Twenty-nine years ago in the Persian Gulf, a U.S.-flagged supertanker came under attack by Silkworm missiles launched from Iranian territory. The $2 million in damage included shattered bridge windows. Those shattered bridge windows blinded both Captain John Hunt, master of the vessel and lookout Victorino Gonzaga.
What does this have the news today? Unfortunately, quite a bit. Three weeks ago, a former U.S. Navy vessel, owned by a UAE dredging company was struck by missiles or rockets fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen while transiting the waters of the Southern Red Sea. The result can be seen in the image above.
The heavily damaged former HSV-2 Swift was still afloat, but extensive fire and explosion damage can be seen. The shattered and blown out bridge windows are quite clear. While it has been reported that three of the crew of 24 were critically injured, unconfirmed sources also reported up to 22 crew members were killed.
Experts have speculated that the missile or rocket struck the vessel forward on the starboard side. Those on the bridge were exposed to not only the explosion of the munitions, but the shattered glass of the windows sweeping across the bridge.
Between October 9 and 15, U.S. naval vessels operating in the Southern Red Sea were targets of multiple failed missile attacks launched from Yemen. While the vessels were undamaged, they took defensive action, firing salvos to destroy the incoming missiles. It appears that the Houthi rebels utilized spotters in skiffs to direct the attacks.
On October 25, the LNG tanker Galicia Spirit was attacked in Bab al-Mandab, the chokepoint between the waters of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. This attack consisted of an approach by an open skiff with the occupants firing on the tanker with small arms, as well as an RPG. Despite not having an armed security team on board, the crew of Galicia Spirit managed to evade the attack and left the area under escort by naval forces.
This type of attack - open skiff with small arms and RPG - is reminiscent of Somali piracy. Neither piracy nor terrorism can be ruled out.
These attacks follow closely on the heels of U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Special Warning 134 that cautions vessels transiting the waters of the Southern Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab and Gulf of Aden of exactly this type of attack:
COMMERCIAL VESSELS IN THE REGION OF THE RED SEA, BAB EL MANDEB STRAIT AND THE GULF OF ADEN SHOULD OPERATE UNDER A HEIGHTENED STATE OF ALERT AS INCREASING TENSIONS IN THE REGION ESCALATE THE POTENTIAL FOR DIRECT OR COLLATERAL DAMAGE TO VESSELS TRANSITING THE REGION. THESE THREATS MAY COME FROM A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT SOURCES SUCH AS MISSILES, PROJECTILES OR WATERBORNE IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICES.
What can merchant vessels transiting this area do to prepare themselves? The answer is lengthy, but we will look specifically at mitigation strategies for missile/rocket/RPG attacks:
1. Follow Best Management Practices for Protection against Somali Based Piracy (BMP-4 linked below).
2. Coat/install bridge windows with a film that prevents shattering (BlastGARD is linked below, but is for example only).
3. Install chainlink RPG fences (detailed below in OCIMF study and MIL-HDBK-1013/1A Section 7).
4. Outfit bridge crew with ballistic helmets fitted with face shields.
5. Brief crew on potential threats including weapons commonly used and damage that can be expected.
6. Drill crews repeatedly on emergent security issues.
With close to four million barrels/day transiting Bab al-Mandab on tankers along with container vessels, bulkers, car carriers and all manner of commercial vessels, mariners will likely be under attack there again. Taking the time to identify, assess and mitigate the risks associated with these transits will go a long way towards making those mariners safer.
Additional Reading and Links
SHIP SECURITY - BRIDGE VULNERABILITY STUDY: To determine the effects of weapons fired at the bridge of tankers and to recommend effective ship hardening measures to mitigate the threat - OCIMF, October 2014
MIL-HDBK-1013/1A: Section 7: STANDOFF WEAPONS HARDENING
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.
This entry has been created for information and planning purposes. It is not intended to be, nor should it be substituted for, legal advice, which turns on specific facts.