Securing Ships In The Strait Of Hormuz
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Oil prices spiked after the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. That's mainly because tankers have to pass through Iranian waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran's daily oil production is about 4 million barrels compared to 15 million for the U.S. But about a third of the world's oil passed through the strait in 2018. And more than a quarter of the world's supply of natural gas passes through it as well.
KEVIN THOMPSON: When you're on watch, you just have to maintain that you're vigilant as possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kevin Thompson was a longtime maritime security consultant. He's now a risk and operations director at the London-based Athena Protection Group. And he figures he's passed through the region on ships over 600 times, including on Chevron, Shell and BP tankers.
THOMPSON: It's basically a shipping lane. The actual channel is very narrow. It's only about 20 kilometers from the coast of Oman to the coast of Iran.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This past summer, half a dozen ships were attacked in the area. The U.S. blamed Iran, which denied responsibility. So I'm wondering, when you're on a ship passing through, what are you on the lookout for? Is it tense?
THOMPSON: It can be tense. So you're constantly looking for small vessels or even naval frigates or even helicopters. The main threats in that area now are going to be either Iranian navy outside of the territorial waters. Or are they going to pay militia to act as a piracy threat?
So if that was the case, they'll have automatic weapons, RPGs - but, obviously, they're only going to be on a small vessel, and they will be trying to get as close as possible to the cargo or oil tanker. And then the security team onboard would take measures to try and move that vessel away from them and then escalate the violence the more closer they got. They'd fire warning shots first. And then if that wasn't a deterrent, then they'd try to then take out the people onboard that ship and then obviously still try and get away.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand you have been on a ship that's been boarded by outside forces.
THOMPSON: Yes, I have. Christmas into 2018, I was in Yemen going from Djibouti to Hadeda (ph) on a U.N. World Food Program. And yeah, there was Houthi rebels acting as Coast Guard because they didn't want the Saudi marines to try and attack the beaches and the land in that side. And while we was at anchor, they tried to come over to our ship on board. We managed to evade that attack by putting in the correct countermeasures, we managed to get away.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what do you do when something like that happens? I mean, what is the defense?
THOMPSON: It's very strange. You know, like, guys that you've may have spoke to in the past, like, Afghanistan or Iraq - they are 100% constantly alert. So at any time, an IED can go off. Or they can be shot by a sniper or something that they can't see. But at sea, you can see for a good 12 to 30 miles all the way around you. And you have radar.
So you know once you've seen a target that that target is then approaching you. You know a good three or four minutes before. So if they start shooting or firing at us, we are also ready to return fire. And we can continue on with our task.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And do you think the threat is high? I mean, do you think people traveling through the strait right now are - I mean, are on alert?
THOMPSON: Oh, yes. Definitely, yeah. It has already been the British standard liner oil tanker taken. And then obviously, we took an Iranian vessel in Gibraltar. Now there's just going to be more and more escalations of violence towards the ships because they know Iran is under economic sanctions. They're going to try and stop them sanctions by creating as much carnage as possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's maritime security expert Kevin Thompson. Thank you so much.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.