An Iranian missile ship is seen in the Strait of Hormuz. (Chris Cavas / Defense News)
THE STRAIT OF HORMUZ — This is definitely a place, not just a patch in the sea.
The land can close in on both sides — Iran to the north, Oman or the United Arab Emirates to the south. The waterway is crowded with ships, among them the world’s largest oil tankers, big container ships, small dhows and merchantmen, tiny fast smuggling craft darting across traffic, gray warships lurking in the haze.
See more photos on Intercepts: Riding Through the Straits of Hormuz
At the strait’s narrowest point, 21 miles across, the traffic separation scheme (TSS) — a sort of highway on the sea with inbound and outbound lanes, separated by a neutral buffer zone — requires great attention from bridge watches to maintain proper distances between ships and avoid collisions, no easy feat when maneuvering enormous vessels that require miles to stop.
On the radio, perfunctory queries from Iranian, Omani or UAE authorities seek information from unknown contacts. All merchant ships and aircraft are required to broadcast, or “squawk,” their identities on automated identification systems. But the warships and military aircraft operating in and over the strait don’t squawk, leading to dozens of calls for an “unknown” or “coalition” warship or aircraft to identify itself — which it does, sometimes.
Tensions are only heightened by the political volatility of the waterway, one of the world’s most strategic chokepoints. The long-running standoff between Iran, other gulf nations and the U.S. and its coalition partners is at its most acute here, where all the interested partners are routinely active.
In times of crisis, the media tends to portray every U.S. transit of the Strait of Hormuz as a confrontational challenge, particularly if Iranian officials have threatened some sort of military action. But the U.S. Navy regularly makes the trip through the only passage from the Arabian Gulf to the sea: 11 inbound or outbound transits in January, for example, and 14 in February.
But the transits aren’t routine, said Cmdr. Glenn Quast, commanding officer of the destroyer Farragut, just before making the 10th and final strait transit of this deployment. “Each one presents its own challenges.”
Defense News was given a rare opportunity last month to view the strait from two perspectives — first, onboard a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft patrolling the full stretch of the waterway from Bahrain out to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea, then onboard Farragut as it made its way from Bahrain out to the ocean.
The Strait via Air
We boarded a P-3C Orion of Patrol Squadron 40 at a base in Bahrain. Sitting in the pilot’s seat was Cmdr. Kent Moore, the squadron’s commanding officer and a 17-year P-3 veteran. His squadron, on deployment from its home base at Whidbey Island, Wash., flies near-daily patrols over the strategic waterway.
“We’ll be flying a precise path right down the middle of the gulf and through the strait,” Moore said, emphasizing that precise navigation was essential to not give the wrong impression about the mission’s intentions. The Iranians, he said, had recently issued more challenges about aircraft operating in their air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a region that extends beyond traditional 12-mile territorial boundaries.
The aircraft levels out at an altitude of 15,000 to 16,000 feet, and the plane’s 11-person crew settles in for the seven-hour mission. Radar, electro-optical and infrared sensors all come online, aided by two crew members watching out of side windows.
Multiple oil tankers come into view as we enter the TSS on the strait’s west side. Coming through the Knuckle — the tight turn at the very top of the strait — Iranian islands and the mainland are clearly in view.
An Iranian corvette is seen operating in territorial waters inside the islands, but the P-3 takes no specific action. A small official-looking craft gets particular attention, however, and the Orion drops to about 1,500 feet for a closer look. A crewman brings a camera forward to a special window. The craft, perhaps an Iranian customs boat, is taking a close look at a sailing dhow it has stopped.
“We’re not sure what it is,” Moore said, “but we’ll send the photos in for analysis.” The aircraft climbs to its previous altitude.
An Iranian radio challenge comes on the air, calling to a coalition aircraft in the Iranian ADIZ.
“This is coalition aircraft conducting operations in international airspace,” we reply. There is no response, and we fly on.
A report of an Iranian F-4 fighter operating around Bandar Abbas is received, but no action is taken.
Another Iranian warship comes into view on the eastern side of the strait, a Combattante fast missile boat. Again, we drop down for a better look, but not as low as before — it’s a common sight, the crewmen say.
“A pretty average mission,” Moore observed, heading back to base.
The Strait via Sea
Two days later at 7 a.m., the ship’s broadcast system aboard the Farragut, on deployment from Mayport, Fla., rang out the word. “Station the Strait of Hormuz transit detail.”
The small caliber action team (SCAT) took up positions at the crew-served weapons stations. An augmented “Snoopy” intelligence team brought up a battery of video and still cameras.
“We’re hoping for a quiet day,” said Intelligence Specialist 1st Class Martin Lopez, making his 20th strait transit.
Back on the flight deck, the crew of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 48, Detachment 7, wants to make a functional check flight to test some fixes after rotor maintenance. Quast, Farragut’s captain, wants to keep the armed helo up and scouting while he makes the transit. The SH-60B Seahawk takes to the air but lands again after only a few minutes — the crew needs to check a sensor issue. Quast, who intends to make the strait transit at about 20 knots, dawdles to give the mechanics time. But at 8:06, the aviation detachment calls up with a “no go” on the fixes.
“It’s nice to have it, but we don’t need it,” Cmdr. William Musser, the ship’s executive officer, explained about the helo. “Lots of ships go through without it, but having it lets us get a good eye on things ahead of us and really helps with visual identification.”
The helicopter launches again at 8:45 for systems checks. A few minutes later, the ship establishes contact with a Navy P-3C Orion patrolling the strait.
Farragut enters Omani territorial waters at 9:03 a.m. and increases speed to 22 knots, making up a bit of time. Two minutes later, the warship passes a loaded tanker with an ironic name — Universal Peace.
At 9:15 the helicopter crew declares the test flight unsatisfactory. Quast is not pleased.
A report comes in at 9:21 announcing that no Iranian naval vessels are underway in the vicinity.
The helo is recovered at 9:22. “We’ll try for a fix and another test flight,” Quast said. “But time is narrowing for another check flight. We’re approaching the TSS around the Knuckle, where maneuvering is severely restricted.”
At 9:42, a report is received of an Iranian Navy Combattante missile craft operating on the eastern side of the strait. The ship asks the P-3 to take a look.
At 9:47, three small, fast boats — probably smugglers — are reported approaching, headed away from Iran.
At 9:50, the helo detachment reports its functional checks are satisfactory, and the crew is ordered to load Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.
At 9:55, two fast-moving smuggler boats pass about 3,000 yards ahead, bounding over the waves at high speed. Then two more pass about 2,000 yards astern, then another ahead — five altogether, headed to either the UAE or Oman.
At 10:16, a single, loaded fast-mover crosses about 1,000 yards ahead, racing for Iran.
At 10:18, an Iranian P-3 is reported patrolling the eastern side of the strait in the Gulf of Oman, about 22 nautical miles away.
At 10:25, the Royal Omani Navy comes up on radio channel 16, asking the intent of the “coalition warship.”
Farragut: “This is coalition warship engaged in transit in accordance with international law.”
RON: “May I have your side number?”
Farragut: “Ship’s side number is 99.”
RON: “Do you have any ships in company?”
Farragut: “There are no other ships in company.”
RON: “Have a nice passage,” and the crisp exchange is concluded.
An unknown warship comes into view at 10:35, headed in the opposite direction. After a brief flurry, it is identified as a British Type 23 frigate, HMS Northumberland. Shortly after, a fat Iranian dhow cuts directly across traffic, headed toward the Omani coast. The passage continues without incident, with numerous merchant ships in the sea lanes.
At noon, flight quarters are set, the helo loaded with two Hellfires. The pilots, however, don’t start up their engines, but are talking about sensor readings. After about 10 minutes, they declare the helicopter unsatisfactory — issues with rotor blade lockbolts — and delay flying another two hours.
The ship passes through the Knuckle without incident. No Iranian fast attack craft appear from islands at the top of the strait, as often happens during the transits. A report is received of a “possible” Iranian UAV on the eastern side of the strait, but the contact was unconfirmed as Iranian.
At 12:30, the Iranian P-3 is reported passing about 10 nautical miles away, headed back up the eastern side of the strait. It apparently flew a straight down-and-back racetrack pattern and did not approach the destroyer.
At 12:40, an Iranian radio call is heard asking “eastbound coalition Navy warship” to identify itself. The call is made at least twice, but there is no reaction from the destroyer, proceeding on heading 156, or south southeast.
“They didn’t have enough specificity to know for sure they were talking to us,” said XO Musser, with a deadpan expression.
At 12:49, a report is received of an Iranian F-4 fighter taking off from a Bandar Abbas airfield.
At 12:57, an Iranian Combattante is reported operating in the strait, close to the Gulf of Oman. The ship has been squawking as the “Luciano Frederico Lima,” a spoofing alias.
At 1:27, the Combattante comes into sight about 3,000 yards away off the port bow, a low, gray craft moving at high speed almost directly toward us. The Snoopy team musters on the port bridge wing, joined by Quast and Musser. The SCAT mans all topside guns.
About 2,200 yards off, the Combattante comes right, clearly signaling its intent not to cross Farragut’s bow. It then slows and turns parallel to our course, headed in the opposite direction. The ship is quickly identified by its pennant number P 223 as the Khadang, a French-built craft commissioned by the Shah’s Navy in 1978.
For a few minutes, there’s excitement at the close approach of the Iranian warship. Cameras whir on Farragut, and crewmen aboard Khadang are clearly taking pictures of the American destroyer. After passing by, Khadang turns and heads toward home. In less than 10 minutes, the unofficial passing exercise is over, a climax to the passage.
At 1:55, the SCAT stands down. The ship has made it through the high concentration area.
“I don’t expect to have any further interactions with the Iranians,” Quast declared. Although there were fewer interactions than expected, he deemed it “a normal transit.”
That evening, underway in the Gulf of Oman, Quast reflected on the day and noted the Iranian fast attack craft that often come out didn’t appear this time.
“The sea state was a little higher today,” he said. “Maybe it was the weather, maybe we just missed them. Maybe they just didn’t do it today.”
But, he added, “you always have to take them seriously. You never know if today is the day it’s going to be different.”