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By Brandon Frei

I gave a presentation this semester on the Securitization and Weaponization of Energy, providing an American Soldier’s perspective on Energy Security.  In that presentation, I briefly discussed the one day naval war (Operation Praying Mantis) between the United States of America and Iran.  The intent was to discuss the Operational Level of War (in U.S. Army Doctrine) and how it applies to Security of Supply.  Without going further into U.S. Doctrine, I would like to elaborate on the environment prior to the battle, the battle itself and the repercussions of the war.  My goal is to demonstrate the effects of the securitization of energy in reference to the third step in Global Energy Systems (Transmission and Distribution) by showing the ways in which a threat to security of supply, and the response thereof, can escalate into war.

Geographically, the Strait of Hormuz has both great military and economic significance.  It is the world’s largest maritime transit chokepoint, currently accounting for 19 million barrels per day that transit the Strait (approximately 25% of the world’s oil production).  In 1979, The Persian Gulf produced 21% of the world’s crude oil.  Because of the Iraq-Iran war, oil production went from a combined (between Iraq, Iran and Kuwait) 9.15 million barrels per day to as little as 3.51 million barrels per day in 1981.  This significant drop in over 10% of the world’s oil supply, as well as the turmoil in the Persian Gulf (body of water) caused oil prices to double and forced countries to prepare for, and respond to, insecurity of supply.

Operation Praying Mantis is the largest surface (ocean/sea) engagement in the U.S. history since WWII. The military background of Operation Praying Mantis is a little complicated, because it really dates back to 1979 with the Iranian Revolution.  Saddam Hussein was unhappy that Ayatollah Khomeini returned to power and in 1980, invaded Iran.  Iraq’s goal was to replace Iran as the dominant power in the region.  Prior to 1979, Iran was producing two to three times as many barrels of oil per day as Iraq and profiting from support from both the US and the USSR.  Ultimately, Iraq’s efforts failed and the Iraq-Iran war ended in a stalemate in August of 1988.  During the Iraq-Iran war was a period known as the “Tanker Wars”, where the two countries attacked each other at sea.  Iraq’s attacks on Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf began in 1981 and largely went unanswered until 1984, when they attacked ships that serviced Kharg Island, an oil-loading area.  Iran began to increase attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and eventually denied Iraqi oil tankers access through the Strait.

Iran had also taken an anti U.S. and Russia stance, which alienated itself in the war and made the countries question the reliability (security) of their oil supply.  There was a lot of concern that Iran was going to defeat Iraq and further destabilize the world oil production and supply, or completely cut off supply through the Strait of Hormuz.  By 1987, Iran had effectively prevented Iraq from sending tankers through the Strait of Hormuz to sell around the globe.  Iraq’s work around was to utilize Kuwait to transport their oil for them.  Due to the growing concern of the security of the region, the United States entered the arena in support of Iraq.

The United States responded to this crisis by re-flagging Kuwait ships and increasing patrols in the Gulf.  This meant that Kuwait (temporarily) relinquished ownership of the ships to the U.S., providing them protection: anyone who attacks these ships effectively attacks the United States.  Kuwaiti tankers holding Iraqi oil were henceforth under U.S. protection.  In other words, the U.S. defended Iraq through proxy in order to maintain security of supply and protect transmission nodes.  This is a significant event, as it demonstrated that the US was willing to go to war with Iran in order to protect its interest in the region (the interests being oil and stability).

On April 14, 1988, the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine in the Persian Gulf, which gave the U.S. the justification to engage Iran in warfare and return access to the Strait to Iraq.  On April 18, 1988, the U.S. Navy attacked two Iranian oil platforms, which led to a brief war.  In the aftermath of the war, the U.S. Navy lost one helicopter and the two Marines who were flying it.  The Iranian Navy suffered the following losses: one frigate destroyed with 45 crew members killed, one gun boat with 11 crew members killed, three speedboats destroyed, one frigate damaged, one fighter damaged, and two oil platforms destroyed.  Essentially, Iran lost over 50% of its operational fleet and was forced to end the war with Iraq, leading to a stalemate.  Though the endstate did not uproot Iran as the dominating power in the Persian Gulf, it did prevent it from increasing its control in the region and provided stability to the Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz represents a significant choke point for the world’s oil supply and a critical point in the Global Energy System.  The Tanker Wars and Operation Praying Mantis demonstrate the length to which countries will go to protect their energy security.  One could reasonably argue that military and politics played a significant role in the one day war between the U.S. and Iran.  It would not, however, be possible to contextualize the Iraq-Iran war, or Operation Praying Mantis, without taking into account Energy Security in the region.  The Strait of Hormuz is a geographic landmark that represents the intersection of global energy and security and should be paid great attention to by world actors.  Future efforts to gain control of the Strait could escalate to another war.

Resources:

One Day of War. By: WISE, HAROLD LEE, Naval History, 10421920, Apr2013, Vol. 27, Issue 2.  Accessed on 12FEB2018 at http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=dd1e03bf-e9aa-448a-b7ca-e709e4d75514%40pdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=85880482&db=aph

America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War, 1987-88 [reviews]  Army Lawyer, Vol. 2015, Issue 3 (March 2015), pp. 31-34 Finley, T. Aaron 2015 Army Law. 31 (2015)

Proceedings Magazine, May 1988 Vol. 114/5/1,023, By Ronald Rourke: https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1988-05/tanker-war

https://sites.google.com/site/globaloilproduction12/1980-s-oil-production

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/8995261/Can-Iran-close-down-the-Strait-of-Hormuz.html

http://don.geddis.org/bets/peakoil/eia-doe-1960-2006.html

https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/regions-topics.cfm?RegionTopicID=WOTC

https://ycharts.com/indicators/world_crude_oil_production

Congressional Research Service, Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R42335.pdf

http://www.mepc.org/balance-power-persian-gulf-iranian-view

https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/10720/11Dec_Al_Kaabi.pdf?sequence=1