An international maritime coalition set up to deter attacks by Iran against shipping in the Gulf will be needed for months, possibly even years, a Bahrain naval officer has told Sky News.
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“We are always ready,” the captain said, speaking in English as he commanded his corvette, RBNS Al Muharraq, armed with Exocet missiles and guns, in waters off Bahrain’s coast.
“We are very proud to defend our countries. We are under the command of a very trustful leadership, so upon their instructions and orders we will move and we will defend our countries.”
Asked if he thought the coalition will be needed for months, even years, he said:
“I think yes because being part of this mission is not that much important for the naval forces as it is very important for the shipping companies. When they come to the Gulf they feel safe.
“They can move around in the Gulf between ports with no harm or threats to the security of their ships so it is very important for them before it is important for us.”
It’s the first-time foreign media has travelled with a Bahrain ship taking part in the international maritime security mission – dubbed Coalition Task Force Sentinel.
Each of the 65-strong crew onboard, from the most junior sailor to the captain, need to have a grasp of English.
It is the language that is used when driving the ship and operating its weapons, cameras and radars.
Heading out to sea on Friday, a navigator barked coordinates to steer the vessel clear of shallow waters and other boats.
Cmdr al Rouwaie, sitting on his captain’s chair, sipped coffee from a reusable cup as his team studied a screen filled with blobs and lines, tracking maritime activity in the area.
“We monitor the shipping lanes, we protect merchant vessels passing through international waters, we are protecting the safety of navigation,” he said.
It’s a task the Bahrain navy has always performed but it now shares information and patrolling duties with the coalition, which includes warships and aircraft from the US, Britain, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Albania.
RBNS Al Muharraq is one of a number of smaller vessels tasked as so-called “sentries”.
It patrols Bahrain’s territorial waters, which stretch out to 12 miles from the coast, as well as the Gulf state’s wider economic waters.
The ship escorts tankers entering this zone before passing them on to fellow sentries from other nations once they leave.
“We talk to them, we ask them about their destination, where they are coming from, how many crew on board,” the captain said.
“This makes the relationship in the maritime domain between a warship and a merchant ship very friendly and very safe.”
Information gathered by the sentries is shared with a number – two or three at any one time – of larger coalition warships such as frigates and destroyers that are tasked as “sentinels”.
They are positioned at key choke points in the Gulf such as the Strait of Hormuz.
The aim is to provide a much closer layer of scrutiny of the shipping lanes to deter attempts to sneak up on tankers and stick limpet mines to them – a tactic that the US has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of using.
Cmdr al Rouwaie said he did not believe being part of the mission made Bahrain more of a target for Iran, which has condemned the creation of the maritime coalition.
“I don’t think this could cause a problem to us because we are very clear about our participation,” he said.
The International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) was formed under American leadership last summer as tensions escalated between Washington and Tehran after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from a nuclear deal with Iran.
At the time a spate of suspected limpet mine attacks against tankers in the Gulf, were blamed on Tehran, though it denied involvement. Iranian forces also seized the British-flagged Stena Impero and shot down a US unmanned aircraft.
Seeking to reassure ships, the coalition became more official in November, with the opening of a command centre at a US naval base in Bahrain. Much of the world’s oil and gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz, making it a vital transit route of global importance.
The standoff between Washington and Tehran almost erupted into a regional war last month after the US killed a top Iranian commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Iran hit back by firing missiles at US military targets in Iraq. There were concerns shipping routes could also be targeted.
That did not happen but everyone remains on alert.
A Royal Navy officer last Thursday took over command of the seven-nation alliance. There is a hope the changeover may encourage more states to join following a reluctance to sign up to a US-led mission because of disagreement with President Trump over his Iran policy.
Back aboard the Al Muharraq, the executive officer, Commander Ahmed Abdul-Gaffar, showed me the ship’s weapons, which include Exocet missile launchers, a main battle gun and two smaller guns.
Despite being just 62 metres long, the German-built corvette has room to land a helicopter, with a landing pad that includes an elevator to bring the aircraft down into its body.
Below deck is a windowless room where a small group of officers sit in front of screens, monitoring footage from video cameras and other sensors attached to the vessel.
They alert the captain to any unusual activity such as an unidentified boat.
The combat information centre is also from where the sailors can fire missiles and the main gun. They use their feet to fire the weapons, pressing down on a foot pedal.
It’s the second largest class of ship in Bahrain’s navy after its frigate.
The executive officer, who trained at a US naval college and spoke English with an American accent, said he was ready to fight if called upon.
“We are always ready but… the nature of the operations that we are conducting here are deterrence,” he said.
“We are ready to conduct any operations that our higher authorities request of us. However, we prefer to maintain a peaceful environment.”
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