August 5, 2021
Last week’s deadly Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) attack against the MV Mercer Street vessel has highlighted the increasing insecurity towards vulnerable merchant shipping operating across the Arabian Gulf, and around the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman in particular.
Highlighting the seriousness of last week’s attack, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir Nick Carter held a meeting with his Israeli counterpart over the weekend to discuss the situation. The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab subsequently accused Iran of a “deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law” following the drone attack.
This is the fourth such incident on an Israeli-linked vessel across the region since February – all widely attributed to Iran. In the wake of this weekend’s COBR meeting to discuss the crisis, the Prime Minister has deployed a special forces team to the region to help collate evidence of the attack, in addition to potentially coordinating a military response.
However, the window of opportunity is slipping by. Leaving a response much longer than a week will appear indecisive to Tehran and thus interpreted as weakness. Over the weekend both Israel and the US presented the UK with irrefutable evidence which laid the blame squarely on the Iranian regime.
Whilst a host of policy options remain available for the UK government, including a targeted military strike aimed at the Iranian infrastructure used for launching the UAV attack from, it seems that the most likely course of action the government will take is an offensive cyber-attack. This will most likely target the Iranian UAV programme itself, in order to mitigate against further attacks.
However, there are further policy options available, and all should be considered within the context of Britain’s regional allies. Whilst the Royal Navy retains significant assets across the Arabian Gulf, most notably within the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) based out of Bahrain, it is to these alliances and like-minded regional security actors to which the UK should seek to form a broader coalition, in order to counter the increased malign activity by Iran.
One such ally is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), itself a member of the eight-nation IMSC. Whilst the Royal Navy-led Carrier Strike Group (CSG) is currently navigating the turbulent South China Sea, it is due to return to the Gulf later in the autumn, docking along the way after the lengthy journey back across the Indian Ocean.
The UK should take this oppourtunity, whilst likely docked temporarily in Oman, to conduct maritime training and exercises with member IMSC nations, including the UAE. This would likely consist of a higher frequency naval patrol action, whilst also sharing best practice where appropriate within the informal maritime alliance.
Crucially, given the regional proximity and shared security threats emanating from the Iranian republic over the Gulf of Oman, this should seek to include a greater emphasis on countering UAV attacks – pertinent given the nature of the rising threat level in this environment. This is even more prescient when considering the UAE’s recent experiences in countering the significant UAV drone threat from the Houthis in Yemen – the insurgency itself Iranian controlled and supported.
However the UK government decides to respond – and respond it must – it should do so in consultation with regional allies and partners. In modern warfare and statecraft, operating without allies is a severe detriment. In security partners including Israel and the UAE, the UK can ill afford to operate alone in this deeply contested security environment.