Safeguarding shipping in the Middle East: IMSC

Harry Lye 2 February 2021 (Last Updated February 2nd, 2021 16:46)

An eight-nation coalition established the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in 2019 to safeguard commercial vessels passing through the region following a spate of attacks on commercial shipping by Iranian forces.

Safeguarding shipping in the Middle East: IMSC
Royal Saudi Naval Force frigate Makkah transits the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Image: US Navy.

Around a sixth of the world’s oil, and a third of the world’s liquid natural gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz every year.

The IMSC is not limited to the Strait of Hormuz and also operates to the south in the Bab el-Mandeb strait to ensure commercial shipping’s safe passage through the Suez Canal. The Bab el-Mandeb alone sees 17,000 merchant ships pass through annually.

Any delay here would force shipping to divert around the cape of Africa, potentially adding weeks to voyages which would disrupt the just-in-time supply lines many industries rely on.

The commander of the IMSC, UK Royal Navy Commodore Craig Wood, told Naval Technology that the coalition was a deterrent to malign activity in the region, and had helped increase the confidence of commercial mariners operating in the area.

Wood explained: “The concept of operations was stood up with presence and deterrent, both at sea and in the air, and then a reassurance message by reaching out to industry partners through a network of means, not least of which through the UK maritime trade organisation and the US NCAGS [Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping]. But then through various other industry fora so that they are aware of our presence and know-how to get in touch.

“Then our operations; we’ve refined them, we’ve refined the force elements that we’re using, ships and aircraft, and patrol vessels. We’ve refined their areas of operation; we’ve refined their patterns of operation. But the basic methodology remains the same, which is continuous presence for a deterrent effect and radio calls to provide the overt presence, and therefore that reassurance to the shipping industry.”

In last December alone, a Sierra Leone-flagged cargo vessel was fired upon off Yemen’s coast as it traversed the Bab el-Mandeb, a Singapore-flagged ship was hit by ‘an external source’ while discharging at Jeddah Terminal, Saudi Arabia, and a Limpet Mine was discovered on the hull of the Liberian MT Pola.

Tensions reached a flashpoint in the summer of 2019 following the seizure of Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar’s coast in July.

Later in the same month, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero – later confirming it has seized the ship in response to the earlier Grace 1 incident. Later in August, IRGC forces seized an Iraqi tanker claiming it was being used to smuggle oil.

Image: MV Stena Impero sails from Bandar Abbas, Iran, after being released. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

It wasn’t until September, two months after being detained, that the Stena Impero was allowed to leave Iranian waters.

Two months later, in November, the IMSC began its operations in the region. Since then, the coalition has formed a key role in maintaining freedom of navigation in both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb.

The coalition’s members include Albania, Bahrain – where the IMSC is headquartered, Estonia, Lithuania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, UK and USA.

Wood added: “Every mariner has the responsibility to ensure freedom of navigation and every nation-state with a littoral has the responsibility to allow that freedom of navigation in accordance with the international rules basis.

“If someone is going to challenge that then, there are various methods, whether it’s a note verbale the UN saying ‘look our merchant traffic aren’t able to ply the trade, ply their goods, navigate on the high seas in accordance with that rules-based system, or militaries might come together in a coalition as we have done.

“A coalition of nations who want to uphold that international rules-based system, freedom of navigation on the global commons and provide a military presence that enforces such international norms and deters anybody from doing so.”

Now into its second year, with the pace of operations maintaining and a continued need to deter such challenges, the coalition is staying around.

Commenting on the domino effect of delays to the flow of shipping, Wood recalled an incident in the early 2000s where a Russian-tanker stuck in the Suez Canal and held up the passage of 100 ships, including one carrying Playstation 2 consoles bound for UK shops. In the end, the Playstations were airlifted to Britain.

Time-wise, according to the World Shipping Council, a ship starting in the Arabian Gulf travelling to the UK via the Suez route takes around 14 days for the 6,400 nautical mile route. In comparison, the same journey travelling around the Cape of Good Hope takes 24 days and 11,300 nautical miles of travel.

Wood added that key to the IMSC was upholding the two-pillars of ensuring freedom of navigation to safeguard supply chains, but also ‘more generally’ about upholding the international rules-based system and ensuring that mariners can go about ‘their lawful placement on the global commons.’