Commercial Drones PilotsCommercial ships no longer safe after ‘Mercer Street’ attack – analysis

August 3, 2021by helo-10

The drone attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker off the coast of Oman last week is a game changer in our understanding of threats to commercial shipping by both state and non-state actors, such as terror groups backed by Iran. The full details of how the drones were guided to the ship or where they flew from, or even what type they were, and what warhead they carried is still being determined
What we do know is that the US, the UK and Israel have blamed Iran. Drones were used in the attack. This presents a new level of threat to shipping. In the past, ships have faced mines attacks in the Gulf of Oman, and Iran likely carried out several attacks in May and June 2019. Ships have also faced attacks by pirates and anti-ship missiles have been used across the region, including by the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah and ISIS in Sinai. The Sinai attack in 2015 was apparently done with an anti-tank guided missile. 

This means that ships face varying threats. In the past, it was usually naval ships and military targets that terrorists and states aimed for, such as the USS Cole that was attacked in 2000 off the coast of Yemen, although during the tanker war in the Gulf in the 1980s, many ships were attacked.  

Is there a lesson to be learned today from events in the 1980s? Then, the Iraqi air force used warplanes, such as MiG-23s and helicopters to target ships. They used Exocet anti-ship missiles. France supplied Super Etendard aircraft to Baghdad and this resulted in more attacks on shipping. The New York Times reported at the time (1983) that “according to Le Monde, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz of Iraq asked France for the Super Etendard early this year for use against Iranian oil installations. The request was renewed when Mr. Aziz was in Paris in May. He also met there with Secretary of State George P. Shultz to discuss Iraqi-American relations and the Lebanon situation.” France provided training for the Iraqi pilots. 

Clearly, the Iraqi use of western-supplied weapons is quite different to what Iran is doing today. Iran had responded at the time as well, eventually using Chinese CSSC-2 Silkworm missiles against ships and losses to crew increased. The US reflagged Kuwaiti ships to deter attacks. Tensions grew further and US ships came under attack. The US responded and struck Iranians ships and even mistakenly downed an Iranian civilian airliner.  

If all this is any lesson for today, it is that a tanker war can lead to escalation. It also shows that in the past, Iran has been willing to strike at military and civilian targets. This is well known because Iran has attacked civilian targets in other places as well. Iran has been targeting commercial shipping to raise the price tag against what it considers soft Israeli and Western targets in waters near the Gulf. This is not a simple calculation. Iran wants to put on notice sailors who might work for management companies that are in any way linked to Israel that they could be a target. This is because shipping world is murky and complex. Often, a ship is owned by one country or company, is operated by another flying the flag of a third country. In other words, in the commercial shipping realm it is not so simple to say that a ship is  “American” or “Israeli.” It also means that Iran’s apparent decision to target commercial shipping was made with the understanding it could entangle itself in tensions with the ships’ multiple ownerships and management. Iran has run that gauntlet before.  
This means that owners and operators have to weigh what might come next. Ships cannot easily be defended against drones. This is because kamikaze drones are a one-way weapon, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in singling out Iran. A one-way weapon is on one mission only and has to be shot down. It may not be possible for a ship to take evasive action and move. This isn’t like avoiding torpedoes and zig-zagging the way convoys in the Second World War did. Drones may not be fast, but commercial ships are not fast either.  

Shooting down drones can be done with missiles, but no one wants to fit out lots of commercial vessels with missiles. Drones can also sometimes have their frequency jammed or GPS-denied environments can make their navigation more complex. They can also be taken down with other specially designed drones or even shot down. However, it doesn’t seem feasible that commercial ships would be armed in such a manner but they could use jammers and other technologies.  

Another method to help ships defend against drones is for major navies, such as the US or UK, to help place more naval assets off the coast of Oman or in areas where Iranian drones are suspected to lurk, and provide air defense coverage. Ships can be used for air defense, and can even be used for ballistic missile defense. But that requires a lot of ships to provide the air defense umbrella over hundreds of kilometers of open sea. The Straits of Hormuz and the areas off the coast of Oman and Socotra Island are more than 1,800km apart and these are large distances.  

Countries probably do not want to start shooting down every Iranian drone in the area or targeting Iran drone bases, which might be on its coast, or even on Iranian ships or among the Houthis in Yemen. Iranian drones have been harassing shipping for years. They have overflown the USS Boxer, and carriers such as the USS Harry S. Truman, the Eisenhower and even the Charles De Gaulle, flagship of the French navy. For example, in 2016 USNI News explicitly reported that US Fifth Fleet officers had confirmed that Iranian forces flew an unmanned aerial vehicle over the Charles de Gaulle and the Harry S. Truman.  

What this tells us is that since around 2015, Iran has been experimenting with complex drones and flying them over the most sophisticated ships in the world. Iran is not afraid and it wants to send a message. Now the Iranians are using the drones to attack ships. This is a major escalation. For the ship owners and managers, and states in the region, the problem of defending the ships does not have an easy solution.  

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