- U.S. Marines are training to escort commercial shipping through the Persian Gulf.
- The move is in response to the harassment of oil tankers by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf.
- The move could place U.S. and Iranian military forces on a collision course.
U.S. Marines are preparing to ride shotgun on commercial oil tankers passing through the Persian Gulf.
Under a plan being debated by the Biden Administration, commercial ships sailing through the Gulf could soon request Marines to board their ships and actively protect them from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. It’s all part of a response to an increase in Iranian aggression in the region, including attempted hijackings of commercial ships.
Send in the Marines
The Washington Post reported late last week that the Biden Administration is preparing an armed force of sailors and Marines that would ride along on commercial ships as they transit the Persian Gulf. The troops would, at the invitation of shipping companies, protect their ships from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), an arm of the Iranian military responsible for protecting the Iranian regime and its interests in the Gulf.
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The U.S. government believes the action is necessary, given a slow pattern of escalating threats from Iran against ships passing its southern coastline. On July 5, IRGC forces attempted to hijack a pair of oil tankers, in one case firing shots, fleeing with the arrival of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS McFaul. Other incidents, initiated by the IRGC, took place in May and June.
According to the Post, the policy decision “has pretty much been made.” Marines have been flown in from the U.S. and are receiving additional training. In addition, the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) has reached the Red Sea, where it will be able to support the escort operation. The Bataan ARG includes the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), a 5,000-strong force of Marines and sailors from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
While this would put U.S. troops in harm’s way for foreign shipping, it’s consistent with the U.S. strategy of ensuring freedom of the seas and thus the free flow of commerce. That in turn has strong economic benefits, as it encourages global trade and reduces the cost of shipping.
Marines vs Revolutionary Guards
The 26th MEU is an air-land-sea force centered around a Marine infantry battalion and a reinforced squadron of AV-8B Harrier II jump jets, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, and heavy lift, attack, and utility helicopters. The MEU is designated “special operations capable,” the first in a decade, meaning it is certified to conduct certain special forces missions including pilot recovery, raids, special patrol insertion and extraction, maritime interdiction, and non-combatant evacuation.
The IRGC is also an air-land-sea force equipped with small-armed watercraft, including speedboat-type vessels and helicopters. Revolutionary Guards have trained for decades to capture commercial ships and even face off against foreign warships with swarm tactics, sending large numbers of fast, armed boats to overwhelm a ship’s defenses.
In 2019, Revolutionary Guard commandos rappelled onto a British flagged oil tanker, capturing it and interning the crew. The IRGC Navy has expanded its arsenal in recent years with drones, shore-based anti-ship missiles, and ballistic missiles.
The Marines training to protect commercial ships will have to arm themselves to defeat a variety of threats. Useful weapons will include M2 .50-caliber machine guns, which have the range and power to damage armed, fast boats at a kilometer or more, before IRGC weapons like the RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher can get in range. Weapons like the M82 .50-caliber sniper rifle would be able to disable boats without sinking them. The FIM-92 Stinger missile can bring rappelling operations to a halt, and counter-drone tech like LMADIS, a drone communications jammer mounted on a Polaris MRZR ATV, can form a protective dome around a ship, sending enemy drones plunging into the sea.
What’s at Stake
About one-fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Persian Gulf, and disruptions of this steady flow can have a major impact on the price of oil worldwide. Although the United States is a net petroleum exporter, it still imports certain oil products. A sudden rise in oil prices can negatively affect the global economy, which would have implications for the American economy.
Another issue is the need to push back against Iran, whose IRGC has the capability to close the Persian Gulf to shipping. Iranian aggression against unarmed ships could be a test for further demonstrations of power and expansionism on the part of Tehran. If the rest of the world does not push back against Iran’s harassment of international shipping, it could embolden Iran to take bolder, more aggressive action.
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Finally, if Iranian aggression against international shipping is not curbed, history shows that the free market will fill the vacuum. Private military companies (PMCs) protected ships from Somali pirates in the 2010s. Similar groups, packing even more firepower, could evolve to protect commercial ships from the IRGC. As the American experience with PMCs in Iraq and Russia’s Wagner Group shows, mercenaries are a mixed bag at best. A world with more authority delegated to ever more powerful, armed mercenary groups is a world best avoided.
Some might argue that protecting commercial ships from Iran should not be a U.S. mission. Only two percent of shipping worldwide sails under the American flag, with the rest sailing under flags of convenience. If the U.S. only protected the principle of freedom of navigation and open seas when American ships were involved, it would cede protection of the seas to someone else, like China, and perhaps even a private organization.
The deployment of U.S. Marines on commercial ships could genuinely result in a shootout between the U.S. and Iran, but it’s a potential fight the U.S. must risk or allow Iran to exert control on a pressure point for the global economy. If that sounds abstract, consider that the price of grains jumped 50 percent after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If an aggressive Iran is allowed to control the flow of 20 percent of the world’s oil, it will have similar repercussions at local gas stations across America.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he’s generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.