Guarding the Gulf


In the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, 30 kilometres from Iraq’s coastline, the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal squats above the Iraqi waterline. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War, this post-apocalyptic wreck of steel and concrete has weathered mortar barrages, canon fire, missile strikes and an inferno that burnt out of control for days. Its sister terminal, the Al Basrah oil terminal, lies 10 kilometres south, bristling with heavy calibre machine guns and private security contractors after a $US67.5 million facelift. Together, they are lifelines for Iraqi oil and prized targets for insurgents.

Royal Australian Navy Captain, Phil Spedding, who runs security operations for both terminals from a command-and control post on Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal (KAAOT), estimates that US$17 billion in oil has left the terminals on tankers over the past four months. “If you wanted to set back Iraq economically then you’d attack the oil platforms here,” he says.

On March 24, 2004 he witnessed such an attempt when he was the Commanding Officer on HMAS Stuart. Just before dusk a dhow, a traditional Arab sail boat, was approached KAAOT. Several dhows had already strayed into the exclusion zone that day and it was assumed that the vessel’s master had made a mistake. A boarding party was dispatched from USS Firebolt to deal with the situation, but as the coalition rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) drew alongside, the dhow detonated. Three US servicemen were killed and four were injured in the blast. As USS Firebolt and HMAS Stuart rushed to render assistance, a coordinated attack was launched at Al Basrah oil terminal (ABOT). Two “cigarette boats”, small merchant vessels that trade food and cigarettes between the fishing dhows, began speeding toward ABOT. They made it within metres of the terminal before being cut down by small arms fire and exploding short of their target.

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“They stopped pumping oil for nearly a day,” Captain Spedding recalls. “It meant $US28 million of direct loss in revenue that caused a serious blip in the world economy.” In the weeks following the attack the world oil price rose 9.9 per cent, a clear sign that a successful attack could cripple Iraq’s economy and seriously disrupt global energy markets. It was also a sobering reminder for the Australians on the eve of ANZAC day that the threat of hostile action in the Persian Gulf was real.

“The asymmetric threat is obviously the number one threat we face. It could come from anywhere, and it could be disguised as anything,” says Tim Brown, the Commanding Officer on HMAS Arunta, a Royal Australian Navy frigate deployed for operations in the Persian Gulf. “It’s always there every day, you just don’t know when that dhow is going to be armed with explosives trying to get through. It just looks like every other dhow.” The crew of HMAS Arunta has designated the codeword “Switchblade” for the sudden and unpredictable danger posed by potential enemy contact. “It’s like a knife fight. If you get hit, not only are you bleeding but you’re drowning as well,” explains Lieutenant Commander Gray Connolly.

Royal Australian Navy Commodore, Allan Du Toit, who was commanding the coalition’s Combined Task Force 158 until January 26, explains that the terminals are surrounded by a “pretty formidable naval presence”. Prospective saboteurs must first contend with an armada of coalition warships that enforce a 3000 metre exclusion zone for each terminal. Around the clock there are a minimum of two coalition frigates, a rotation of US Navy patrol ships, a rotation of US Coast Guard cutters and Iraqi Navy vessels patrolling the exclusion zones. In addition, coalition boarding teams search every vessel entering the zones using either a RHIB or by “fast-roping” onto the vessel from a helicopter.

The Task Force’s principle objective is to protect the flow of oil, the lifeblood of Iraq’s economy. The two working berths on KAAOT manage to pump a few hundred thousand barrels of crude each day, while ABOT pumps around a million and a half barrels per day, which is expected to double when the system reaches capacity thanks, in part, to a $US1.7 billion investment into Iraq’s oil infrastructure. According to the World Bank, trade in crude accounts for more than 98 per cent of the country’s export earnings and two-thirds of GDP.

The stakes are high, and to counter potential threats the coalition goes to extraordinary lengths to monitor anything that moves within a comprehensive radius of the terminals. Each ship maintains situational awareness within their sectors while the command-and-control post on KAAOT runs an operations room with wall-to-wall screens displaying real time feeds from the ships and static sensors on the terminals themselves. In addition to an already burgeoning arsenal of electronic gadgetry, the command post on KAAOT also receives regular feeds from coalition aircraft.

“We get support from maritime patrol aircraft including our Australian P3s and they fly regular missions. It’s an important part of it, it’s one of our surveillance assets and another arrow in our cap,” says Commodore Du Toit. The RAAF P3 Orions are equipped with powerful surveillance systems and their crews fly highly classified missions in support of coalition operations in the Middle East Area of Operations.

“The operation is coordinated by the Commander of Task Force 158, which is a rotational post,” explains Gordon Abernethy, Commander of the Royal Navy’s HMS Campbeltown. “At the moment there’s an Australian in charge and he has a team based on KAAOT to run the Op. It works very smoothly and we integrate very easily. I don’t see any issues when the Australians hand over to the Americans or indeed when they hand over to the Brits. The process is a well-established one that has been going on for many years.”

HMAS Arunta’s Operations Officer, Lieutenant Commander Scott Lowe, agrees that the Australian, American and British naval relationship is a tight one. “We’ve been working with these navies now for many years, not just in peace-time exercises but also in combat. Vietnam, the World Wars and indeed this mission as well. We have been doing this specific function since 9/11.”

Australia’s presence in the Gulf as part of coalition-led efforts became permanent in 2001. Since then the scope of the mission has changed significantly. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the function of the coalition navies was to enforce UN Resolutions pertaining to Iraq under the Oil for Food Programme. Coalition boarding parties would search vessels heading into Iraq for any weapons of mass destruction and make sure that any vessels leaving were not in breach of Security Council Resolutions. Oil smugglers were a persistent issue for the coalition.

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