Transcript of LBC radio interview – Eddie Mair and Tom Sharpe. 13 Aug 19 at 5:20pm
EM 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?
TS 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.
EM 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.
TS 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.
EM Thanks so much. That’s Tom Sharpe, retired naval commander now with Special Project Partners. Five thirty, here’s the LBC news…
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 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).
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.
 Government Communication
Service: Objectives, Audience, Strategy, Implementation, Scoring
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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