In the past few weeks, events in the Gulf of Oman have led to rising tensions between the United States and Iran with each side attempting to signal the other in order to protect their respective interests.

This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Edward Davies, an MA in International Relations at the University of Leeds with a keen interest in the military especially the RAF, having been a member of Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron.

This comes amidst a longer trend of deteriorating relations between the two nations following President Trump’s decision to withdraw from a multilateral deal limiting Iran’s nuclear programme on the 8th May last year. However, the crisis carries significance, not only for the gulf, but in the wider geopolitical context.

Tensions were once again sparked between the US and Iran this year on the 8th of April as the US blacklisted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a ‘terrorist organisation’. This has been followed by a series of US deployments to the region, including a carrier strike group, B-52 bomber task force, Patriot missile battery and amphibious assault ship with the US citing credible intelligence of a threat to US forces amid escalating tensions.

This deployment of assets has been backed-up by new sanctions being imposed on Iranian steel and mining industries which have now been expanded to include the Supreme Leader Khamenei himself.

Iran reciprocated in kind labelling US troops stationed in the wider Middle East as ‘terrorists’ before announcing its intentions to surpass levels of enriched uranium agreed under the 2015 treaty which was confirmed by the IAEA.

Attacks on commercial shipping, which the US had attributed to Iran, in the strait of Hormuz alongside the downing of an American MQ-4C Navy and drone further escalated tensions with President Trump later ordering strikes against Iranian military installations only to call-off the attacks at the last minute and conducting cyber attacks against the country’s weapons systems, specifically systems controlling rocket and missile launchers and more recently downing an Iranian drone which approached the USS Boxer.

Iran has further showed it’s intent and capability in the region by first harassing and then seizing a British flagged oil tanker in retaliation for UK actions off the coast of Gibraltar which led to the detaining of an Iranian tanker bound for Syria.

The seized British flagged tanker.

The rhetoric from both sides has mirrored these events becoming increasingly tense and hostile with Trump warning Iran not to threaten the US and claiming a fight between the two nations would mean ‘the official end of Iran!’ and the US is ready to respond to any attack whether it is conducted by proxy, the IRGC or Iran itself. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zari, has stated that Iran is ready to defend its borders.

Despite the escalating military deployments and twitter rhetoric, each side has claimed they wish to avoid war. Whilst this may be the case, what is actually unfolding in the gulf is a complicated game of chess with each side attempting to ‘signal’ the other; drawing ‘red lines’ which each side should avoid if they wish to avoid a response from the other.

These ‘red lines’ are indicative of a nation’s national interest and attempt to reinforce rhetoric with action showing both capability and intent to back up their claims. In this way, the US will be attempting to protect international shipping, avoiding a repeat of the 1987 crisis, and protecting its hegemonic status; demonstrating to Iran and others in the region that it is still committed to the Middle East despite it’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Conversely, Iran will be looking to make both political and military gains of its own; increasing it’s regional influence and status whilst securing its nuclear programme to maintain the threat of nuclear weapons production in the future.

Although it may be true that both Iran and the US wish to avoid a war, each side will attempt to do this on their terms whilst protecting their national interest. This is dangerous as this signalling is open to misinterpretation, which can contribute to miscalculations from both sides resulting in a response which may not have been intended. As both nations rack up both rhetoric and military deployments in the area and tensions rise as the narrow Gulf becomes increasingly contested, it is a game in which a minor miscalculation can run the risk of ‘spilling over’ into a much wider regional conflict or war. Whilst the situation in the Gulf has now slipped from the headlines of the front pages, the risk of conflict remains very real, with serious diplomatic talks and a step-down of rhetoric, sanctions and military assets needed to alleviate immediate tensions. It remains to be seen how America plans to manage Iran’s longer term strategic goals for the region, balancing these against its own interests.

A B-52 over the Gulf.

Additionally, the crisis also carries further significance for the US’s response to a rising China in South-East Asia. With strategic distrust growing between the US and China over the past decade, the two nations interests have increasingly come into conflict with one another as the US looks to solidify its influence in the region and China looks to challenge it.

The Strait of Malacca is of significant strategic importance to both the US and China and bares a striking resemblance to the strait of Hormuz. A narrow channel that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans the straight and is only 1.5 nautical miles at its narrowest as it transgresses between Malaysia and Singapore. As a result of its location, the straight is a key thorough-fare for international trade and of vital economic importance with approximately 100,000 vessels and a quarter of all sea-carried oil passes through it each year facilitating trade between some of the worlds biggest economies in the Asia-Pacific region with the energy and resource producing nations of the middle east and Africa.

As a result of this, the strait is a key strategic water-way which could be blockaded in the event of conflict in an attempt to starve China of essential war materials and restrict the movement of either sides naval forces.

Whilst this scenario may seem unlikely in the short-term, in the past decade, China has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, moving away from its traditional mantra of ‘hide and bide’, a tactic employed to make small, incremental gains that go largely unnoticed without being challenged, to a more direct strategy. In recent years, China has undergone a massive building programme, developing a fully-fledged ‘blue water’ navy which has increased not only in numbers (consisting of just 57 vessels in 1996 to over 300 in 2018) but also enhancing it’s capability. This has been accompanied with a policy of ‘land reclamation’ which has developed fully fledged islands, in some instances even air bases, from what were previously small rocky outcrops. These two factors combined have lead to increasing tensions in the South China Sea as US and Chinese forces shadow one another as they operate through contested waters.

Chinese Carrier Liaoning.

Additionally, it is clear how serious a threat the Chinese State views this scenario in light of its one belt one road policy, which is in part designed to counter China’s reliance on the strait whilst also increasing Chinese influence throughout the wider region.

As a result, China is sure to be watching how the US strategy to combat Iran’s push-back in the gulf as it provides a useful exercise of which will allow Chinese strategists a valuable chance to contribute to their surely already established strategy to strategy to counter this US actions in the worst-case scenario with hostilities breaking out between the two nations.

What happens in the Gulf of Oman and the South China Sea matters to the UK.

Any hostilities in either of these strategically important areas the risk of destabilising either region, leading to wider conflict and disrupting international trade and impacting oil prices. More immediately, as recent events off the coast of Gibraltar and Iran have demonstrated, as a nation which relies heavily on and enforces an open rules based international order which has facilitated international sea trade, the regions security and freedom of navigation of these sea-lanes is vital to the UK’s economy and interests.

Additionally, any challenge to the current US/Western led international order is of great importance to the UK as a result of its privileged position it enjoys as a permanent member of the UNSC and close ally of the United States.

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Helions
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Helions

If they watched this then I don’t think that they’re worrying about the EU military potential too much…

https://www.militarytimes.com/off-duty/military-culture/2019/07/22/detail-please-halt-belgian-cadets-display-the-worst-drill-in-the-history-of-upright-walking/

Cheers!

Cam
Guest
Cam

That was some Drill ?, but I’ve seen allot worse.

Richard B
Guest
Richard B

I’ve seen Cub Scouts and Brownies give flawless marching displays. This is embarrassing

clive
Guest
clive

This is a weak-ish article because it just states the current situation which everybody knows without any analysis behind the consequences of this outcome or that outcome with regards to the UK’s ability to successfully defend it’s shipping or not. Certainly China will be extremely interested to find out exactly just where those red lines are and just when the West loses the stomach for an all out war which is dependent on capability and countering capability. Clearly the Royal Navy is currently not in a position to protect British flagged vessels and that China could easily replicate the Iranian… Read more »

George Allison
Editor

“I feel I could write a better article myself along with most the readers of this journal” – What’s stopping you?

Expat
Guest
Expat

This is slightly off topic. But there were some videos and photos taken from Iranian drones. The numerals displayed for location height etc were all in the western character set. If the drone’s software was produced in Iran you would expect the numerals to be in Farsi, so I assume someone else is supplying the control software for their domestically built drones or they are cannibalising a commercially available system.

Cam
Guest
Cam

Good point expat.

David Flandry
Guest
David Flandry

Don’t know for sure, but most non-Western languages use Arabic/Hindu numerals even so.

Expat
Guest
Expat

I can assure you from first hand experience that in Iran Farsi numerals are used, the regime has little time for anything western. Anything domestically produced, particularly for the military, would use the Farsi character set.

David Flandry
Guest
David Flandry

OK.

maurice10
Guest
maurice10

One decisive way to stamp Western resolve in the Gulf region is to swamp it with NATO warships. This would be a clear demonstration that West intends to keep the vital oil supplies running without provocation. This can’t be done with a few US Navy or RN vessels and NATO has to demand a forthright policy, to police the Gulf effectively, and at the earliest opportunity. Chinese interests in terms of trouble-free shipping should be in line with the West, on this particular issue.

Cam
Guest
Cam

I wonder how many Nato warships or nato allies are actually in the area right now, I couldn’t find out the numbers!

David Adams
Guest
David Adams

i never understand china we’re their customer their wealth comes from us. i also don’t see why the west isn’t dropping hints about setting up an IPCO regen Indo pacific treaty organization also we can move ower sweatshops anywhere

Ashford
Guest
Ashford

As the Iranian tanker was seized on behalf of the EU it should be expected that a German, French,Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish warship should be hurrying to the gulf to show solidarity, is this why we gave up on the EU?

dan
Guest
dan

Obama pretty much destroyed American credibility with the Chinese when he choose to do nothing when China started building their islands. Even China was shocked that the US just stood by and let that happen.

Cam
Guest
Cam

Now they can’t do anything! There’s airstrips, Radar, missiles, army barracks, navy bases, soon to be jets if not already there, no doubt Chinese aircraft carrier soon and the rest. And they are dredging and destroying so much ocean floor! Why don’t the world come together and stop this madness! The Chinese are the worst!

Charlie
Guest
Charlie

Because many thousands of people would die for the sake of a few islands is why, me thinks 🙂

Cam
Guest
Cam

Yeah but imagine if that was the UK dredging and making islands in foreign waters in 2019.

Mark F
Guest
Mark F

As I have said in the past our capabilities do not match our defence posture. Now we have been found wanting and you better bet the crown jewels that our potential adversaries are watching with relish. We have allowed our masters to get away cutting the bone the flesh went years ago. We have lost entire capabilities, nimrod gone only to find that we needed an ASW of our own again. So 9 airframes have been purchased! Not enough to fill all the missions expected of them. So what do we do? We run away bravely.

Nigel Collins
Guest
Nigel Collins

The Gulf Crisis – Why China will be watching and the significance to the UK
And Russia too.

“Russia says it has carried out its first ever joint air patrol with China, prompting both South Korea and Japan to send jets in response.”
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-49091523

Nigel Collins
Guest
Nigel Collins

We are going to require a substantial cash injection to build our military capability up to a level similar to that of the cold war era. I did say a little while ago, that taking £6 Billion pounds from the foreign aid budget per annum until we have built up our armed forces would make a great deal of sense given the current climate. Remember, we will also have an additional £12 Billion per annum after we leave the EU, plus the possibility of an extra £40+ Billion pounds if no deal has been reached. With 90% of business being… Read more »

Pete
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Pete

In 25 years the Chinese economy will be twice that of the usa. Pkaces like malaysia, Singapore, Philippines etc will be looking to work with Chinese by preference… Especially if th old world order is weak in the region. The Indonesian and Vietnamese would stay robust. Due to deep-rooted inherent cultural suspicion to spreading Chinese influence..

Interesting times.

P

pkcasimir
Guest
pkcasimir

Complete and utter nonsense. China is facing a demographic catastrophe as a result of its one child policy. It has been unable to transition from a low level manufacturing economy to a service economy, and the economy has failed to produce any innovation. Its technology is dependent on copy cat and theft. Its banking system is a total mess replete with fraud and corruption and is has no regulatory agencies. The US continues to be the most productive and innovative economy and will be so in 25 years.

Levi Goldsteinberg
Guest
Levi Goldsteinberg

You’re correct about all of the above except the US being the most productive and innovative economy in the world

https://www.wipo.int/pressroom/en/articles/2018/article_0005.html

https://time.com/4621185/worker-productivity-countries/

Pete
Guest
Pete

Being the most productive (per capita) is not the same as being the largest. The very nature of the PRC regime is what is driving the expansionism. Fundamental question. Would USA go to war over south china sea or Taiwan…. Maybe… But doubts are valid… Especially in a trump led administration. While you can challenge some of the content the attached is an interesting read that rings multiple alarm bells and much food for thought https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/why-we-need-a-radically-new-defence-policy/ Personally im a brit that has worked across Asia and Asia Pacific for the past 23 years. I can tell you that the influence… Read more »

Pete
Guest
Pete

And the following is a fascinating listen if you have time. Really very very interesting discussion on what Australia might want to consider in terms of future defence strategy given the changing world order…

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/hugh-white-2019-defence/11297678

Big Jim
Guest
Big Jim

Great listen. Very thoughtful

Mad Murdoch
Guest
Mad Murdoch

Being among the most productive also means being among the most productive with emissions and pollution too.

On the subject of China, I think China just want us to know that HK belongs to them, hence last week’s sail-by during the protests in HK, simple as that. Just a friendly in-your-face reminder.

Nick Bowman
Guest
Nick Bowman

Edward, thanks for writing the article. You might have noted that the same tankers transiting east through the Straits of Malacca began their journeys in the Gulf. China is even more vulnerable to the interruption of maritime traffic than we are. In time of conflict, western navies could certainly stop the flow of water-borne oil to China, which is why the Chinese are actively developing overland pipelines. Unfortunately for them, they have neither the overland capacity to provide all the fuel they need or the blue water naval strength to secure their strategic lines of communication all the way to… Read more »

Sean
Guest
Sean

Given increasing Chinese and Russian military cooperation, if China ever decided to attack Taiwan, it would be coordinated with a simultaneous Russian attack on the Baltic States. Could the USA fight both opponents at the same time?…

Bill Edmead
Guest
Bill Edmead

Of course they could but it’s not just about the US. An attack on the Baltic states would prompt a NATO response. We’ve been policing the airspace for years. Anyway either scenario is unlikely to occur in the real world.

Sean
Guest
Sean

Except the bulk of NATO is the USA…
Of the European nations, 40% of its military strength is U.K. and France. Given our relative strength to the rest of Europe, and how underfunded our military is, I wouldn’t count on the rest of Europe’s forces to prevent a roll across Europe by Russian and allied forces.

(Also don’t forget the NATO article 5 doesn’t guarantee that every NATO nation comes out blasting with its full military might if another member is attacked.)

Elliott
Guest
Elliott

Russia would be more likely to sell it’s neutrality forcing the US and EU to recognize the de facto situation in East Ukraine and Crimea along with lifting sanctions. That or present the US and NATO with fait accompli and take the rest of Ukraine which is not a member of NATO and is more valuable than the Baltics.
Remember China and Russia are allies of convenience and Russia has just as many nukes aimed at Beijing as it does at London and Paris.

Sean
Guest
Sean

Yes your right, Ukraine will be first, and would be provoked by it deciding to join the EU – Russia would have to prompt actual membership.
Certainly Russia and China are allies of convenience, China is still communist and Russia an oligarchy: though both authoritarian regimes.

Ron
Guest
Ron

The situation in the Straits of Hormuz does require a co-ordinated responce to deal with Iran it is a more formal issue to deal with, you will also have a fairly good idea on where the threat is coming from. However the Straits of Malacca is a more dangerous situtaion. Using two junks, 20 men and two hours the Strait could be closed for a year if not more due to its shallow depth. By the time this operation would be carried out there will be no idea on where it came from but it would cause havoc with world… Read more »

Frank62
Guest
Frank62

Good points, but the straights of Malacca aren’t as crucial as Hormuz, since if closed traffic could divert via the Indian ocean/Java sea. What chills me is future HMGs deploying one of our QE CVAs into theaters with land/sea/air ASMs, including hypersonic, protected only with Phalanx CIWS with fingers crossed that enough escorts will be always present. I think the QEs need at least another layer of anti-missile defence with longer reach such as Sea Ceptor or RAM. Not building 12 T45 DDGs may come home to roost unless we either increase the numbers of T26 or miraculously design &… Read more »

Ron
Guest
Ron

Frank, there is a quick way to have a new DDG, take the T45 remove the helicopter hanger and replace it with 48 Aster/Sea Ceptor VL system.

Frank62
Guest
Frank62

T45s already have Asters, so this doesn’t add to escort numbers.

Ron
Guest
Ron

Sorry I did not explain my thoughts clearly. What I meant with taking the T45 was to use the design of the T45, implement a redesign of the powerplant and replace the helicopter hanger with a second 48 VLS for Aster/Sea Ceptor. The A-70 VLS should be used for 24 of the 48 tubes giving the ability to hold the Aster Block 2 BMD and or the new surface to surface Perseus. A full weapons fit would then be 60 Aster 30/15, 12 Aster Block 2 BMD, 48 Sea Ceptors quad packed and 12 Perseus, a 4.5 in, 2x 30mm… Read more »

Frank62
Guest
Frank62

Interesting idea- thanks for explaining, maybe a way to go. I’d not want to see helicopterless escorts though for a variety of reasons; I’d rather tweek your idea by stretching the hull to keep the hanger & helicopter(s). The QEs need better self defence armament, to USN levels at least, given the modern threats & our scarcity of escorts.

We need HMGs to wake up & spend what is needed to grow the RN to the size that matches our needs & responsabilities.

Ron
Guest
Ron

Frank, I ran with your idea of stretching the T45 and it works, a 10m section between the bridge housing and and funnel would be the best area. Crunched the numbers the overall weight would increase by about 550 tons which includes the missile tubes,1000 tons at max loading (some spare is included), the long ton displacement to water line leght coeffiecent remains about the same, what is strange was that the speed coeffiecent will improve with the extra 10m. The reason for the location is that it is in front of the engine space and out of the way… Read more »

Frank62
Guest
Frank62

Well, knock me down with a feather!! Thanks Ron.

Gunbuster
Guest
Gunbuster

You cannot just stick an extra 10 m in a vessel and fill it full of stuff that goes woosh and bang. Although the sea keeping qualities would improve ( As they did on B3 T42 incidentally) there are huge issues with Hotel Services and Safety. Firstly a magazine requires Vent cooling (and heating), Fire main for Sprays, lots and lots of special construction and A60 + Bulkheads for fire resistance. Vent would require additional AC Plant, and sea water cooling supplies. Firemain would require additional Fire pumps to maintain the water flow to the sprays along with a big… Read more »

Ron
Guest
Ron

Hi Gunbuster, I totally agree with your comments, as I wrote in my first comment I would rather give up the helicopter hanger for the extra weapons for a heavily armed Anti Air destroyer to act as the main escort. I was looking at how to get extra ships whilst keeping the cost down and reducing delivery times. The T45 seemed to be the best platformfor this due to its electronic suite. Frank 62 gave the suggestion of stretching the T45, I tried to figure out where it could be stretched and what effect it would have on the hull,… Read more »

Gunbuster
Guest
Gunbuster

SC doesnt need a dedicated target acquisition radar but has a couple of data link domes fwd and aft on T23. These data link aerials pass the updated target info to the missile in flight. Without the update info the missile will not be in the correct predicted position to go active and home in. As with all modern missiles that have some legs to them you don’t aim at the target, you aim at where its going to be. This is why you need the data link. As for the rest fully understand. The power issue on a T45… Read more »

Ron
Guest
Ron

Gunbuster, Thanks for that, now I understand what the extra domes are for. Can I ask what the hell was your job in the RN, or is it a case you can tell me but then have to shoot me after.

Frank62
Guest
Frank62

Hopefully HMG & Parliament will finally wake up to the fact we cannot afford to have such weak & small armed forces. We are not taken seriously, nor do we deserve to be having frittered away so much of our former capability. How we’re keeping our permanent seat on the security council amazes me. We’re a major maritime island trading nation, trying to exert international soft power & diplomacy with minimal military clout. It’s fooled many MPs & the public, but all our enemies don’t buy it as it’s their intelligence service jobs to count realities, not HMG spin. What… Read more »

David Flandry
Guest
David Flandry

The security council seat is kept due to the UK having a Trident sub on patrol.