Patrolling Chokepoints

Naval forces counter threats to navigation and infrastructure

By: DR. THEODORE KARASIK AND NADINE MAZRAANI  INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST AND GULF MILITARY ANALYSIS

[Unipath Illustration]

[Unipath Illustration]

Nearly one-fifth of the world’s oil supply transits the Strait of Hormuz each year. That places it among the world’s most strategic waterways. But these shipping lanes, along with the ports and oil installations of the Arabian Peninsula, have been threatened by piracy, terrorism and nefarious activity by rogue states. An attack on any of these would have widespread ramifications on the global economy and regional stability.

An increase in arms, drug and human trafficking, a rise in pirate attacks at sea, and a greater risk of terrorist activity on land will allow al-Qaida and its affiliates to increase their theater of operations. It could even encourage future pirates to mimic Somali tactics and create a new transnational piracy threat. Their proximity means the Arabian Gulf countries bear the brunt of these challenges. Regional leaders have recognized these threats and have made strides to address issues before they arise.

“The strategic importance of the waters around the Arabian Gulf cannot be understated,” said Savio Pereira, who manages marine underwriting for Nasco Karaoglan Dubai, a leading regional insurer. “The Gulf has become a shipping hub for many countries, with cargo ranging from oil to every measure of goods going to and from Europe, India, the United States, Asia Pacific and all countries beyond and in between. Dubai has become a huge port, already ninth in the world in terms of container traffic, and volume has been rapidly increasing, as it has at neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE) ports. Yet, while security measures have increased, piracy is still a major concern.”

UAE counters piracy
Pirates have lurked in Arabian waters since the dawn of seafaring, attacking ships and raiding cargo, kidnapping passengers and crew. This tradition continues as 21st-century pirates threaten the interests of Arabian Gulf countries, for whom maritime trade is their economic lifeblood. Thanks to regional efforts, however, pirate attacks dropped 33 percent globally in 2012, and attacks in the nearby Gulf of Aden – which links Arabian ports to the Mediterranean – dropped by nearly 60 percent.

With its bustling ports and vast oil shipments at stake, the UAE has a broad understanding of the piracy threat and the actions required to quash it. In June 2012, for example, the UAE called on fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to form a joint naval counterpiracy force as a complement to the council’s Peninsula Shield ground force.

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. [NASA]

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. [NASA]

The UAE co-hosted Leading Edge 2013, a multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative exercise, the following February. Thirty nations – including Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – honed interoperability by practicing visit, board, search and seizure tactics and other maritime operations.

That same month, companies displayed the most advanced naval and maritime security equipment at NAVDEX 2013, an exhibition held in Abu Dhabi. “The UAE is going to become the center of reference in the security, defense and military industries,” Italian Ambassador Giorgio Starace noted.

The UAE has been reinforcing capabilities of those countries most directly affected, particularly the Seychelles. The UAE delivered two 30-meter patrol boats and three fast-response craft to the island nation. The Emiratis funded construction of the island’s new $15 million Coast Guard headquarters as well. Coast Guard officials credited UAE support for the successful counterattack on Somali pirates in April 2011 that rescued four Seychellois hostages, captured five pirates and left another one dead.

In addition to hardware, the UAE provides training and logistics support that has greatly enhanced Somalia’s Puntland maritime security forces. The country has also dispatched political and military negotiators from Abu Dhabi to help stabilize the pirate-ravaged East African country.

Regional efforts
Oman earned praise from the Dutch Navy in July 2012 for its work in NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, which liberated an Omani fishing vessel and captured seven pirates. In March 2013, the commander of the European Union’s NAVFOR Somalia Operation, Rear Adm. García de Paredes, commended the Omani Naval commander for the “strong cooperation” between their two naval forces in “maintaining pressure on the pirates.”

Bahrain continues to host the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). With 27 member nations, the CMF is focused on “defeating terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation and promoting a safe maritime environment.” Methods to deter and defeat the threat of piracy in the region were featured on the agenda of the 27th Shared Awareness and Deconfliction conference, hosted by CMF at its headquarters in Bahrain.

In February 2013, the Peninsula Shield 9 war games concluded in Kuwait. They involved GCC training operations within a system of joint land, sea and air defense and included naval maneuvers in the northern Gulf. The 17-day exercise tested interoperability among the six GCC military forces and promoted collective security. While force commander Staff Maj. Gen. Mutlaq bin Salim al-Azima emphasized that the exercise had been planned in advance and was not a response to recent events, the timing was fortuitous.

Containers line the docks at the new Khalifa Port, Abu Dhabi. Ports and infrastructure such as oil installations are targets for terrorists. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

Containers line the docks at the new Khalifa Port, Abu Dhabi. Ports and infrastructure such as oil installations are targets for terrorists. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

As a nearby coastal nation, Pakistan has developed partnerships to strengthen Gulf maritime security, serving on international missions and nurturing deep ties with GCC countries. This partnership is evident in the joint exercises conducted between Pakistan and GCC navies. Pakistani naval officers also serve the UAE Navy on high seas patrols and help secure the shores of Abu Dhabi. In January 2013, the Pakistani and Saudi navies conducted the 10th Naseem al-Bahr exercise, which covered counterterrorism, counterpiracy at sea and close-quarter combat-simulating boarding operations on virtual pirated vessels. The exercises were intended to increase interoperability in the domains of both traditional and nontraditional warfare. In March 2013, Karachi hosted the AMAN-13 exercise, a multinational exercise of 34 naval forces. The Pakistani and UAE navies contributed ships, and Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman sent observers. The goal of these multinational exercises is to promote regional cooperation and stability, develop greater interoperability, and display a united resolve against criminals on the seas offering traditional and asymmetrical threats.

Emerging threats
The threat of mining remains serious, so efforts are underway to ensure that the Strait of Hormuz remains clear and safe. Malign actors constantly attempt to lay mines by speedboat, operations that specialize in asymmetric, hit-and-run tactics and pose a serious challenge. As a result, coalition countermine operations are becoming more critical.

Maritime security operations and maritime infrastructure protection was highlighted at the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise in May 2013. Building on the success of its 2012 gathering, navies from more than 40 nations conducted a wide spectrum of defensive operations. Participants practiced surface mine countermeasures, mine hunting and airborne mine countermeasures operations, international explosive ordnance disposal training, diving operations, small-boat exercises, unmanned aerial vehicle operations, unmanned underwater vehicle operations and port clearance operations. Exercises such as this ensure cooperation and interoperability, promote future multilateral exercises and form the foundation of future cooperation.

A Collective Security Approach
“The Gulf States have demonstrated the willingness to work with one another and with international partners to counter malign influence in the region and ensure freedom of commerce,” Gen. James N. Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command, said in his 2013 posture statement.

Emirati, Italian, Bahraini and U.S. troops perform a visit, board, search and seizure demonstration during Exercise Leading Edge 13, held in Abu Dhabi, UAE. [MASTER SGT. SALVATORE CARDELLA/U.S. MARINE CORPS]

Emirati, Italian, Bahraini and U.S. troops perform a visit, board, search and seizure demonstration during Exercise Leading Edge 13, held in Abu Dhabi, UAE. [MASTER SGT. SALVATORE CARDELLA/U.S. MARINE CORPS]

Indeed, the anti-piracy capabilities of some GCC states are already becoming apparent: On April 2, 2011, a UAE special counterterrorism unit, backed by air force units, stormed the bulk cargo carrier MV Arrilah-I, which pirates had seized in the Arabian Sea. All hostages were rescued, and the pirates were arrested. The operation could serve as a basis for a collective security approach that promotes coordination and execution through the development of specialized naval craft.

Increasing operational capability and taking leadership in joint regional exercises and drills demonstrate GCC nations’ commitment to maritime security. But technology and maritime operations alone truly aren’t enough to secure the high seas.

In addition to complementing the efforts of multinational forces, regional Arab states can pair kinetic operations with political leverage in the struggle against Somali piracy. Trading families from GCC countries have a long history of conducting business with Somalis and understand Somali clan systems, which figure heavily in the social and business structure of Somali piracy.

These ancient ties provide a unique opportunity to increase cooperation between Arabian Peninsula and Somali merchants through personal relationships and business associations. Such a regional partnership could do much to deter the piracy threat by developing key industries and providing alternate livelihoods for coastal communities in Somalia. But whether the GCC nations act singly or in combination, failure to address the Somali pirate epidemic will only create greater problems for the region.

While an oil tanker sails in the background, fishermen embark off the Emirati coast in 2012. As pirates venture beyond the Gulf of Aden in search of more lucrative targets, the risks to maritime traffic in the Gulf of Oman increase. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

While an oil tanker sails in the background, fishermen embark off the Emirati coast in 2012. As pirates venture beyond the Gulf of Aden in search of more lucrative targets, the risks to maritime traffic in the Gulf of Oman increase. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

Updating the fleet
Al-Qaida and its affiliates have voiced their intent to continue to attack maritime operations and offshore oil installations. In addition to strengthening partnerships, GCC states have increased investments in military equipment and naval security to counter this threat.

The UAE is enhancing naval capabilities by fitting state-of-the-art satellite communications systems to its Baynunah-class corvettes and purchasing heavily modified Bombardier DHC-8s to improve maritime patrols. The Emirati Navy also took delivery of the Abu Dhabi-class corvette and the first Falaj 2-class patrol boat. The ships, which can operate in shallow waters, feature a “stealth” design that makes them less visible to radar; they can perform an array of missions, from patrol and surveillance to air and surface defense.

Smugglers venture into the Strait of Hormuz in 2012. [REUTERS]

Smugglers venture into the Strait of Hormuz in 2012. [REUTERS]

Saudi Arabia has set aside money to modernize its Navy. In fact, the kingdom is upgrading its Eurocopter Cougars and has purchased three new AS565 MB Panthers. The AS565 MB is a light helicopter operated from ship decks capable of performing anti-surface vessel warfare, anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, troop transport, logistics support and medical evacuation with a mission radius of up to 250 kilometers (155 miles).

Qatar is planning to expand its littoral operations, and Oman is purchasing new boats for its special naval unit that will carry out intervention and rescue missions in emergencies and cases of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense. Oman is also reinforcing protection at its naval bases. Kuwait is investing $540 million to enable its Coast Guard to protect infrastructure that includes the new Kuwaiti megaport Mubarak Al-Kabeer.

About the authors: Dr. Theodore Karasik is the director of research and consultancy for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. Nadine Mazraani is a research analyst for INEGMA.