Where was the US Navy when Iran Took Over the Strait of Hormuz?

Neither Congress, nor President Biden, nor even the U.S. Navy has registered interest in the following alarming developments in the Gulf of Arabia, first reported by Israeli intelligence.

On Tuesday, August 3, at least six ships off the coast of the UAE in the Gulf of Oman suddenly announced via their Automatic Identification System trackers, nearly simultaneously, that they were "not under command."  In other words, they had lost power and could no longer control their steering.  Shortly afterward, Britain's maritime trade agency reported a "potential hijack" unfolding off the UAE coast.  One of the stricken ships, the Asphalt Princess tanker, was boarded by operatives suspected of being Iranian troops, seized and towed into Iranian waters, and then released the following day.

This was not the first attack against a tanker off the UAE in the Gulf of Oman.  Iran apparently used one or more armed drones to carry out a deadly tanker attack the previous Thursday against the Mercer Street in those same waters.

Iran's foreign ministry said the reports of "incidents" involving "several ships near the UAE coast on Tuesday" were "suspicious" and warned against any attempts to create a "false atmosphere" against Tehran.  Yet on August 5, Iran's navy commander, Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, announced, "Today in the strategic region of Strait of Hormuz a control system is dominant so any vessel that enters and exits the strait, it is fully monitored with intelligence superiority and there is full smart dominance in place in the Strait of Hormuz."

Admiral Tangsiri added that as soon as a "wrong move" is made, even accidentally, the offending vessel "will receive serious warning, and they should abide.  Otherwise, they will face rigid and powerful reaction.  Full security is prevalent along all water borders of Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz due to vigilant and powerful presence of brave IRGC Navy forces." 

TASS reproduced Tangsiri's statement that same day, quoting Tangsiri saying, "The region's Muslim countries maintain the security of the Persian Gulf, and there is no place for foreign forces."  One additional factor may be that two weeks earlier in July, Iran opened its first oil export terminal located outside the Strait of Hormuz, near Jask Port on the Gulf of Oman.  So Iran is no longer dependent upon the strait for its own shipping.

The wording of Tangsiri's statement is highly significant.  Note that he mentions a "control system" that "fully monitors" any vessel that enters and exits the Gulf of Oman.  This control system features "superior intelligence" and provides "smart dominance" in the Strait of Hormuz.  It begins to sound as if cyber-activity is involved.

An international authority on cyber-security, Control Systems' cyber-security threat analyst Joseph M. Weiss, made a compelling argument regarding an earlier incident when another ship, the Ever Given, ran aground in the Suez Canal.  A gusty sandstorm was underway along the Suez Canal on Tuesday, March 23.  Supposedly, an "unexpected gust of wind" blew the enormously heavy, 1,300-foot-long, 194-foot-wide vessel off course.  Weiss posits that a cyber-attack could have caused the vessel to lose power and suddenly go off-course so as to fully block the canal.  He maintains that it is significant that no other vessel behind the Ever Given ran into similar problems at the time.  Could the Ever Given have been a "test run" for some new cyber-attack system developed by a hostile nation that was then shared with Iran?  The "usual suspects" would be China and Russia, both of which have been generous with technological assistance to Iran in the past and whose destabilizing influence in Iran is well known.

According to Weiss's findings, before the Ever Given turned and became lodged, it was seen to be traversing the Suez Canal in an erratic path rather than a straight line; its wake was winding.  Also, its speed was varying, speeding up, then slowing down.  Just before it became lodged, it lost all power despite its three backup power generators.  Especially, Weiss wonders, after losing power, why did the ship effectively make a left turn into the bank of the canal, rather than continuing in the forward direction?  One attractive target for Iran to delay with the canal blockage was the French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle, headed for the canal at the time after a week of exercises with her strike group in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.

Weiss's working control system incident database covers over 30 maritime control-system cyber-incidents including loss of propulsion and ships going off course.  According to Weiss, there have been numerous cases in which ships' GPS systems have been hacked — particularly by Russia, China, and Iran.  He also mentions a series of crashes between U.S. Navy ships and civilian ships at sea in 2017 that were blamed at the time upon the Navy ships.  He wonders whether, had cyber-investigations of the civilian ships been conducted, they would have revealed that cyber-attacks were the actual cause of the collisions. 

According to Weiss, the computer networks on commercial ships typically lack firewalls or other cyber-security measures.  The electronic chart-display and information systems (ECDIS) used on cargo/container ships are particularly vulnerable.  Compromising the ECDIS could cause false readings to the crew, leading the ship to run aground.  Also, the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that control the rudders on commercial ships can be remotely accessed.  Weiss has logged actual cases in which navigation communication systems have been hacked to gain access to propulsion, steering, and other controls.

The Ever Given incident has drawn attention to the vulnerabilities of the world's four shipping chokepoints.  Besides the Suez Canal, these include the Panama Canal, the Malacca Strait, and the Strait of Hormuz.  In fact, the interference with shipping in the Gulf of Oman has occurred while the U.S. Navy is preoccupied with growing Chinese aggression along the equally important shipping passage, the strategic Malacca Strait.  China has stepped up its naval incursions into the Indian Ocean region (IOR), establishing overseas bases in the IOR and colluding with Pakistan to build up its own maritime power in a bid to block India's access to the sea. 

Accordingly, after completing their operational deployment in the South China Sea with the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, last month, the USS Nimitz carrier strike group traversed the Malacca Strait, the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, to conduct PASSEX, a short-passage joint exercise with Indian warships, near the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago.  The U.S. Navy is presently concentrating on its "Malabar Series," with plans underway for a much larger joint exercise with India to be held later this year.

The United States and its Navy have been the traditional guarantors of the freedom of the seas for the world's commercial vessels.  Yet the U.S. Navy has neither the ships nor the manpower to properly patrol the world's key shipping chokepoints.

Congress's Defense Committees directed the Navy to provide a detailed proposal for warships in the FY 2023 budget.  It is the only indication of any actions by Congress or any other branch of our government to address the Navy's combat mission to patrol the high seas.  Apparently, beyond a requirement for the Navy to trim its budget so that as many as fifteen ships may eventually face decommissioning, the Biden administration is much too busy investigating Tucker Carlson and flooding the country with illegal migrants to bother.

Lynn Corum is a translator who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America's national interests.  She has been researching and writing on Putin's stated plans since 2009 and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin's published state ideology.

Image via U.S. Central Command.

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