Safeguarding shipping in the Middle East: IMSC

The International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) was formed in 2019 to safeguard commercial vessels passing through the Middle East. Harry Lye hears about the organisation’s work.

An eight-nation coalition established the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in 2019 to safeguard commercial vessels passing through the Middle East following a spate of attacks on commercial shipping by Iranian forces. Not limited to the Strait of Hormuz, the IMSC also operates to the south in the Bab el-Mandeb strait to ensure commercial shipping’s safe passage through the Suez Canal. The Bab el-Mandeb alone sees 17,000 merchant ships pass through annually.

Any delay here would force shipping to divert around the cape of Africa, potentially adding weeks to voyages which would disrupt the just-in-time supply lines many industries rely on.

The role of the IMSC

The commander of the IMSC, UK Royal Navy Commodore Craig Wood, told us that the coalition is a deterrent to malign activity in the region, and has helped increase the confidence of commercial mariners operating in the area.

“The concept of operations was stood up with presence and deterrent, both at sea and in the air, and then a reassurance message by reaching out to industry partners through a network of means, not least of which through the UK maritime trade organisation and the US NCAGS [Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping],” Wood said. “But then [also] through various other industry for a, so that they are aware of our presence and know-how to get in touch.”

Of the work that has gone into the IMSC since its founding, Wood says: “We’ve refined our operations. We’ve refined the force elements that we’re using, ships and aircraft, and patrol vessels. We’ve refined their areas of operation; we’ve refined their patterns of operation. But the basic methodology remains the same, which is continuous presence for a deterrent effect and radio calls to provide the overt presence, and therefore that reassurance to the shipping industry.”

Navigating tensions in the Middle East

During December 2020 alone, a Sierra Leone-flagged cargo vessel was fired upon off Yemen’s coast as it traversed the Bab el-Mandeb, a Singapore-flagged ship was hit by ‘an external source’ while discharging at Jeddah Terminal, Saudi Arabia, and a limpet mine was discovered on the hull of the Liberian MT Pola.

Tensions had reached a flashpoint in the summer of 2019 following the seizure of Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar’s coast in July. Later in the same month, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero – later confirming it had seized the ship in response to the earlier Grace 1 incident. Later in August, IRGC forces seized an Iraqi tanker claiming it was being used to smuggle oil.

It wasn’t until September, two months after being detained, that the Stena Impero was allowed to leave Iranian waters.

Protecting freedom of navigation

In November 2019, the IMSC began its operations in the region. Since then, the coalition has played a key role in maintaining freedom of navigation in both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb.

The coalition’s members include Albania, Bahrain (where the IMSC is headquartered), Estonia, Lithuania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, UK and USA.

“Every mariner has the responsibility to ensure freedom of navigation and every nation-state with a littoral has the responsibility to allow that freedom of navigation in accordance with the international rules basis,” Wood said.

“If someone is going to challenge that, then there are various methods, whether it’s a note verbale to the UN saying ‘look our merchant traffic aren’t able to ply the trade, ply their goods, navigate on the high seas in accordance with that rules-based system’, or militaries might come together in a coalition as we have done.

“A coalition of nations who want to uphold that international rules-based system, freedom of navigation on the global commons and provide a military presence that enforces such international norms and deters anybody from doing so.”

In the early 2000s, a Russian-flagged tanker stuck in the Suez Canal and held up the passage of 100 ships.

Now into its second year, with operations maintaining pace, and a continued need to deter such challenges, the coalition is staying around.

Commenting on the domino effect of delays to the flow of shipping, Wood recalled an incident in the early 2000s where a Russian-flagged tanker stuck in the Suez Canal and held up the passage of 100 ships, including one carrying PlayStation 2 consoles bound for UK shops. In the end, the PlayStations were airlifted to Britain.

To put the impact of delays in perspective, according to the World Shipping Council, a ship starting in the Arabian Gulf travelling to the UK via the Suez route takes around 14 days for the 6,400 nautical mile route. In comparison, the same journey travelling around the Cape of Good Hope takes 24 days and 11,300 nautical miles of travel.

Wood added that key to the IMSC was upholding the two pillars of ensuring freedom of navigation to safeguard supply chains, but also more generally about upholding the international rules-based system and ensuring that mariners can go about “their lawful placement on the global commons”.

// Main image: Royal Saudi Naval Force frigate Makkah transits the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Credit: US Navy