Middle East

Operation Sentinel: The Naval Taskforce Protecting Gulf Shipping

Tensions in the Gulf have escalated during recent months.

Iranian forces have been blamed for attacks on shipping and the seizure of a British-flagged tanker.

A new naval taskforce has been established in the region, to protect commercial shipping through the region, in particular, the Strait of Hormuz.

Known as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), it is made up of seven nations, including the UK.

The mission, Operation Sentinel, was launched during a ceremony at the coalition's headquarters in Bahrain.

Speaking at the event, Vice Admiral James Malloy, Commander of the US Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, said: "We've observed attacks on shipping by state actors who seek to clandestinely hide in and obfuscate their complicity in public denials."

Oil tanker Stena Impero CREDIT Stena Bulk
The British-flagged Stena Impero was seized by Iran on 19 July (Picture: Stena Bulk).

The taskforce was formed in the wake of heightened tensions in the region over the past six months, including the seizure of a British-flagged tanker in July.

Iran has been blamed by numerous nations for attacking and seizing ships in the Gulf.

Each nation in the coalition is sending naval ships to escort shipping through the region in the hope of deterring Iran.

Operation Sentinel is being run from inside a large tent at the US naval base in Bahrain.

Personnel stationed at the Bahrain base will be in charge of tracking shipping going through the area.

In particular, they will monitor the situation in the Strait of Hormuz, the flashpoint in recent confrontations with Tehran.

"We can't be in all places at all times," said Commander Ben Keith, Head of Operations at IMSC.

"We can never give 100% assurance that we can stop all of that, which is a huge frustration and disappointment, certainly with the Royal Navy with the Stena Impero that got taken and we couldn't protect."

The roots of the current situation in the Gulf extend back to 2018 when US President Donald Trump withdrew from a nuclear deal with Iran and ramped up sanctions.

In May this year, the US sent a carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf, alleging Tehran was planning a campaign against American forces and shipping around the Strait of Hormuz.

A week later, four commercial ships were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

The Pentagon released footage claiming it showed Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the ships.

HMS Montrose in Bahrain Credit BFBS 13.11.19
HMS Montrose is undergoing maintenance in Bahrain.

In July, the UK became involved when Royal Marines impounded an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar for allegedly taking oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

Within days, Royal Navy ship HMS Montrose was forced to warn off Iranian patrol boats as they tried to capture the British flagged tanker British Heritage.

A week later, Iranian commandos captured the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Royal Navy has been patrolling the Gulf for more than a decade as part of Operation Kipion.

Four of the service's minehunters are now based permanently in the Gulf.

One of them, HMS Shoreham, is moored at the UK’s new Naval Support Facility in Bahrain.

"The ship is specifically designed for the niche capability that is mine-counter measure," said Lieutenant Commander Daniel Herridge, Commanding Officer, HMS Shoreham.

"It's made of glass-reinforced plastic and metals have been kept to a minimum in order to ensure the influence of the ship is reduced so that we do not activate any mines if operating in a minefield," he added.

HMS Montrose is also at the Naval Support Facility in Bahrain, undergoing maintenance.

The Type 23 frigate is deployed to Bahrain until 2022 and two crews alternate duties on board every four months.

During the summer, she was engaged in more than 100 "interactions" with Iranian forces.

Wildcat on HMS Montrose in Bahrain Credot BFBS 13.11.19.jpg
The Wildcat raced to the scene when Iranian patrol boats tried to capture the British Heritage tanker.

The Wildcat helicopter on board HMS Montrose is equipped with a whole range of sensors and an infra-red camera.

When Iranian patrol boats tried to take the British Heritage this summer, the Wildcat was the aircraft that raced to the scene to monitor what was going on.

Lieutenant Max Cosby, HMS Montrose's Flight Commander, described how its "well-designed radar" helped conceal their location.

"We're able to sit somewhere and it's very difficult for other people to know where we are or what we're up to."

At the US Naval Base, Bahrain’s defence chief issued a few words of encouragement to the Kingdom’s American guests.

This new security construct is designed to be temporary, it is hoped, to ensure tensions will ease in time and it can be stood down.