Japanese Ship Owner Disputes U.S. Claims About Weapons Used In Tanker Attack

The shipping company says "flying objects" were to blame after the U.S. government releases imagery it says show a limpet mine on the ship.

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

The president of the shipping company that owns the Kokuka Courageous has said that "a flying object" caused the damage the ship suffered in an attack in the Gulf of Oman yesterday, directly disputing a U.S. government assessment. The U.S. military has released video and pictures that it says point to an Iranian attack using limpet mines. These competing narratives add to a flurry of confusing and contradictory claims that have been swirling around the incident since it occurred.

Yutaka Katada, president of shipping firm Kokuka Sangyo, offered his take, citing accounts from the ship's crew, at a press conference on June 14, 2019. He also completely dismissed the possibility that torpedos were involved, noting that the damage was too far above the waterline for this to be plausible. Late on June 13, 2019, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released a video that showed either Iranian military personnel or members of Iran's powerful quasi-military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing a possible limpet mine from the side of Kokuka Courageous

It also provided photographs that sailors onboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Bainbridge had taken showing the object still attached to the ship's hull during rescue operations hours before. The U.S. military was not directly involved in the recovery of the crew of the Front Altair, the other tanker that had been a victim of attacks in the area around the same time.

“Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object,” Katada told reporters. "I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship."

This claim is in line with another one that the Financial Times attributed to an unnamed Kokuka Sangyo spokesperson on June 13, 2019. 

“Kokuka Sangyo said it had received a report that the Kokuka Courage [sic] was hit by two shells, three hours apart,” the spokesperson said. “A company official said: ‘The first shell hit to the rear of the ship on the port side... The second shell then hit port amidships.”

It appears that the spokesperson had received at least some incorrect information in the initial aftermath of the attacks. The photos the U.S. Navy released show the damage, along with the unknown object, on the ship's starboard side. 

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The rest of Kokuka Sangyo's statements are in direct conflict with the U.S. government's position. In its press release on June 13, 2019, CENTCOM said that Coastal Ace, a tug belonging to Dutch shipping company Acta Marine, had rescued the crew of the Kokuka Courageous after they abandoned the tanker specifically because they had spotted the possible unexploded mine on their ship's hull.

While we don't know for sure why these two very different stories have emerged, there are certainly plausible explanations for how an information disconnect may have occurred. Did the crew hear a second object "hitting" the hull amidships when this was actually the attackers placing another limpet mine? Did attackers employed other weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades, before, during, or shortly after they placed the mines, which could account for the reports of a "flying object"?

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US Navy personnel on board the USS Bainbridge render aid to the crew of the Kokuka Courageous after their transfer from the Coastal Ace on June 13, 2019.

It is also unclear from Kokuka Sangyo timeline whether the Kokuka Courageous made its distress call after the first attack, which reportedly caused an engine room fire, or after the second one that came three hours later. CENTCOM says U.S. forces in the region received the call from that ship at approximately 7:00 AM local time and that the USS Bainbridge was on the scene around four hours afterward. 

At approximately 11:05 AM local time, the USS Bainbridge met up with the Coastal Ace in order to transfer the crew of the Kokuka Courageous. Some nine hours later, the Iranian Gashti-class fast boat approached the tanker and recovered the object from the hull before sailing away, as seen in the video below. 

The U.S. government asserts that Iran was attempting to remove evidence of its involvement in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement and denies that its personnel recovered a mine, but has also offered no evidence to support those claims.  

If it was an unexploded mine, the actions of the Iranians were both brazen and reckless, regardless of the country's involvement. Iran would have to have been aware of the various U.S. military assets in the area, including ships like Bainbridge and manned and unmanned aircraft, closely monitoring the situation. 

If the object the personnel pulled from the hull was a mine, then there would also have been some risk that it might have finally detonated as it was being removed. There is no indication from the video that any effort was made to disarm the device before personnel on the boat yanked it off the ship's hull. 

But there's no disputing that Iranian personnel did come back hours after the incident to recover something and that this activity was, by then, entirely unrelated to any rescuing of Kokuka Courageous' crew. By all accounts, Iranian forces initially retreated from the area around the ship after the Bainbridge arrived.

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A picture of examples of what the U.S. military refers to as the Gashti-class during a ceremony marking their delivery to the IRGC' Navy in 2016.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which operates the Kokuka Courageous on behalf of Kokuka Sangyo, says it's under tow to the port of Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. More information may emerge once investigators have had a chance to more thoroughly inspect the ship in port.

The Front Altair continues to burn and it is unclear what might happen to that ship in the immediate future. The fate of the crew, who presently in Iran is uncertain, too. Though shipping company Frontline has not expressed any concern about their safety and wellbeing, it is unclear if they are free to leave or have been detained for some reason. There are reports that Iranian forces forcefully demanded the cargo ship Hyundai Dubai, which initially rescued the Front Altair's crew, to transfer the crewmen into their custody.

The USS Mason, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, has also joined the USS Bainbridge to assist with the ongoing response to the attacks. USNI News has reported that there are no plans yet for American warships to begin escorting tankers in the area. This is something that occurred in 2015 after the IRGC briefly seized the container ship Maersk Tigris pursuant to an legal dispute. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iranian attacks on commercial shipping also prompted a major U.S. military response as part of what became known as the Tanker War.

But even with a continuing lack of clarity surrounding exactly what happened to the Kokuka Courageous, as well as the Front Altair, the attacks have added another layer to existing tensions in the region, particularly between the United States and Iran. The U.S. government also blames Iran for another set of attacks on four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May 2019, but has not yet provided any definitive evidence to support that claim. At the beginning of that month, President Donald Trump's Administration also announced that it had intelligence that purportedly showed an increased risk to U.S. forces from Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East.

There have also been a notable spike in attacks and claimed attacks from Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, involving missiles and suicide drones, primarily against Saudi Arabia. On June 12, 2019, the Houthis fired what appeared to be an Iranian ground-launched cruise missile at a Saudi airport, injuring 26 people. This was the first time the militants had claimed to have employed this type of weapon in a strike on a Saudi target.

If nothing else, the global price of oil has certainly spiked, jumping four percent in the aftermath of the attacks. Insurance firms have also raised rates and one shipping firm has reportedly stopped taking bookings for voyages to or from the Gulf. But its also worth noting that the price of oil had just dropped four percent on June 12, 2019, meaning that the price now is the same as it was just days ago. 

The official response from the U.S. government has, so far, been somewhat mixed. "On April 22nd, Iran promised the world that it would interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said in brief remarks to the press on June 13, 2019. "Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the right time, to encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses the broad range of threats – threats today apparent for all the world to see – to peace and security."

It's true that Iranian authorities had pledged to do so this if the U.S. government's "maximum pressure" campaign of sanctions and efforts to isolate the country diplomatically brought their oil exports to a halt entirely. However, this is a long-standing threat that the Iranians haven't followed through on. The regime in Tehran can only know that this would draw the ire of the entire international community given the global interest in unimpeded maritime trade in the region, as well as block them from using the Strait themselves. The prospect of a bloody war with the U.S. and its Arab allies is also a strong deterrent.

Still, the U.S. is pairing hard rhetoric with a softer 'wait and see' attitude and even an olive branch of sorts:

"We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community," CENTCOM said in its press release, underscoring this point.

"They’ve been told in strong terms," President Trump said on June 14, 2019. "We want to get them back to the table if they want to go back. I’m ready when they are. I’m in no rush."

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the day of the attacks in the Gulf of Oman, had categorically rejected any overtures from Trump. "We do not believe at all that the U.S. is seeking genuine negotiations with Iran; because genuine negotiations would never come from a person like Trump," a series of Tweets from Khamenei's official Twitter account read after his meeting with Abe.

When it comes to the Kokuka Courageous and the Front Altair, both sides as well as third parties, such as Kokuka Sangyo, may well produce more evidence in the coming days that either supports their respective conclusions or muddies the waters even more. Yet the idea that Iran did not at least have knowledge of the attacks seems to be getting more and more remote by the hour.

Regardless, the incident is clearly a worrying escalation of the situation in the region overall.

Editor's Note/Tyler's Take:

Both are probably true. Iranian small boats could have, and likely did, lob projectiles towards the ship and planted mines on it. Even the firing of projectiles could be used as a distraction to mine the hull without being noticed. Iranian small boat swarming tactics including using various weapons on larger vessels simultaneously.

See our latest update to this rapidly evolving story by clicking here.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com