In the early hours of June 13, the tankers FRONT ALTAIR and KOKUKA COURAGEOUS, were damaged while exiting the Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz. The United States said it was sabotage, the result of a deliberately planned attack by Iran, because of U.S. sanctions (Washington also blamed Tehran for the previous month’s attack on four tankers off the coast of Fujairah, in the UAE).
The most immediate impact has been on oil prices and the cost of insurance, both of which have jumped (as the region was already listed by the Joint War Committee when the latest incident occurred, underwriters have been able to respond to the increasing risk much faster this time around). But rising tensions may also have far-reaching implications on maritime safety and security.
The Taps Stay On
“Prices will go up on all fronts,” says Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent, former risk advisor to Shell Shipping, and a former Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy. “While the Americans might advise against transits – as they have done before – that cannot last for more than 24 hours as it is very difficult to ‘turn the taps off’.” Burnell-Nugent reckons most operators will continue trading, as there is “safety in numbers”, and that Coalition Navies will likely be drawn in.
The data explains why. More than 1,400 crude tankers – almost two-thirds of active crude oil tankers worldwide – have operated in the Gulf at least once in the past year; one-quarter of them visited four or more times. All in, they sailed to the area more than 5,300 times in the past 12 months. On any given day, there around 115 crude oil tankers operating in the Gulf.
In other words, there’s an almost limitless supply of opportunities for would-be saboteurs, though their methods may evolve. “With sanctions in full force,” says Burnell-Nugent, “the Iranians favor political and operational asymmetry as they seek to avoid direct conflict. Information operations are well underway – images, fake news, etc. – and cyber is almost certainly involved, and if not, it soon will be. Moreover, we should expect attacks of various types away from the Straits – so as to disperse politics and countermeasures.”
Trading as Usual While Reducing Exposure
Windward data collected before and after the attacks show a mixed trend on behalf of shipowners. The number of vessels operating at any given moment offshore Fujairah – the biggest transshipment and replenishment hub in the region – remains steady at around 150. What has changed is the amount of time vessels spend there. Our research shows that during the first five months of 2019, ships anchoring off Fujairah did so for an average of 32 hours. Since the attacks last week, this figure has dropped by one-third, to below 22 hours. In other words, shipowners and captains are actively reducing their exposure to the region, while maintaining the same scope of trade.
The best part of a day is, of course, still plenty of time for a vessel to be exposed. But here are some actions that can be taken to mitigate the risk, courtesy of Burnell-Nugent:
- Get regular updates from security consultants
- Establish close links with MTO Dubai and get regular updates
- Get in touch with U.S. Navy in Bahrain for their updates
- Safer to be underway than at anchor
- Safer to be going as fast as is safe from the navigation point of view.
- Small amounts of rudder when underway so the ship gently weaves, will make things more difficult for attackers.
- Since these attacks seem to be taking place at night, better to transit the Straits in daylight – but be alert for changing patterns of operation
- Get night vision binoculars if you are underway or at anchor at night
- Be ready to communicate with coalition warships on VHF.
- Much as was done with counter-piracy, deploy lookouts at port and starboard bow and quarter of the ship, including when at anchor
- Have searchlights and cameras ready if anything suspicious is spotted – again at port and starboard bow and quarter of the ship
- Loud hailer – “You have been spotted and photographed”
- Do not take action with flares or rockets – this might draw counter-fire
- Keep calm. Tankers are massive vessels and although they may billow masses of smoke, flames and oil spills, catastrophic explosions or other events are very unlikely. The media and images make things look much, much worse than they actually are.