Riding Through the Straits of Hormuz – In the Air, On the Sea

The Straits of Hormuz is the nexus of one of the world’s most strategic choke points. Daily, about a fifth of the crude oil being traded globally passes through the waterway, outbound from the Arabian Gulf into the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and then to points all over the world.

The passage is also on the front line of a long-term standoff: on one side is Iran, on the other the United States, the local states of the Gulf Cooperation Council  (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and various international coalition members, including the United Kingdom and France. Iran has periodically threatened to block the straits, potentially triggering an international energy crisis, and in times of heightened tension the media sometimes flocks in to witness an armed confrontation.

So far, however, that has yet to happen. But the U.S. and coalition partners keep a close watch on Iranian activities in the Gulf, and Iran returns the favor, patrolling on the sea and in the air.

The two sides have daily interactions which — according to many U.S., British and other military authorities — are largely professional, if curt. The number of provocative small-boat approaches by Iranian forces has lessened, but more Iranian air assets are flying, including more use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In late February Defense News had the rare opportunity to witness a transit of the Straits of Hormuz, not only from the sea but in the air, aboard a U.S. Navy patrol plane. The story is here, and these images are from those trips. 

No major incidents took place during these transits, but they illustrate what a typical Hormuz transit can be like.

We are grateful to the men and women of the U.S. Fifth Fleet — in particular Patrol Squadron 40, USS FARRAGUT (DDG 99), and the Fifth Fleet Public Affairs office —  for their support on our visit.

All photos by Christopher P. Cavas

P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft of Patrol Squadron 40 (VP-40) at a base in Bahrain, just before taking off Feb. 24 for a patrol of the Straits of Hormuz.

The flight crew watches their gauges as the P-3C climbs for altitude.

We're quickly out over the Gulf.

Nothing fancy about the inside of a P-3C. This view looks aft from the flight deck.

The view forward into the cockpit area. The classified nature of the sensor screens meant we couldn't take pictures of what the crew was seeing on them.

It doesn't take long for ship traffic to come into view. Here, a huge oil tanker, riding empty, is headed for a fillup.

The Straits rise up and curl around "The Knuckle", the tight, 22-nautical-mile-wide curve around the tip of Oman. While the P-3C takes great care to stay inside Omani airspace, the Iranian side of the Gulf is clearly visible. Iran's Hengam Island is at top left, off the coast of the larger Qeshm Island. In the lower portion of the view, three inbound tankers riding empty make their way to oil terminals to load cargo.

The loaded Japanese tanker SHINYO KIERAN heads outbound through the Knuckle. Large hoses under the bridge wings port and starboard are shooting out seawater -- a common anti-boarding practice in areas where pirates are operating. It is not known why the tanker was operating the hoses in the straits, where the chances of a pirate boarding are minimal.

From a cruising altitude of about 15,000 feet, the P-3C dropped down to about 3,000 feet for a closer look at these small vessels. The white boat at right with the orange striping had come up to examine the small wooden dhow at center, and appeared to be maneuvering for a boarding. Images of the scene were sent to U.S. Navy intelligence specialists for analysis.

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The destroyer USS FARRAGUT (DDG 99) got underway from Bahrain on Feb. 25 for an outbound straits transit. Here, members of the ship's security team keep watch while the Bahraini tug SVITZER PELLA assists.

A small dhow at the harbor entrance watches the FARRAGUT pass, while another destroyer, USS JASON DUNHAM (DDG 109), approaches.

The JASON DUNHAM pauses while the two destroyers exchange rigid hull inflatable boats. FARRAGUT had earlier borrowed one of the DUNHAM's RHIBs so one could be repaired.

FARRAGUT sailors man crew-served weapons on the ship's forecastle as the destroyer heads to sea.

The destroyer's transit of the straits began at 0700 on Feb. 26. The first craft to come close was a workboat, the INCHCAPE 5, which came up fast, slowed, turned around and waited, possibly with a pilot aboard for an inbound ship.

As the passage from the Southern Arabian Gulf moves up into the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) around the Knuckle, ship traffic gets more concentrated. At 22 knots, the FARRAGUT is moving faster than most of the merchantmen. The first tanker we overhaul and pass is somewhat ironically named UNIVERSAL PEACE.

The straits are heavily populated not only by huge oil tankers, but hundreds of small dhows trading locally. Here, three dhows gather to refuel from a coastal tanker, a sort of gas station at sea.

Suddenly, several small, fast smuggler craft cross our path at right angles. These two Boston-whaler type open boats were empty, headed from the direction of Iran toward the UAE or Omani coast.

A closeup of the two smugglers racing home -- wherever that is. The U.S. Navy has no jurisdiction over these craft.

A member of the FARRAGUT's Snoopy Team - intelligence specialists who photograph and record events of interest - takes pictures of the smugglers as they pass by.

Two more smugglers pass in the destroyer's wake, also empty and headed away from Iran.

Headed home to pick up another load for another run.

A solitary, heavily-engined fast mover loaded with contraband races across the FARRAGUT’s bow, headed directly for Iranian waters.

The smugglers may be carrying illegal drugs into Iran, or luxury goods, or even banned media.

A large Iranian dhow cuts across the shipping lanes, headed for the UAE or Oman.

No traffic cops here.

The outbound shipping lanes in The Knuckle pass close by rocky islands of the Omani coast.

After mechanical problems caused a delay in flight operations, members of the aviation detachment on board the FARRAGUT load Hellfire missiles onto an SH-60B helicopter, used to scout ahead of the destroyer.

Two Hellfires are loaded aboard the helo, which is capable of carrying four. Flight operations were cancelled, however, when a persistent mechanical problem refused to clear up.

Out of the haze on the eastern side of the Straits, an Iranian fast missile attack craft rushes up to take a closer look at the FARRAGUT. The ship, visible for some time on radar, had been using an Italian alias over the local automatic identification system.

The Snoopy intelligence-gathering team swings into action on the FARRAGUT's port bridge wing.

Closing on the destroyer, the Iranian slows and alters course to starboard, clearly signalling his intent not to directly challenge the Americans.

The Iranians pass slowly on a parallel course, port side to port side. The pennant number reveals her identity as the KHADANG (P 223), built in Cherbourg, France in 1978 for the Shah's Navy. Iran operates about a dozen of these high-speed craft, armed with a 76mm gun forward, a 40mm gun aft, and carrying two or four C-802 surface-to-surface missiles.

Cmdr. Glen Quast, right, watches with his crew as the KHADANG passes by. The Iranian shortly changed course and headed back up the straits. "I expect no more encounters with the Iranians," Quast said as his ship exited the Straits into the Gulf of Oman.

Transit complete, the FARRAGUT was operating in the northwestern Arabian Sea by the next morning.

Based in Mayport, Florida, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was nearing the close of a nine-and-a-half month deployment that ranged from Northern Europe and Russia to the Arabian Gulf.

The FARRAGUT was one of several destroyers gathered for a command meeting aboard the aircraft carrier USS JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN 74), seen on Feb. 27 conducting replenishment operations in the northwestern Arabian Sea. The supply ship USNS BRIDGE (T-AOE 10) is providing fuel and supplies to the carrier and her air defense escort, the cruiser USS MOBILE BAY (CG 53). At least three helicopters are shuttling supplies between the ships.

We circle around the ships to approach the carrier from its port side. STENNIS was relieved in late March by the carrier USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) to support Operation Enduring Freedom operations in Afghanistan.

For more recent images of U.S. Navy and other ships in the Gulf, see Ships and Units of NAVCENT

Christopher P. Cavas
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Christopher P. Cavas

If it's on, over, under or around the water, I write about it. Ships and aircraft, units, tactics, leadership, strategies, acquisition, politics, industry. In the USA and around the world.
Christopher P. Cavas
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