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Report: US Plans to Put Marines on Commercial Ships to Defend Against Iran

US to defend commercial ships against Iran
Iranian fast boats launched the assault on tanker Niovi seizing it in May 2023 (US Navy photo)

Published Aug 3, 2023 8:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

The United States has a plan to offer armed marines and navy sailors to commercial ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz as part of its efforts to increase the security of shipping in response to Iran’s repeated harassment and seizure of vessels in the critical seaway. It would come as a further step after the U.S. along with Britain increased patrols and other efforts aimed at protecting internationally-registered ships sailing in the area.

The plan was first reported this evening by the Associated Press and quickly confirmed by confidential sources to other outlets including the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency. Each of the outlets are citing unnamed confidential sources that spoke off the record, emphasizing that the plan has not yet been approved.

The Biden administration reportedly is in favor of the plan launching the idea after Iran harassed two tankers in early July and the earlier incidents in the Persian Gulf. John Kirby, the White House spokesperson on defense issues declined to comment to the outlets referring questions to the Department of Defense. He however did emphasize it illustrates the strategic importance of the area.

Because the marines and sailors would be placed aboard commercial vessels, they would have to be requested by individual shipping companies or operators. It is unclear how many would be aboard each vessel or what type of weapons they would be equipped with to defend the vessels.

One of the sources told the media that ideally, they would never be engaged and have no interaction during the passage. However, they said they would be prepared to respond should a vessel be attacked. 

The reports are highlighting the Pentagon’s recent moves to increase deployments to the region with additional forces at the bases in Bahrain. The reports are saying that two or possibly three vessels, including the USS Bataan and USS Carter Hall, are in the Mediterranean and destine to the Persian Gulf region with deployments of marines. One source is saying the marines have already undergone training for the mission and will be joined by other forces in the coming weeks. With approval, the mission could start as early as this month.

This spring, the U.S. and Britain began increased patrols in the region and on June 4 reported that they had jointly worked to fend off an Iranian assault on an unidentified vessel believed to be a bulker that was approached by Iranian fast boats. The USS McFaul and HMS Lancaster responded with the British sending a helicopter. The Iranian boats withdrew. Then on July 5, Iranian forces again approached two other vessels including firing on the tanker Richmond Voyager. 

These incidents came after Iran seized two tankers, the Niovi and the Advantage Sweet, earlier in 2023. A year earlier in May 2022, Iran seized two Greek-owned tankers after Greece detained an Iranian tanker and initially permitted the U.S. to confiscate its crude oil cargo. The U.S. was forced by a Greek court to return the oil and in November 2022 Iran released the tankers.  The sources also point to several drone and missile attacks on Israeli-owned ships in the region linked to Iranian forces.

The Washington Post reports the U.S. has already sent additional fighter aircraft and attack jets to the Persian Gulf region in recent weeks. The Navy has also increased the number of destroyers in the region and expanded efforts with the joint task forces with allies that monitor the region. However, the outlets highlight the deployment of U.S. marines and sailors to commercial ships would be a further and significant escalation in the region.