Washington wants to avoid a confrontation with Iran, but faces two wild cards. First, Israel may find itself unable to forgo the use of force against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Second, the administration has reiterated that it, too, finds a nuclear-armed Iran “unacceptable,” and may have to take action against Iran despite its fervent desire not to. Washington therefore seeks to put sufficient protection in place in the Persian Gulf to ensure that if Iran tries to choke commerce – more than 25% of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz – there is a workable response.
The Iranians are upping the rhetorical ante. The Chairman of the Iranian Chiefs of Staff, Major General Hassan Firuzabadi said last week, “We do have the plan to close the Strait of Hormuz, since a member of the military must plan for all scenarios.” His point was reinforced by the head of the Economic Commission of the Iranian parliament, Arsalan Fathipour, who said Iran wouldn’t necessarily wait for military action against his country. “If we completely go under the sanctions, we will not let a single drop of oil pass through the Hormuz Strait,” he said.
Unfortunately, the American response is old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy, which incidentally uses an actual, old-fashioned boat. The Obama administration hopes that the introduction of the USS Ponce, an old tug stuffed with electronics, JP-8 fuel and 400 sailors and civilians (mostly civilians), in the Persian Gulf will make the Iranians believe that we can guarantee safe passage of oil tankers through the Strait in the case of an Iran-induced shipping crisis.
Gunboat diplomacy is only credible if the gunboat is. Several months ago, we wrote about the refurbishment of the Ponce, a 40-year-old, lightly armed, amphibious transport dock being upgraded as a forward staging base aimed at the Islamic Republic.
Why anyone would want to float nearly 400 people and a gazillion gallons of flammable liquid on an indefensible bucket in the world’s most hostile waterway is unclear, but three possibilities exist: staging SEAL attacks; meeting “local” surface threats; and mine sweeping. The Obama administration denies the first, and the Ponce is optimal for none. Under the Navy’s specs, the Ponce is optimal only for becoming a very large fireball.
The Ponce has now arrived. To ensure that the Iranians get a really good look at it, reporters were invited aboard. Business Insider (among others) ran an extensive photo story beginning with the Pentagon denial that it would be used for SEAL missions – a good thing, since SEAL missions are supposed to be secret and launching them from the back end of a transport ensures that they won’t be secret for long.
With 46 color photos, the article shows an old ship and an old helicopter. The text notes, “A large part of security is visual identification… spotters take turns from the bridge here (photo) to standing outside in the extraordinary heat with binoculars. There is no sonar.” That will really make the Iranians quake.
The reporter continues:
I was told retrofitting sonar would be way too expensive even in the face of Iran’s fleet of silent diesel electric submarines, and that ideally a US destroyer would be stationed with a ship like the Ponce. If the situation here becomes too much to handle, the CIC will call in the F-18s stationed on one of two aircraft carriers always stationed in the Gulf. And if missiles actually make their way to the Ponce, there is this chaff system designed to fool incoming rockets into exploding before they strike.
In three sentences, the USS Ponce’s vulnerability to submarine and swarming boat attacks becomes clear, as does its vulnerability to Iran’s Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile, and the need for other US assets to protect it. Aside from the large fleet of small, fast attack boats armed with Chinese missiles, Iran also has large Russian diesel electric submarines (Kilo class) and a number of quiet and stealthy mini-subs armed with Russian torpedoes.
Then, consider the missions for which The Ponce ostensibly has been sent. The mine sweeping helicopters are old and can only go after near-surface mines, and even then it can only do so in very limited spaces because helicopters have a very brief mission time. The Ponce has some new systems, but they are all very short range (a few thousand yards at most). The new Scan Eagle UAV is a good idea but it can only be in one area at a time and won’t be able to distinguish between fishing boats and fishing boats with missile launchers. In July, the oiler USS Rappahannock fired on a fishing vessel, killing one person and wounding three others. It apparently mistook the unmarked white boat for the sort of fast small boats used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The United States finds itself in this position in some measure because of decisions made earlier by the Navy – most important, liquidating the Osprey fiberglass-hulled mine hunter programme in 2007. We wrote of the Osprey:
Osprey ships are far less expensive than helicopters; have better sensors; and are much better for escort operations, since a pair of them could escort large oil tankers through constrained passageways. Ospreys could find bottom-tethered, deep water, and magnetic mines that threaten the massive steel hulls of large oil tankers, while the helicopters that will be on the deck of the Ponce are useful only against mines at or near the water’s surface.
Other decisions, like upgrading the Ponce on the cheap (Business Insider was pleased to note that the upgrade cost only $60 million – true, but that’s because it didn’t include critical technologies) and putting it in harms way, exacerbate the risk to the United States.
If the Ponce goes down, as may happen, it is clearly an act of war and America’s policy is trumped. While it might seem that removing a military asset would make us more vulnerable in the Gulf, in this case it makes better sense to send the Ponce home.