Iranian response options after the death of Soleimani

The person. One of the most experienced and hardened military leaders in the world who rose to power during the Iran/Iraq war. Soleimani had a legendary status within Iran. His link to the Supreme Leader was well known as was his authority to act on his behalf. He was arguably the second most powerful man in Iran so should be regarded as more than ‘just’ a terrorist leader.

The lead up. What is not clear yet is whether this was a) long planned as part of the ongoing to-and-fro (noting that no response to the Aramco attack was seen), b) a shorter term escalation following on from the rockets that killed the US contractor, the counter strike in Kata’ib and the counter-counter on the US embassy in Baghdad, or c) a short notice target-of-opportunity that was too good to miss. I suspect c) but fed by b). The intelligence implications of his position being reported (live) from Iraq and that they (presumably) permitted the attack, should not be underestimated.

The response. The SL’s response options to this can be broadly categorised in four groups; military, proxy, counter-assassination and cyber:

1. Cyber. The recently reported increase in activity by Bahraini intelligence suggests that low level cyber activity remains ongoing. Iran could escalate this but, unless they get lucky, escalating in this arena against the US will only have one outcome.  

2. Proxies. Very hard to describe succinctly the breadth, width and latent capability of these, all of which could slowly ratchet up their efforts to cause chaos and confusion across the region. Continued attacks on embassies/outposts possible as is a renewal of attacks on civilians (such as the missiles fired repeatedly at the international airport in KSA). Continued asymmetric (rather than conventional military) activity in the Strait of Hormuz to be expected.

3. Counter assassination. Very hard to call this accurately but surely on their planning table. Could be a close friend of POTUS or a vocal supporter of his within the MENA region. No overseas drone capability so car bomb or something similar, within the next two years. Very unlikely to be done on US/Europe/APAC soil.

4. Military. A huge range of options here, none of which involve going toe-to-toe in a conventional sense. Theatre Ballistic Missiles, sea-mines and fast attack craft, if deployed simultaneously, could cause chaos, cripple coalition command and control centres, destroy  military hardware and would be very difficult to defeat. However, the Iranians will only take this option if they believe the Regime is under threat, if internal pressure to ‘do something’ becomes overwhelming or if they think they can do it and control the subsequent escalation. This last element makes this the least likely option for now (despite the clammer on Twitter).

Other countries. Easy to focus on this becoming Iran vs the US and lose sight of the other local, regional and international players. Oil prices (already) spiking and the effect this will have on the Far East being the most obvious example of the kind of second order effect that may determine the outcome.

Response Assessment.

– Low-level cyber activity to continue. Almost certain (>90%).

Targeted cyber attack on US soil. Realistic Probability (25-50%).

– Increase in nefarious proxy activity. Almost certain (>90%).

— …in the vicinity of major US mil hubs in the region. Probably or Likely (55-70%)

— …increase in civilian targeting. (Realistic Probability (25-50%).

Counter-assassination in due course. Highly probable (75-85%)

Military retaliation. Unlikely (due to difficulty in controlling the situation thereafter) but this depends on the SLs mindset and who is applying pressure on him to respond, both of which are almost impossible to predict. (15-20%)

A Matter of Balance and Mass

Why the Royal Navy needs both

Max Hastings rather depressingly suggests here that the new aircraft carriers are an expensive white elephant that are both vulnerable and reflective of muddled defence thinking. Below are some of my thoughts that may or may not add to this debate.

To deliver a sustainable range of naval capabilities; from coastal to deep water and from defence engagement to fighting, the make-up of the Royal Navy requires both balance and mass. Without the ability to strike from sea, balance has been missing since HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2011. The new carriers have plugged this gap albeit at some cost to the rest of the navy. The ‘fewer big ships’ and ‘more small ships’ argument would reopen this capability gap and also favours mass over balance and so is not the answer. (Also, see the US commentary on their Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) if you want their view on the survivability and therefore utility of these types of vessels.) When the T26 and the T31 frigates are online (fingers crossed for the latter in decent numbers), and presuming the excellent but ageing minehunters are replaced, then the RN will have a level of balance and mass that is as good as can be expected in the current resource constrained environment. 

Two other points. First, carrier vulnerability is overstated. The complexities of engaging a ship at range are significant (particularly when one has the option to shoot back) and often underestimated by those who think of this kind of engagement in terms of a lab experiment. Incidentally, the same goes for ‘transparent oceans’ and the (overstated) future vulnerability of our nuclear submarine force.

Second, our value to the US military in terms of experience, hardware, equipment they don’t have (rare but happens), intelligence, special forces, doctrine and good old-fashioned hardware is much greater than Max suggests. That we are in some way mocked by our US counterparts plays to a particular insecurity that resonates in an article but is something I have never seen close-up. In fact, quite the opposite. As for the carriers, they literally can’t wait for ours to load-share some of their tasks in the way that the Charles de Gaulle has been doing (with disproportionate diplomatic effect) for some time now.

So, keep the carriers. They’re good value for money and we have them now. The US nuclear carrier is first on the team sheet in any planning event despite those who don’t like them (even within their own navy) – ours should be too. Increase Frigate and Destroyer numbers, ideally across the board but certainly via the Type 31e which will provide mass whilst freeing-up the more expensive stuff to protect the carriers (balance). Then recruit and retain the relevant numbers to operate them all. If the navy finds anything ‘a colossal embarrassment’ just now it should be personnel shortages and not the new, and frankly excellent, carriers.

Crisis Communications and ‘That’ Interview

“My reputation is under increasing and now unbearable pressure. I have a communications team but they don’t really understand the weight of my responsibility. I think I need their help, but they’re telling me in so many words to do….very little. (Why do I pay them?) I’m a natural leader and charismatic communicator. I can blast my way out of this and prove to the world that I’ve done nothing wrong. ‘A couple of articles, tweets and a radio interview’, you say? I don’t think so. Bring out the cameras. We’ll do it in the giant room in the massive palace – perfect.”

It doesn’t really matter if you are a senior royal, a FTSE 100 CEO, a high net worth individual or the head of a complex public or military organisation, when a crisis breaks, usually through the media, if you haven’t done the preparatory work your reputation will suffer more than if you had. This preparation will have walked you through a number of graduated response options few of which would have been ‘shout from the rooftops’. And here’s why.

First, if you are going to come out fighting, you need to be very, very sure of your facts. What exactly happened all those years ago? If you’re not sure or can’t remember then you are already on the back foot. It will expose one of the universal truths of communications; that there is a gap between what the operator(s) and communicators of any given organisation are doing, or the ‘say/do’ gap as it’s sometimes known. If this gap isn’t closed then any subsequent words will either sound like spin (if the organisation isn’t doing anything to fix the situation) or worse, disingenuous/dishonest (if the crisis was born of poor actions). If you have done something (very) foolish and then choose the largest platform from which to confront it, you had better be very sure about what outcomes you are after and what your key themes should be or you will make things worse. 

The second piece of the jigsaw is to have a spokesperson (Royal/CEO/General etc) who is able to deliver both this key message, and the packages of information around it, convincingly whilst under pressure. The ability to deliver pre-arranged messages without looking like you’re delivering pre-agreed messages is a rare skill. Coaching and practice are essential. Emily Maitlis, who has been doing this for years, practiced the interview several times. Did he?

Finally, if these two are in place and you still plan to go on the front foot, then the channel through which you wish to impart your information has to be carefully considered, ideally by a group. If you don’t, and think you can ad lib, there is a real risk that either by gaff or omission you will end up creating a feeding frenzy. This also includes the manner of the delivery. If the centrepiece of your interview is humility, then the largest room in Buckingham Palace is not the best location. And why empathy for the victims was not the theme is anyone’s guess but poor planning, again, seems to be at the heart. Or perhaps he had advisors who only say what they think the boss wants to hear – a trait that is surprisingly common in the commercial communications sector.

As ever, there have been notable exceptions to these rules. Richard Farrington on the grounding of his ship HMS Nottingham blasted his way to the front with the, “Just as the sun comes up in the morning, if you run your ship aground you get court martialled.” quote. He demonstrated a willingness to accept culpability that had sections of the Australian press praising him so soon after the incident that the MoD’s attempts to gag him couldn’t keep up.

Likewise saying nothing can sometimes work. Whilst it will often create a vacuum into which the press and others will leap, Sir Michael Fallon’s repeated assertion in late 2016 in light of rumours of a Trident misfire that “we do not comment on the deterrent”, although not particularly pleasant to deal with in the MoD Press Office, kept the operational sanctity of that weapon in-tact and was therefore the right thing to do.

Normally, however, there is a middle ground. The advice, apparently given in this instance, to place an heavyweight article in a major US and UK outlet was good. If he wanted to amplify these words still further, then radio might have been a better medium. The ‘perfect face for radio’ is often a cruel jibe but the underlying premise is sound. You can reach a large audience without exposing many of your idiosyncrasies. In fact there are dozens of ways of reaching one’s target audience that are equally impactful but carry less immediate jeopardy than, say, Newsnight.

The communicator’s job is to identify what these should be through a series of steps starting with ‘what is the objective of the intervention?’. Then, who are the people whose sentiment you wish to change. Once you know these two you can work on the strategy or ‘idea’ to deliver the objective to the audience. This will involve considerable work to identify the message(s), the messenger, the channel and the context. Then, of course, you have to persuade the person in charge to accept your plan. Difficult to do if ‘forward leaning’ is in their nature. As the Commanding Officer of c230 people in a warship, not dissimilar to being a CEO, I’m pretty sure I used to occasionally overrule people who were advising me on what to say, so it’s no real shock when CEOs do it to me now as a communications consultant. At that point your role changes away from comms and towards one of leadership and persuasion.

To conclude, there are as many different types of crisis communications as there are types of crisis. But some rules apply to all. If you don’t prepare then your reputation will suffer more and take longer to repair. If you don’t have a cast iron handle on what you did wrong (or what is perceived to have been done wrong) and address it in the right way, then your bluff will certainly be called at some point – shouting more loudly will only make it worse. The Duke has significant pulling power; alternative less showy options would have gained traction wherever he tried to place them with much lower risk. CEOs everywhere should use the royal interview as a case study from which to discuss their crisis plans with their Directors of Communications. But in sum, if you’re a Crown Prince, then facing down the cameras might just work. If you’re a ‘normal’ Prince, then other options may be preferable.

LBC Interview

Transcript of LBC radio interview – Eddie Mair and Tom Sharpe. 13 Aug 19 at 5:20pm

It’s been weeks since tension between Iran and the UK flared over the seizure of vessels in the Med and the Gulf. Well now Iran says Britain might free its oil tankers soon. Tom Sharpe is a retired naval commander and a communication specialist at a Special Project Partners. Tom, what do you make of these optimistic noises coming out of Tehran?

Hi Eddie, it does sound a little bit like a rapprochement. We’re hearing three to four days for Grace 1 and then hopefully that means a knock on into Stellar Impero. This in part is an extension of the fluctuation of activity that is has been going on in that region for some time. As a warship operator out there, the tension has ebbed and flowed for years.  Sometimes the Iranians have been particularly aggressive and sometimes very calm. So this is perhaps an extension of that although it didn’t feel like it a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully when we get to these two ships released in a ship swap or whatever it’s going to be called, then we can go back to slightly calmer waters. However, I have my doubts because I think fundamentally what the Iranians want from this;  sanction relief and protecting the regime conflicts with what the Americans want, which is freedom of navigation, to reassure and to protect infrastructure and then, ultimately, a denuclearized Iran. Now if we can’t separate out that last bit from the reassure and protect shipping [tasks] then the two will always be at loggerheads, tensions will continue to ebb and flow and the risk of miscalculation in that small area of sea will remain very high.

I wonder how much attention Iran was paying to the fact that John Bolton, who was mentioned at our last story, he’s mentioned in this story too, the national security advisor for president Trump, has been in London.

I would imagine they’ll be paying fairly close attention to that because it may well determine what we do next. Clearly I’m not operating it that the higher echelons of politics, but we have caught ourselves slightly between two stools thus far. First, there is the US policy of “maximum pressure” and second, the EU attempt at starting a task force. And even in the last couple of weeks, through the changes of senior government, we have shifted our posture from one to the other. At some point we’re going to have to pick a side and I suspect the conversations today may determine those decisions and that will affect our posture in the Gulf. So I would imagine there’ll be looking fairly closely at how those conversations go today.

Thanks so much. That’s Tom Sharpe, retired naval commander now with Special Project Partners. Five thirty, here’s the LBC news…

Strait from the Hormuz’s Mouth

Communications Plan for HMS Montrose in the Strait of Hormuz

By Commander Tom Sharpe OBE RN (Retd); freelance communications advisor and Partner at Special Project Partners. This plan is based on GCS OASIS[1] methodology which identifies the Objectives and the Target Audience before attempting a Strategy.



Promote the Royal Navy’s and HMS Montrose’s excellence in delivering this task (before it becomes enduring and/or escalates)


Amplify the strategic foresight that saw a RN frigate forward-based in Bahrain

Demonstrate RN flexibility (above other, similar navies)

Reiterate the global currency that is freedom of navigation

Improve information flow with national and international media


Do not escalate with Iran

Remain right side of rapidly evolving UK political picture


Herein lies the problem, not just with this but with most military communications – it is not possible to target effectively the breadth of audiences listed below with the same set of messages (see initial reaction to Army ‘snowflake’ recruitment campaign). Different channels and approaches are needed almost for each line. If this plan were to be converted into activity, this would from a major part of the Implementation section (below).

Primary Audience

Decision Makers (DM) – Those who shape defence spending

Opinion Leaders (OL) – Those who can influence the DMs. Includes general public, think tanks, on-line defence groups etc

Media Advocates – Elements who show consistent support to the RN

Other Media (All Channels) – Target Audience in own right and route to DMs


Youth – Potential recruits

Navy Diaspora – Important for retention


US Government/Navy – A good time to be presenting as dependable

EU – Separate escorting task from requirement to uphold JCPOA

Iran – RN is there to protect shipping but also to deter/defend/fight if necessary


The current situation in the Strait of Hormuz, whilst unfortunate, provides an outstanding opportunity to showcase the Royal Navy and its contribution to the world stage. It is generating a high degree international interest and is receiving proactive, and often real-time contributions from many of the target audiences. US coverage remains characteristically forward-leaning. RN Communications posture must match this if it is to ensure all objectives are communicated to all audiences by us (and not someone else). Additionally, suppressing information from Montrose risks creating an adversarial atmosphere with the media who will find their information elsewhere. Judgement 1 – nothing in this plan is going to influence Iranian behaviour. Their drivers (removal of sanctions, safety of the Regime) sit above this activity. Judgement 2 – The Defence Correspondents Association (DCA) can be trusted to honour the requirement to maintain Operational Security (OpSec).

The number of people in the communications chain between the ship and the Secretary of State is high: Ship’s Public Relations Officer (PRO); Ship’s Captain; Bahrain PRO; UK Maritime Component Commander; US Navy 5th Fleet Public Affairs; Royal Navy Media and Comms; UK Permanent Joint Headquarters media cell; Commander Joint Operations; Military Strategic Effects (MSE); Directorate of Defence Communications (DDC); Special Advisors (Spads) etc. Any one of these can delay or block a fast-moving communications environment. The requirement to be proactive must therefore be understood by all – delegations are key. Similarly, the difference between (genuine) OpSec material and just ‘sensitive information’ is to be instinctively understood by all parties and not used as a reason/excuse to not communicate.


Selected elements of the Defence Correspondents Association (DCA) to be allowed onboard HMS Montrose (ideally on sailing from port visit). The risk of them getting held onboard due to operational contingencies is to be noted but accepted.

Selected Decision Makers and Opinion Leaders to be granted access next time the ship is on passage to/from a port visit.

RN Media and Comms and DDC Campaigns to align on a proactive, all channels media campaign to support the work of the ship(s) and wider coalition activities.

Embargoes to be used with caution. If a short embargo (less than 24 Hours) allows synchronicity between broadcast and print outlets then it should be permitted. Long embargoes to ensure the release of information synchronises with (distantly related) political announcements should not be used.

Holding back information in anticipation of a VVIP visit should be avoided.

Ship’s Captain and PRO to be allowed to make full use of owned channels. Clear operating parameters to be set – permissions to be treated the same as, for example, weapons release criteria.

Ship’s media posture to be as agile and instinctively understood (and drilled) as their defensive posture, manning posture etc.


Data analysis, polling and online diagnostics to be conducted and then reported on weekly and monthly to monitor effectiveness of Objectives reaching the Audiences.


[1] Government Communication Service: Objectives, Audience, Strategy, Implementation, Scoring

Chokepoint Charlie

What it’s like to operate a warship in the Strait of Hormuz

By Commander Tom Sharpe OBE RN (Retd)

You’re the captain of one of Her Majesty’s warships and you’re on patrol in the Strait of Hormuz. The call you’ve been half-looking forward to and half-dreading comes through: there is a tanker under attack and you are to intervene.

A Type 23 Frigate at c30 Knots

You’ve been preparing your ship for this moment for over a year. You, personally, have been preparing for it your entire career. You are instinctively familiar with your ‘inherent right of self-defence’ and you have forensically studied the rules under which you may engage the enemy not in self-defence. You have probably done a Gulf trip five times before, but it was different back then. JCPOA was in full swing and “disciplined restraint” was the (US) buzz-phrase. The rhetoric from across the Atlantic doesn’t sound like disciplined restraint anymore. A ship has just been detained in Gibraltar; others were mined only a month ago. Your intelligence officer is busy trying to evaluate all this and determine what it means to you, right now. You know that if you are too aggressive you could take your country, and others, into a disastrous shooting war – not aggressive enough and your ship could get hit. You’re the captain now, it’s the middle of the night and this responsibility lies solely with you.

It’s worth taking a quick look at the lie of the land, as it were. The Strait of Hormuz runs east/west but in a curve round Oman. It’s approximately 21 miles wide, the same as the Dover Strait and almost as busy.

Strait of Hormuz including traffic separation scheme

The United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states that territorial waters (TTW) extend out to 12 nautical miles from the coast. Anything outside that is classed as High Seas and, in accordance with international maritime law, freely available to all vessels. Inside 12nms and you are in the host nation’s waters and with a few exceptions, you need permission to be there, especially if you are a warship. There are also restrictions on what you can and can’t do in terms of flying and operating boats etc. In cases such as Hormuz (Gibraltar, Bab El Mandeb etc), which are less than 24 miles wide, the TTWs therefore overlap. However, they require constant access so an International Strait is formed. There are still regulations as to what you can and can’t do in there but you don’t need host nation permission to enter as you would for territorial waters.

Within the International Strait there is also a traffic management system in place called a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS). If you look at the purple band on the chart to the north of Oman there are arrowed lanes above and below – east to west on the north side and west to east to the south. All ships over a certain weight are obliged to use the TSS and there are very specific anti-collision rules for their use. To the western end of the chart you can see more lanes, the northerly of which (for traffic heading into the Gulf) lies very close to Iran and is the subject of a whole other story. The point is that it’s busy but in a semi-regulated fashion. As a warship captain this works in your favour because vessels that are not conforming or are behaving erratically are easier to spot.

The threat in the Strait can be broadly grouped into mines (sea and limpet), fast attack craft (missile, torpedo and suicide), submarines (conventional and midget) and missile (sea/corvette and land-based). These have all been specifically built and procured over a long period to defeat western conventional forces and be difficult to counter. This, they have achieved.

The mine threat is very real as demonstrated on numerous occasions and they have the capacity and ability to close the strait very quickly should they so wish. They can also lay they them in patterns to direct your ship towards the fast attack craft threat – low-cost it may be but it’s also sophisticated.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Navy), the force that is directly accountable to the Supreme Leader, has upwards of two thousand fast attack craft. A single RN ship on its own and with no warning could defeat them into the low double figures, maybe a few more if the helicopter happened to be airborne. Any more than that, and you need serious back-up. They practice this kind of swarm attack very regularly.

This is what you don’t want to see

Then there is the lack of warning time. Let’s say a Bladerunner fast attack craft is coming at you at 30+ knots, even if you see it on radar the moment it leaves the coast and correctly classify it as threatening, you will have less than 8 minutes to engage. If you want to do this with the main gun and at range, much less. But how do you know it’s a threat at that range? Unless your intelligence is watertight, you don’t. This is whites of the eyes stuff and time is not your friend.

The Yono midget submarine is a particular menace. Often lurking just below the surface in the middle of the TSS they are armed with a couple of heavyweight torpedoes. These will kill a frigate and possibly even a carrier. There are always a couple at sea and they are hard to track and even harder to defeat.

Finally, the missiles. Again, they have these in the thousands and many are on mobile launchers. These move about the coast on a regular basis conducting drills that to all intents and purposes are indistinguishable from an attack…and then they are stood down. Knowing whether or not this is a drill or the start of an attack is vital. If not, your time from detection, to classifying as a threat, to impact will be minutes, if not less.

Random snapshot taken from

Back in the Captain’s chair of HMS Montrose and you’re on route to assist the tanker. You wind-on the sprint gas turbines and head over there at max chat. You know full well that doing 30 knots immediately identifies you as a warship, no matter what you’re transmitting on your ‘system’. You also know that in a mine and submarine threat environment, that kind of speed makes you both blind and vulnerable. But you prioritise getting there as fast as possible – you have to. You call it in to the operations room in Bahrain to see who else is available if this goes south – has the US carrier got anything available that could make it to you in time? Do you take the ship to Action Stations (where everyone is closed up but takes a few minutes to get there, especially at night) or do you go with what you’ve got, i.e. all upper deck weapons manned but ‘only’ half the ship closed up elsewhere? You’re going to be operating very close to other ships at night so where is the best place for you to be – on the bridge (best spot for the tanker attack and fast attack craft) or in the operations room (for the missile threat)?

There are lights and ships everywhere. Most are in the sea lanes just going about their business, but many are not. Unlit skiffs are about, almost impossible to detect on radar and heading from A to B at high speed with who-knows-what onboard. What if one of them is packed with explosives and the attack on the tanker is just a diversion? How quickly can we get our helicopter airborne? Having another pair of eyes in the sky, not to mention a rather large gun, will be a huge advantage even if this turns ugly. If it’s up already, what is its endurance? Do I need to get it back, alter to a flying course (which might be heading the wrong way and will almost certainly be across a shipping lane) and refuel it so that she is at maximum endurance as we enter the fight? I need to get on the radio and start issuing warnings. Should I go in at the rather refined, “vessels in this position, this is British Warship, what are your intentions?” or go straight to, “Iranian vessels threatening British Merchant Vessel, turn away or I’ll engage”. If they ignore that and I have to put warning shots in the water, where are those rounds going to end up – there are ships everywhere…

As with any military commander approaching or in a fight, the key is to impose order on the chaos. Are they going to attack the tanker? Will they switch targets to me when I get there? Are they trying to shepherd it into Iranian waters so that they can arrest the crew? Are they going to try and board it to the same end? Or is this just a test: “let’s see what HMS X does in response to scenario Y then back off before it escalates”, something that happens in that area all the time. Most of the time there is no way of knowing. All you know is that there are 220 people onboard whose lives depend on you working it out pretty quickly and a geopolitical tinderbox awaiting you if you get it wrong.

HMS Montrose got it exactly right last week using a mix of speed, awareness and the threat of force to diffuse the situation in much the same way that the Royal Navy has been doing there for decades and elsewhere for centuries. Once the situation is diffused, all that remains is another call to the HQ in Bahrain (making it sound like it was never that hairy), write it up for the analysts, drop a couple of lines home to let them know that it definitely wasn’t that hairy and then get your head down. Just another day as the captain of a warship.