Tomorrow’s headline might innocently read:
Liberian freighter Sinks in the Strait of Hormuz -
Iranian Navy rescues crew - begins investigation
Only Iran would know that this was the beginning of its new Sea Lane Denial Strategy called: TOP, which stands for “Tactical Obstacle Placement.” Under this creative naval doctrine, the freighter, sinking in the narrow shallow waters of the ingress transit lane, would become an instant hazard to navigation. Due to its bunker and other fuels, it could not be easily or quickly removed. As the vessel sank in Iranian territorial waters, Iran would then “have to” create a safety exclusion zone of perhaps a kilometer square or more to protect shipping and the recovery effort. It might also have to take on a shipping control function in order to reduce transit speeds and increase vessel separation distances. The effect would be to seriously compress and impact the shipping lanes in the Strait, where they are already compressed, creating less of a margin for piloting errors and increasing the risks of both collisions and groundings.
The goal of this psychological operation would not be to close the Strait but to create jitters among maritime underwriters. The financial reality within the maritime community is that U.S. Navy assurances are not sufficient to keep tanker traffic moving through the Persian Gulf. No loaded tanker can leave port without approval from its underwriters, who insure both the cargo and the vessel. The creation of one or more submerged obstacles could frighten underwriters into at least temporary paralysis.
This scenario would dramatically worsen if a second freighter should suddenly sink in the outbound transit lane, or what if ten ships should suddenly “sink” throughout the Strait of Hormuz? Overnight, non-Iranian Persian Gulf oil traffic would come to an almost complete halt. Remember that the Strait is more than 330 kilometers long, but only 56 kilometers wide at its narrowest. Despite its width, most of the Strait is too shallow for transit. One must remain in the middle of the Strait to avoid running aground. As a result of these problems the international community has created a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) through the Strait consisting of two traffic lanes, each lane being three kilometers wide. This system accommodates an estimated 3,000 vessels per day or roughly two vessels per minute either entering or exiting the Strait.
The Strait is called a “choke point” because any new transit restrictions or transit delays will have an immediate ripple impact throughout the shipping industry. It is crucial to understand that international maritime shipping is premised on meeting strict schedules. Vessel time schedules are planned months in advance. Any delays in entering or exiting the Strait of Hormuz will impact when and if vessels depart from London or China for the Persian Gulf. This system is easily disrupted.
Economic warfare of the type described above is asymmetric and is premised on out-thinking one’s opponent. A recurring problem within U.S. Central Command (which oversees the Strait of Hormuz for the United States) is its lethargic state of innovation. CENTCOM announced last week that it was just now beginning to implement its plan, developed six months ago, to improve its mine-clearing capabilities. In 2008, CENTCOM officials (reality notwithstanding) latched onto the superficial notion that because the Sunni Awakening worked in Iraq, then it could be transplanted to Afghanistan, which is of course absurd. The cultural differences and the situation on the ground in both countries are massively different.
CENTCOM in particular and the Pentagon in general hires scores of think-tanks and consultants that are supposed to advance new ideas, tactics and strategies in order to out-think and keep the U.S. one step ahead of its adversaries. The chronic problem is politics. The U.S. military has an incestuous relationship with its contractors. The think-tanks and contractors are laced with old, former Pentagon officials who have left government service in order to cash in on their Pentagon contacts. In summary, the U.S. military is simply hiring its friends and former co-workers and they are not inclined to criticize or to provide the rigorous, innovative and brutally honest analyses that are needed in wartime. As a result of this gap in forward thinking, CENTCOM and Pentagon officials are continually being surprised by their adversaries. “No one could have anticipated that” has become the standard Administration refrain.
If U.S. military officials should ever decide to shut their revolving door and encouraged independent thinking and critical assessments, they might find that military lives are being saved and that they themselves are being furnished with better intelligence, more options and more flexibility to implement those options.
Iran undoubtedly has already realized that it has both military and non-military options available to counter the West and to spike oil prices. Its non-military options (include TOP) hold a dual benefit. While shutting the Strait of Hormuz to all traffic would harm Iranian interests as well as those in the West, narrowing the Strait would spike world oil prices, by scaring away some underwriters, which would reduce Persian Gulf tanker traffic. That would help Iran by increasing its oil revenues, while at the same time it harms the West. It is a perfect strategy that Iran might view as having limited risk but providing substantial benefits. This is but one of Iran’s options to spike oil prices. The West (hopefully) has implemented planning to counter this and Iran’s other non-lethal options, but this author has his doubts.
In conclusion, Iran may already be moving some of it pawns into position, with CENTCOM not realizing that the game has even begun. If and when CENTCOM does begin to grasp reality, it may find that it is not prepared to respond to the economic battlefield that Iran has creatively designed and to the non-lethal tactics that Iran has chosen as its weapons.