian announcement of her addition to the fleet in Bandar Abbas.

Part II surveys considerations for Shahid Roudaki’s activities and fleet employment in the evolving operational environment.

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Operational notes

It’s not out of the question that Shahid Roudaki went to Singapore in September, and spent time in China before heading back to Iran for the media blitz in November.

If Iran wants to test systems with moving parts that do detectable things, for example, going outside Iran for it may be seen as desirable.  As good as much foreign surveillance is, including America’s, it’s still possible to obfuscate who is being served by, say, practice runs on and off a RO/RO with combat vehicles, or practice runs off the deck with drones, or missile test launches.

If, that is, those evolutions are scheduled in a remote location not directly connected to the beneficiary.

In the case of anti-ship or anti-air missile launches, where platform stability is important, such testing would be essential.  It would also be highly exposed, with Iran as the obvious testing entity, anywhere on the Iranian coastline.

Going back to the little oddity attending the Happiness I episode in 2019 (relating to launching ballistic missiles from commercial ships; see Part I), it would also be essential – if the capability is still a priority for the IRGCN – to test something like running a mobile ballistic missile launcher onto a RO/RO and launching SRBMs.

If Shahid Roudaki has rails still in the cargo hold (unclear from the video), employing railcars to move such items on and off, some of them on flatbeds, others packed in standard shipping containers, could be part of a deployment scheme.  H.I. Hutton noted that the SAM radar for the 3rd Khordad system (i.e., the Iranian version of the Russian Buk SAM) observed on the deck in video and photos of Shahid Roudaki was not mounted permanently on the ship.  But that may be a feature, not a bug, for what Iran has in mind.  (Note that Iran has tested the mobile 3rd Khordad SAM system on a corvette-size combatant, and apparently does intend it for future use on warships.)

Iranian 3rd Khordad SAM raises launcher on the deck of Shahid Roudaki. IranPress video via USNI, YouTube

Likewise for other missile types.  The U.S. concept for the expeditionary sea bases (ESBs) we’ve been deploying to the Middle East is to move around deployment capacity for mobile systems and force packages without having to dedicate full-capability fighting ships like our amphibious warfare platforms to the task.  There’s no reason why Iran would not envision the same thing.

Approaching USS Lewis B. (“Chesty”) Puller (ESB-3) on a small boat. USNI video

The biggest question to answer in assessing where the drone(s) “launched from the sea” on 7 March came from may be “Why now?”  Drones have approach the Saudi coast from the sea before, but were thought to have launched from Iraq, or less likely from Iran.  Is there a reason to expect an asset like Shahid Roudaki to be used for seaborne launches today?

A look at the timeline suggests the elements of an answer.  To begin with, the urgency of acquiring such a capability appears to have gotten a jolt in May of 2019.  I wouldn’t take Galaxy F’s profile between then and her trip to Sharjah a year later at face value; in Iranian-style ship management, the semblance of semi-normal ship operations during that period functioned as cover for what was really going on   The time in port and in the Greek shipyard, and perhaps some trips to Libya, are a better guide.

Iran was working on this for a while, in other words, but on a brisk timeline as the development of military capabilities goes.  At the end of 2020, an opportunity presented itself when it became clear the U.S. electoral process would put Joe Biden in the White House.  Iran has far fewer illusions about Biden himself, and senior U.S. Democrats in general, than Americans do.  The mullahs know they’ll get away with more when Democrats are running foreign policy.  (As we may recall, that’s probably what John Kerry told them when he met with Iranian officials during the Trump presidency, between 2018 and Biden’s inauguration in 2021.)

The situation in March 2021

The mullahs might think twice about trotting out a showy but vulnerable platform like Shahid Roudaki with a trumpet fanfare, and then promptly using her for a combat task, if Trump were still in office.  But by 19 November 2020 it was becoming accepted in most quarters that Biden would be the next president.  And as of 20 January 2021, he was installed in the White House.

There are two very particular conditions amplifying the effect of that on the Iranian regime’s calculations.  One is that there is no carrier strike group in CENTCOM, and there hasn’t been since USS Nimitz (CVN-68) left in early February.  Nimitz just got home to Washington on Sunday, in fact.

USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69), meanwhile, coming from the U.S. East coast, was in the western Mediterranean four days ago, and doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to get to CENTCOM.  (The report at this Greek website indicates Ike is expected shortly to conduct an exercise with Greek forces in EastMed.  Ike has integrated a Greek warship into the strike group, a not-uncommon practice with our NATO allies and one that in this case probably means the carrier will be in the Med for a while.)

As the USNI update notes, the Biden administration is revisiting the presence requirement for carriers in CENTCOM, and may “rebalance” U.S. priorities in that regard.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Wildcats’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131, launches from the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) on Oct. 1, 2020. USN

Such a move obviously would reduce the deterrent effect of U.S. armed force on all Iranian activities in the region.  But below that strategic-level impact, it also gives Iran a freer hand for precisely such attempts as launching weapons from a special-purpose ship at foreign targets.

The amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHA-8) is deployed in the Persian Gulf at the moment with a detachment of Marine Corps F-35B strike-fighters and MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.  The Makin Island expeditionary strike group, which includes the embarked 15 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and amphibious ships USS San Diego (LPD-22) and USS Somerset (LPD-25), is a formidable fighting force.

But with a much smaller air wing than a carrier’s, and a different set of baseline missions, the ESG doesn’t shift the locus of maritime dominance in the same way the carrier strike group does.  Units of the Makin Island ESG wouldn’t have much trouble taking out Shahid Roudaki – but the measure of whether that’s a good idea isn’t how easy it is, but how well the forces available could contain any blowback from Iran in her own back yard.  How well includes the even more basic “how”: we may have the world’s finest hammer in theater, but not every problem is best solved by punching in a nail.

MV-22B Ospreys take off from USS Makin Island. (Image: USN, MC-3 Devin M. Langer, via San Diego Union-Tribune)

A carrier and her Aegis escorts move much faster and bring substantially more firepower to bear for maritime, including maritime-air, problems.  They also boost significantly the perception of U.S. readiness to hold Iranian territory directly at risk.  The Air Force can do so at any time, but the Air Force needs the assent of host nations to operate from their soil.

The U.S. Air Force could certainly pen up any air response from Iran, and could hold ships at risk.  But in that equation, the constraints of land-based operations would also limit the nature of the containment effort.  The Navy – because it’s designed for the maritime environment — can maneuver with sufficiently dominant forces on-hand to decisively deter naval activity from Iran without having to shoot.  At a certain point, the Air Force can’t; it either shoots or lets Iranian forces do something undesirable.  Its planes and logistics backbone are also susceptible to sabotage on land, a problem Iran is capable of creating in Qatar, Kuwait, or Bahrain.  (The Navy, of course, has to worry about sea mines; the point here is not that force packages have absolute superiority over each other, but that some are uniquely suited for particular problems, and the vulnerabilities of each make single points of failure a precarious risk.)

Keeping an escalation of tensions from becoming kinetic depends on dominance, not mere sufficiency for last-ditch defense.  And dominance does require a certain force mix.  The Air Force is indispensable for some aspects of deterrence-level dominance; the Navy and Marine Corps for others; the Army for still others, like tactical missile defense and rapid reaction with massed force.

Sens Tim Kaine (D-VA; Sen. Kaine video, YouTube) and Todd Young (R-IN; C-SPAN via YouTube)

As a nation, we haven’t had to ponder these matters in CENTCOM for some time.  They’re a key to why some senators are anxious to terminate the authorization for use of military force (AUMF) under which deployments and actions have been undertaken in CENTCOM since 9/11.  With the Biden foreign policy team, well known to have long envisioned substantially altering the U.S. posture in the region, we are backing into that debate with significant posterior exposure, rather than holding it behind a wall of uninterrupted deterrence.

As for the allies, their capabilities are central to the debate, but again, we’re leaving a gap without settling on a plan first.  No U.S. partner in theater is sufficiently advantaged in capability to keep Iran deterred over time.  Neither are the remaining U.S. forces (including our independently deployed escort warships), without firmly outlined commitments and a dedicated, if not 100% continuous, carrier presence.

Two NATO allies, France and the UK, will actually have carrier groups of their own in CENTCOM a bit later this year.  But they aren’t there now.

Nor is there a sign that the Biden administration considers it urgent for France’s FS Charles de Gaulle (R-91), which has begun her major 2021 deployment, to move from EastMed, where she operated through 4 March (conducting an exercise with the Greek and Belgian navies), into CENTCOM.  As it stands now, Charles de Gaulle is due in the Indian Ocean for her next exercise commitment in early April.

FS Charles de Gaulle (R-91), alert set. YouTube, SLICE/Zed Bonum video

The Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) is still working up for her deployment – the carrier’s first – which will begin in May 2021.

Iran has reason to read these factors as giving her a freer hand in the Gulf.  There are two NATO carriers at full combat readiness that could be moved rapidly into CENTCOM, and a third that can be there within 90 days, or possibly a bit less.  But NATO, including the U.S., has no apparent urgency about getting them there.  Deterring Iran with an actual daunting force presence, as opposed to demonstrations like flying a pair of B-52s over the theater, is not a priority.

Certainly the Biden administration’s other actions since 20 January would bolster that assessment.  Biden has released funds to Iran, unleashed the Houthis, and made it explicitly clear that he will not support the Saudis in suppressing Houthi capabilities in Yemen, but only lend U.S. aid to passive defense inside Saudi Arabia.

Even where Biden purported to counter Iran-backed attacks on U.S.-occupied bases in Iraq, he was at pains to limit the counterstrike to a target that is meaningless to Iran’s backing of militias in Iraq.  He could not have signaled more clearly that he has no intention of interfering with Iran’s career of destabilizing the region.

One of the “facilities” significantly damaged in the 25 February air strike by the USAF. Via local source on Twitter

So the timing is more propitious for Iran than it has been since 2016.  The regime may pursue exotic, asymmetric warfare capabilities at any time, but we can expect it to test them with live applications only under certain conditions – i.e., conditions in which the likelihood of reprisal is low.  Those conditions now exist.

And that doesn’t mean the “from the sea” launch on 7 March employed the Shahid Roudaki.  But it’s a favorable factor for that possibility, and one that hasn’t existed prior to the last six weeks.  If Iran was willing to have militias in southern Iraq launch drones at Saudi Arabia, even when Trump was in office, it would be misreading the regime’s level of singlemindedness to assume away the Shahid Roudaki now.  In March 2021, the deterrence equation is weighted differently.

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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