The UK Sunday papers rightly are questioning why “we” wern’t prepared for the Iranian reaction to the detention of the Grace 1 (language matters here – Gibraltar have lawfully “detained” the Grace 1 and Iran have unlawfully “captured” the Stena Impero). There is no legal equivalence between the two events. Indeed Lawrence Freeman asks the question about preparation in the Sunday Times. The “we” in his article is the UK government distracted by Brexit and with the conflict of policy direction between the US and the EU.

But the same question could be asked of the industry. Was it ready?

British ships were on ISPS Level 3 meaning an attack was seen as imminent or probable. Very rarely are ships on such high alert whilst at sea. Guidance had recently been issued by industry bodies to deal with the potential threat of divers mining ships but as far as I am aware there was no additional guidance given following the unsuccessful approach to the British Heritage by the UK Flag or industry bodies. When someone with Lord West’s (the former First Sea Lord in the UK) pedigree, queries the failure to protect the Stena Impero you can only assume that there are serious questions being raised in and around the naval headquarters in Northwood, London. As an industry scarred by Somali piracy we should surely have been more alive to the severe limitations in naval warships protecting all vessels 24/7. Stena who had a ship taken by Somali pirates would know that more than most. There is little if any transparency in where the naval ships are actually operating or what their priorities are. But this was a real and present danger and the response and protection failed. Now the UK government is stuck between a rock and a hard place. One has to accept that even as a the Gibraltar Supreme Court is independent and as the UK government is keen to tell us they cannot interfere in the judicial process of another country. We know that HMS Montrose was an hour away so about 25 miles but the Iranians had only 12 miles to cover from shore. Assuming (as we must) that HMS Montrose saw the fast patrol craft on their radar and even the helicopter they had no time to react. The latter would have approached under cover of the land would have taken less than 5 minutes to get over the target. HMS Montrose probably had no time to scramble their helicopter let alone to get it over the Stena target.

It is likely that the master of the Stena tanker was aware that HMS Montrose was around and perhaps they had spoken and that was comfort enough (Stop Press – 22.7.19 – Foreign Secretary confirmed to Parliament that there had been no contact). But could or should more have been done to deter and prevent the boarding using BMP and the tactics deployed against pirates. In saying that, I am not criticising the master and now the Iranians have their leverage for the Grace 1 it maybe that there will be no further captures. However, it is assumed that a risk assessment had been carried out and the threat was known. It is apparent from the footage of the boarding and the pictures of the deck of the Stena Impero that the Iranians fast roped onto the designated helicopter winching spot on the tanker. Fast roping is exactly that. A thick rope is thrown out and the commandos slide down wearing thick leather gloves that can be clearly seen in the video.

Would they have been able to do that quite so quickly if the winching spot had been covered in barbed wire and the vessels fire hoses had been operating as they would have been for a pirate attack? Is that a valid course of action to meet this sort of threat? Those actions may have deprived the pilot of some clear visual reference point sand forced it higher. The main fixed fire hoses on deck could even have been aimed at the rope. Perhaps the Iranians would have thought twice or looked for an easier target. Further, had the crew retreated to a citadel and the ship either steered remotely or rendered dead by turning engines and generators off then that would have given HMS Montrose a chance to get there. There would no doubt have been a stand off but one suspects that the Iranians would have been given a chance to retreat gracefully.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and ironically the threats to British tankers may now have receded but it is important that the industry keeps talking and assessing the threat and working to counter it. There will no doubt be the sound of stable doors slamming shut over the coming days but the release of the Stena tanker is now dependent on a diplomatic solution. Ships that have been interdicted by the Saudi coalition navy off Yemen have found themselves held for months and in one case two years. These are not easy jurisdictions and the UK will be under pressure from the US to stand firm in Gibraltar. The UK will no doubt want Iran to agree to an exit strategy which will require as a first step Iran to agree that the oil on the Grace 1 cannot go to Syria. That would pretty much be impossible to track but would be a pragmatic first step although an arrest of the Grace 1 by a third party or by forfeiture proceedings in the US would see the stale mate continue.

In the meantime the industry need to decide how far the tools they have against pirates can work against the naval forces of belligerent states. BMP had been amended to cater for mines and unmanned drones but the assumption was that the threat would come from terrorists not desperate littoral states.