Loitering munitions is not only a land problem. Maritime world must take seriously the issues caused by this kind of weapon in order to preserve the freedom of navigation. The recent attack in July on the oil tanker Mercer Street, off Omani Coast, is an example of problems led by local tension in the area of one of the most important maritime route. What happened ?
According to the United Kingdom Trade Operations, the oil tanker Mercer Street, operated by the British company Zodiac Maritime but owned by an Israeli citizen, was sailing 152 nautical miles northeast of the port Duqm (Omani) when he was attacked by a drone, apparently a loitering munitions. Two crew members, a British and a Romanian citizen, died in the attack.
The US Navy was called to rescue the ship and the US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted the tanker to the next harbour.
Iran was accused by USA, UK and Israel to be responsible for the attack, even if Teheran denied these claims.
Known as a suicide drone or kamikaze drone, loitering munitions is a weapon which searches for targets in a specific area for some time. As an autonomous lethal weapon, this kind of drone enables fast reaction in a deny access area, which led to several discussion about international humanitarian law and ethical concerns.
These drones may be as simple as an unmanned aerial vehicle with attached explosives or more complex such as IAI Harop, a purpose built munitions with on-board sensors and flight and control capabilities.
Several countries are recorded as loitering munitions user, such as Iran, Israel or the USA.
The proliferation of theses drones, and the relative low cost for some, is a global threat to maritime security because of their easy-use and efficiency against all kind of ships (even far from the coast).
Several attacks in the region
This attack is only one of many others which happened in Gulf of Oman for past years, especially in May and June 2019. In the past, ship faced several threats such as maritime mines, pirates, missiles or terrorist attack.
The Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz, is the maritime route for liquefied natural gaz and oil from Middle-east producers. Over 2 400 oil tanker sailed through this area every year.
If the freedom of navigation cannot be maintained in the area, likely due to the tension between USA and Iran, therefore all the international economy will be definitely impacted.