Smackdown! at Sea
posted at 3:58 pm on June 23, 2010 by J.E. Dyer
In the esoteric world of attack flotillas, the heat is on. Iran, Turkey, and Lebanon are all hosting the preparation of blockade-busting flotillas that will reportedly head for Gaza in the next few weeks. Iran’s state-sponsored flotilla is now scheduled to leave on Sunday, 27 June – although its departure has been delayed a couple of times already and may slip again. The Iranian leadership has said it will not, in spite of its previous bluster, send a naval escort for the flotilla.
Less specificity attends the planning for the flotillas from Turkey and Lebanon, where the fiction of private, non-state sponsorship is being maintained. We do hear that one of the Lebanese ships will be carrying only women passengers (presumably the crew will be male). We also hear – appallingly, in my view – that His Eminence Gregorios III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch (the spiritual head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the region), is endorsing and blessing the Lebanese flotilla. This news comes in the wake of the discovery that one of the activists in the previous flotilla, Father Hilarion Capucci – also a Melkite Greek Catholic – is the same man who was caught in 1975 smuggling guns into the West Bank. (One thing we can say for certain: that’s not what Jesus would do.)
I assume the Turkish and Lebanese flotillas are being held pending the approach of the Iranian flotilla, so they can all converge on Israel’s coast at once. It’s not clear whether Turkey will make good on the threat to provide a naval escort. But if this does turn into a multi-pronged, unified effort, I anticipate Hezbollah being ready to deploy armed speedboats and anti-ship missiles from the coast of Lebanon. Turkey’s posture is most likely to involve sending at least one warship, but having it stand off from the scene of action and monitor the situation, being ready to respond if necessary. Turkey will presumably have reconnaissance aircraft aloft for the incident as well, if her participation in the flotilla effort itself is robust.
The vulnerability this could all create for innocent commercial shipping and local fishing traffic is tremendous. It will be one of the biggest tactical challenges Israel has ever faced, in any warfare dimension, to handle such an invasion without having to shoot and kill, but to also manage to keep ships from reaching the coast. Like the Turkish IHH operatives on M/V Mavi Marmara, many of those mounting the upcoming “flotilla Intifada” fully intend to incur martyrdom. If the flotillas converge, as I expect, they will not be tentative or watchful in their approach. They will do everything possible to create disorder, force the situation out of control, and induce the Israelis to take lethal action.
Where is the US in all this? I’ve argued before that we need to lead NATO in saddling up and taking order to this nonsense. The flotilla Smackdown is intended to put Israel’s border security at risk: to get the West to intervene and put itself, through the UN, on the hook for keeping Israel and Hamas separated. The most important result of that would be curtailing Israel’s sovereign options for self-defense. Hamas likes the example of UNIFIL in Lebanon, which has been colossally ineffective: it operates in a very small area and has no impact on Hezbollah’s ability to control large swaths of the country and arm itself at will. A UN force in Gaza would be less than a band-aid. Hamas would walk all over it, stockpiling arms and hardening its own defenses.
Regardless of the outcome anyone wants, in good faith, for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, Israel should not be subject to homicidal harassment by a Hamas that is allowed to arm itself. There can only be a “peace process” if Israel is able to act in the capacity of a sovereign nation, acknowledged as responsible for her security. Westerners who think we can disregard the perquisites of sovereignty for Israel, but have them observed intact for ourselves, are profoundly and inexcusably in error. Affirming Israel’s right to negotiate her borders in peace, and defend them when they are under attack, is an obligation of Western civilization, and we will pay for it in blood later if we do not undertake that obligation today.
A few days ago, the always-invigorating DEBKAfile website reported that the American aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) was being held in the Mediterranean, instead of proceeding on to her station in the Persian Gulf, because of the flotilla-related instability in the Eastern Med. Other news sources are now reporting, however, that Truman and her carrier strike group have passed southward through the Suez Canal. (The Truman strike group, based on the US East coast, is beginning its deployment and stopped briefly for port visits in the Western Med. Truman is expected to relieve USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Persian Gulf.)
The strike group’s Suez transit was noteworthy for one particular aspect: it was conducted with the Canal closed to other traffic, and reportedly with a large Egyptian security force manning the Canal’s banks. That is unusual, although not unprecedented; special security precautions have been taken for US warships in the Canal on a number of occasions in the past. Warships are convoyed together, in any case (except for submarines, which transit in the rear of a convoy because of Canal-imposed restrictions on their speed). But closing the Canal to other traffic while warships complete their transit is not a measure that’s taken very often. The Egyptians always have armed security on the Canal’s banks, but apparently the force was beefed up considerably for this transit.
These circumstances are informative in themselves. How many Americans are aware that the threat to our forces is considered so high right now? It strikes me as particularly unusual that the MSM are paying this no attention at all. At any rate, there was another interesting aspect of the transit, which also included one Israeli Saar-class corvette (a light frigate), and that is the number of ships it reportedly included. If the reporting is accurate, there were a total of 12 US warships: Truman and 11 others. (One was actually FGS Hessen, a German frigate deployed as part of the Truman force.) Truman’s own strike group doesn’t have that many ships in it. The tally probably represents most of the warships that were in the Mediterranean. Some may be heading for antipiracy operations off Somalia; and it may be that the ships all transited together because of the security precautions, which can’t conveniently be taken piecemeal.
But it’s natural, when civilian commentators see such a big convoy of warships, for them to think something unusual is up. I’m inclined to think this transit wasn’t a “sign” – but I do think it leaves very few US warships in the Mediterranean for the moment. Bloggers are speculating that the ships have been dispatched to intercept the Iranian flotilla before it gets to the Suez Canal. I doubt that. I suspect, unfortunately, that what’s going on represents putting security precautions in the driver’s seat for forward readiness.
A likely scenario is this one: the ships that just went south through the Canal are heading to relieve others conducting normal operations on station in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden (antipiracy). When those other ships are relieved, they will pile up in Port Suez (at the south entrance to the Canal, in the Red Sea) until they are all together, and then transit in unison into the Med.
I would love to be wrong about this. The US Navy doesn’t appear to have enough ships in the Med right now to “announce its presence with authority” if a real flotilla Smackdown emerges off the Levantine coast. We do, I note, have maritime reconnaissance aircraft that operate from bases on land. Their ability to affect the operations of ships on the surface – short of using weapons on them – is virtually nil.
Meanwhile, at the end of May a brief disclosure reached the UK Times that Israel was putting “Dolphin submarines” (the report implied more than one) on permanent forward patrol in or near the Persian Gulf. The Times cited an Israeli military source. What this disclosure was not accompanied by was any information suggesting the submarines went through the Suez Canal, as we saw at this time last year. The Dolphins are homeported in the Mediterranean and must either go through the Canal or around Africa to get to the Persian Gulf.
One journalist reports that Israel recently took possession – a year earlier than scheduled – of its two new Dolphins from the German shipyard where they were being constructed. There was a report of the same two Dolphins heading for Israel last fall, and it turned out to be incorrect (the Dolphins were seen around the same time in their construction bays). So that should be kept in mind. But if the report is accurate (I have not seen a contradiction of it), one possibility is that the Israeli crews took those submarines directly from the construction yard in the Baltic Sea to patrol stations near Iran. The main logistic hurdle would be finding a way to load weapons somewhere in Africa. (Refueling in Africa – perhaps in South Africa, Mozambique, or Tanzania – would be less of a challenge.)
Taking advantage of such an opportunity – operating new submarines in this manner – brings a high enough payoff to be worth the effort. The real payoff is in maintaining operational secrecy for the submarine force. Port-watchers in Haifa could easily discern when a new patrol pattern had started, by counting the number of submarines and how long one or two of the original three were absent from the piers. But if a new pattern can be launched using hulls no one has counted before, it takes much greater sophistication in surveillance and analysis to establish a baseline for an order-of-battle accounting. The newest submarines would eventually come “home,” but the rotation could be maintained at that point without emitting unnecessary clues.
What’s going on at sea today is real and meaningful. The worst aspect of the whole situation is that the intentions of the United States have not been made clear. There is nothing about these circumstances that argues for strategic or political secrecy on our part. Rather, we would be shaping the outcome to our advantage by being more explicit. We should be stating our intention to keep order in the Eastern Mediterranean. We should be telling Turkey and Lebanon to not even think about introducing an armed naval element into the flotilla Smackdown. We should most definitely announce that our warships will be on station to keep the peace (and then, of course, have them there). We should bolster Egypt’s confidence by showing a strong hand, while asking Egypt to block the Iranian flotilla’s entry into the Mediterranean.
Above all, we should convey the message that it’s too bad Turkey, Iran, and Hezbollah want to arm Hamas and increase the risk to Israel through this shabby, disgusting back-door method: they don’t get to. Of course they wouldn’t like hearing this. But the firmer and more determined we look, the less likely they are to try to come to asymmetric blows that won’t win them anything. We still have the power to suppress and avert the flotilla Smackdown and change the course of events. That power just went south through the Suez Canal. Instead of sneaking it through the chokepoint with special security precautions, we should be using it for what gray hulls have routinely been used for over the past 200 years: showing force so that we don’t have to use force.
Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.