Iran mourners carrying caskets of Qasem Soleimani (L) and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R)
Analysis

Lima Charlie: How Could UK Armed Forces Be Drawn Into The Iran Crisis?

What might be the role of the UK Armed Forces as tensions rise?

Iran mourners carrying caskets of Qasem Soleimani (L) and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R)

The death of Iranian Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani in a missile strike has caused an immediate escalation in tensions in the Middle East.

The strike, authorised by President Trump has led to a breakdown in relations with Iran, leading to concerns that there may be some form of Iranian military response to follow.

More widely the Iraqi Parliament has called for the withdrawal of US and foreign troops from Iraq, where they have been engaged in training missions to counter the ISIS threat, while at sea tensions remain high with the potential for Iranian naval forces to try to cause conflict in Gulf waters.

The British Armed Forces are deployed widely across the region in significant strength, and it remains one of the most critical areas of operation for all three services.

As events develop though, what is it that could happen and how could the Armed Forces be involved?

This is a rapidly evolving and changing situation. At the time of writing we know that Iran has threatened to take revenge against the US for the strike, which took out one of the most important and senior figures in the Iranian regime.

The form of this response, as yet, remains unclear.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

It is likely that Iran, recognising that it cannot win a direct military confrontation with the US will look to respond via proxies or indirect means instead of using direct force.

This may see attacks by militias or other terrorist groups and movements sponsored by the Iranians – for example in Lebanon and Yemen, used to carry out attacks on US forces.

The Iranians have a long history of using proxies to extend their influence, usually via the Qods Force which Soleimani headed.

In Lebanon, Iranian backing of Lebanese Hizballah has been critical to extending Iranian influence in the country.

In Yemen, the Iranians have provided weapons, equipment and training to Houthi rebels aiming to overthrow the national government, and who in turn have also launched rocket attacks on both shipping in the Red Sea, and on Saudi Arabia itself.

During OP Telic, the Iranians were responsible for providing training and equipment to Iraqi Shia militia groups that carried out a campaign of using roadside IEDs to target coalition forces, killing dozens of soldiers and civilians and injuring hundreds more and help shape the conditions for a decline in public support and eventual withdrawal.

While more globally there is evidence that the Iranians have carried out overseas terrorist attacks – for example in Argentina in 1994 which killed 85 people.

In addition to competent armed forces, which are split between the traditional regular military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who are a quasi-militia with access to reasonable equipment, the Iranians also have invested heavily in cyber capability and are believed to be capable of mounting cyber attacks across the globe.

The question then is what does Iran do next and how does this impact the UK?

In the short term, there appear to be three potential scenarios which could draw the British Armed Forces in some way.

The first is to conduct some form of evacuation operation from Iraq of both UK diplomats, government personnel, expatriates and eventually the armed forces themselves.

There is a not insignificant footprint of UK government and business people on the ground, and in the event of a decline in the security situation the decision may be taken to evacuate them to safety – the so-called ‘NEO’ or ‘Non combatant Evacuation Operation’.

This sort of operation would almost certainly involve both airlift and road moves to get the UK community out of the country in a hurry.

It would be a challenging operation but is one that the military could carry out.

It would probably involve a combination of air mobility assets – for example the RAF C17, C130 and A400M air transport force operating out of local airbases – maybe in Kuwait, to carry out shuttle missions from local airports – potentially in Baghdad.

Such a mission may also need a UK ground presence too, particularly if the security situation is declining.

To that end, troops from the UK Theatre Reserve Battalion (TRB), currently based in Cyprus may be deployed on the ground to provide security.

The TRB is an invaluable asset for middle eastern operations as it provides a body of trained and climate acclimatised personnel, used to work in the warmer conditions of the Middle East.

Due to their location the TRB is also far easier to move into theatre if needed and will provide UK commanders with a valuable additional capability if they need troops.

There are already some 500 UK personnel on the ground in Iraq who had been training the local Iraqi Security Forces.

This work had been going on since 2015 as part of Op Shader and was a key part of the UK support to the Iraqi Government to defeat ISIS.

Although the UK would like to remain to work with Iraqis locally, it currently looks highly likely that they will be asked to leave as part of the wider withdrawal of foreign forces.

The nature of the withdrawal will determine how much kit and equipment leaves the country – hopefully it will be an orderly drawdown in a similar way to the end of OP Herrick, but there is always the potential that in the worst-case scenario it may be carried out in a hurry and under hostile conditions.

This could potentially see equipment left behind or destroyed as the military withdraw to leave the country as quickly as possible.

The next key potential area of operations could be in the wider maritime environment, particularly in the Gulf itself.

The Royal Navy has an extensive military presence in the region built around a destroyer (currently HMS Defender), a permanently based frigate (HMS Montrose), four Mine Counter Measure Vessels, a Wave Tanker and a Bay class landing ship that acts as a support platform for the MCMV force.

The main maritime risk comes from the challenge to UK shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, a particularly narrow and constrained waterway which all ships leaving the Gulf must sail through. The waters are tight and sit between Iranian and Omani territory.

Although there is a wider maritime operation in the region (known as Op Sentinel) which is intended to co-ordinate allied military shipping in the area, the challenge is that Iranian forces, particularly those linked to the IRGC can quickly sortie out from their bases to try and threaten, cajole, seize or even attack ships and return to port before allied shipping can respond.

This cannot be ruled out, particularly following Iranian activity in summer 2019 where they seized UK flagged merchant vessels in response to the British seizure of an Iranian flagged tanker off Gibraltar.

Gulf of Oman map

The Ministry of Defence has already confirmed that the two UK escorts in the region will sail to provide reassurance and accompany UK merchant ships transiting these waters.

This will hopefully act as a timely signal to Iranian forces not to respond by proxy to these attacks and encourage them to stay away rather than escalate the situation.

The US Navy is heavily active in the region too, and has a major headquarters in Bahrain known as 5th Fleet which is home to thousands of US personnel and is responsible for all US maritime activity in the Gulf.

Currently there are a wide range of US military vessels locally, including an aircraft carrier (USS Abraham Lincoln) and it is likely that a US Navy amphibious group, which would include a large Wasp class helicopter carrier capable of launching AV8B Harriers and F35 jets is redeploying too, along with multiple escort ships like the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers and Ticonderoga class cruisers.

The Royal Navy is heavily integrated into this US structure, maintaining its own 1* led force in Bahrain (known as the UK Maritime Component Command) which is responsible for the permanent UK naval base located in the country.

One of the most important assets the UK force has, is the MCMV units which are able to hunt and destroy mines on the seabed.

The US Navy has for many years not invested heavily in Mine Warfare, and most of its ships are relatively elderly.

The four US Navy MCMVs based in the Gulf work extremely closely with the Royal Navy, who is recognised as a global leader in this field, to help ensure they can keep the waterways clear from mines.

One option open to the Iranians if they wished to escalate the situation further, would be to mine the Strait of Hormuz and prevent ships entering or leaving it.

Such a move would cause international condemnation, but would also cause huge damage to the global economy.

In those circumstances the UK would see its vessels playing a critical role in tracking and destroying the mines to help reopen the Strait to shipping again.

Iranian mourners during General Qassem Soleimani's funeral in Tehran

This is an operation that the UK has regularly done in the past. The force in the region is enormously valued by the US Navy, and it is likely that in the event of any problems, there would be requests for UK support.

The other area where the UK could provide assistance, is in escorting ships through choke points where the missile threat is high.

For example, if the Iranians provided additional support to their allies in Yemen, the Houthi militias could theoretically pose a real threat to shipping in the Southern Red Sea, another critical choke point that all ships bound to and from the Suez Canal must sail through.

The ‘Bab-al-Mendab’ Strait is barely 16 miles wide and separates Africa from the Middle East.

The waterways are narrow and shallow, and ships are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre in the area. This makes it much easier to target them with anti-ship missiles as their course is easily predictable.

In 2016, the Royal Navy sent the destroyer HMS Daring to escort UK merchant shipping in this region to protect against this very threat at a time when it was possible it could be attacked.

It may be the case that a further deployment is required now to counter the same threat in future.

The last way the UK may be involved, is in a scenario where US military forces openly attack Iranian targets.

Although this remains an exceptionally unlikely scenario, it is important to consider and understand how the UK could be asked to render support, or where UK forces may even join in operations.

If the US were to launch airstrikes on Iran, then they may seek to use the large US airbase on the island of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory.

This facility is manned by the US but remains UK sovereign territory and there is a small detachment of Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel permanently based there to support UK control.

Media reporting has already suggested that the US has dispatched several B52 bombers into the airbase, which has a runway capable of operating all the major strategic bombers in the US arsenal, including the B52, B1 and B2 bombers.

It is possible that in the event of active hostilities, the island could function as a key base for US operations.

In a similar manner, the US also rely heavily on the use of the RAF base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, to carry out a range of support and reconnaissance missions.

Access to this facility would be critical in the event of air strikes occurring, because it enables both a safe and secure operating base reasonably close to the operating area, and able to operate a wide range of different aircraft types.

Finally, the US Air Force still has a number of airbases physically located in the UK, including at Mildenhall, Lakenheath and Fairford.

These bases, which date as far back as WW2 and the Cold War, still play host to F15 strike aircraft, a variety of tankers and other operational support and intelligence aircraft and also, Fairford is one of the very few airbases globally capable of supporting the B2 stealth bomber.

In all three examples, the key thing that is required for these bases to be used is UK permission for missions to be carried out from them.

The UK does have the power of veto and could, in theory, refuse permission for strikes and missions to be launched by US aircraft from its territory, but to do so seems highly unlikely.

The risk then is that the UK is brought in by proxy, supporting US operations even if it doesn’t directly support militarily.

This would in theory make the UK a target in the eyes of the Iranians, although in reality given the manner in which Iran sees the UK and US as almost interchangeable and inseparable in policy terms, they would realistically see the UK as a credible target regardless.

Were the situation to escalate considerably and UK forces to become directly involved in strikes on Iran, then there is a variety of ways that they could be used.

The most likely of which would be the provision of support to direct US strikes – for example by the provision of air to air refuelling (like that done in Afghanistan in the early days after 9/11).

The RAF may also be asked to provide strategic airlift or access to some of its intelligence collection platforms like the Sentinel or the Rivet Joint to help support US missions.

The Sentinel is known to be deployed in Cyprus already, along with the RAF Voyager force of air-air tankers, while the Rivet Joint is an intelligence collection platform which represents a shared capability with the US Air Force.

It is possible that these assets will be in strong demand during operations.

The Typhoon force may also be called upon to act, both to provide air defence, but also to conduct Storm Shadow strikes.

The air launched cruise missile is a phenomenally effective capability, able to strike specific targets with near pinpoint accuracy. Already based in Cyprus to support Op Shader, the Typhoon force could in theory be augmented and redeployed to support cruise missile strikes as well.

The main ask on the Royal Navy is likely to be that of providing the MCMV force to help ensure that the Strait of Hormuz remains open to shipping.

The other areas where it may be involved, is in providing area air defence for US vessels through the Type 45 destroyer based in the region.

The US is keenly aware of just how good the Type 45 is when it comes to its radar and missile combination, and has often integrated them into US Carrier Battle Groups operating in the Gulf region.

They may well seek to do the same here and rely on the Royal Navy to provide air defence as part of wider operations with the US Navy.

This wouldn’t be the first time that this has happened – in 1991 the Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer HMS Gloucester successfully shot down incoming Iraqi anti-ship missiles aimed at the battleship USS Missouri with her Sea Dart missile system.

The other area where the UK could potentially contribute would be firing the Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM) from a Royal Navy nuclear submarine operating in the area. Both the Trafalgar and Astute class submarines can fire this missile, which is launched at sea and able to fly low through enemy air defences and strike targets.

Often used in places where the air defence threat to pilots is significant, the TLAM can be used to degrade an enemy air defence network and make it easier for friendly aircraft to operate and establish air superiority, or to help take out strategic targets of value.

The advantage of launching from the sea is that the Iranian maritime forces have a relatively weak anti-submarine warfare capability and are unlikely to be able to track or stop a Royal Navy nuclear attack submarine without being at severe risk themselves of being sunk.

The last area where the UK may be involved is in the intelligence community tackling any cyber threat from the Iranian regime.

This work, done both by the armed forces and GCHQ is going to be essential to ensure that the Iranians cannot damage the UK through hacking or malicious cyber warfare, and in protecting our critical national infrastructure.

This work is likely to be done in close co-ordination with allies, particularly from the so-called ‘5 Eyes’ community of UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom work very closely together on intelligence matters like this.

For the other key global powers, the question is whether this is an opportunity in the making for them too.

The Russians and Chinese are likely to see what openings this gives them for both arms sales and an opportunity to gain influence at Western expense.

A withdrawal by Western forces opens the door for China to offer cheap and highly capable military equipment for sale, and to gain a foot in the door to replace the US as a strategic partner.

Already social media indicates the Chinese have offered to aid the Iraqis if desired.

The next few months may see a significant reshaping on how nations in the Middle East align themselves, and the potential fallout could impact for years to come how the US, UK and others engage with and handle Iran.

While all out conflict remains a highly unlikely outcome, the risk is that miscalculation could lead to inadvertent acts occurring. Things are likely to remain tense for some time to come, and many nations will be watching events with interest.

It is clear that there is a significant shift in Middle Eastern strategic situation occurring here, which could see the end of the western military presence in Iraq, and the firm alignment of Iraq with the Iranian regime in opposition to the West – a key goal of the late General Soleimani.

It is too soon to say with any certainty what may happen, but the new decade has brought the potential for an entirely new set of relationships and engagements in the Middle East and beyond.

The only confident prediction that can be made is that the British Armed Forces will see themselves involved in some way in the wider Middle East in the coming days, weeks and months as the situation continues to evolve and develop.

 

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.