October 1, 2016
Some of the latest commercial satellite imagery confirms that the USNS Invincible is currently operating from Manama, Bahrain—home of the U.S. Navy’s fifth Fleet. Subordinate to the naval arm’s Military Sealift Command (or MSC), the ship functions as a “missile range instrumentation ship” capable of collecting ballistic missile launch data over 2,000km away. The vessel is equipped with a dual S- and X-band Gray Star radar which is tasked and serviced by the U.S. Air Force. The S-band acquires and tracks a potential target while the X-band collects signature data. With Iran’s recent missile tests, there’s little surprise the vessel is back in the region, ready to scoop up data and transmit the acquired info to interceptors, inter alia, across the Strait.
According to online AIS data, the vessel traversed the narrow maritime chokepoint and arrived by early April after making a stop at the UAE’s Fujairah port, possibly for bunkering. The vessel is often tasked to the Persian Gulf but also the Indian Ocean, where it makes regular stops at Diego Garcia, the leased British outpost in the region. The U.K. lease is expected to expire in December 2016. Mobile ship-borne platforms like the Invincible are increasingly cost-effective, given the alternative of their land and space-deployed counterparts. They have the agility to deploy where and when additional coverage is required.
The arrival of the vessel back in the Gulf comes as Iran continues to test-launch its “nuclear-capable” ballistic missiles, despite signing last year’s landmark nuclear deal. Western diplomats, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, say that the tests are inconsistent with the “spirit of the deal”, citing UNSC Resolution 2231 Annex B, paragraph 3. However, the annex uses weak language and does not fall under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which remains the means to take action under articles 41 and 43, the use of sanctions and military force, respectively.
Iranian coverage about the IRGC Qiam ballistic missile launch from Jam, Bushehr province, in March 2016.
The latest launch occurred in March, though some sources report a July test. If confirmed, it would be the fourth test-launch since the nuclear agreement was signed last year. According to IHS Jane’s, the March test occurred from an underground launch facility located to the southwest of the city of Jam in Bushehr province. The exact geolocation (27.7882N 52.3228E) shows it less than 15km from the coastline and nearby to the important Pars Special Economic Energy Zone. If the USNS Invincible was in the region at the time, the facility would have been an easy target on which to collect missile data. Unfortunately, we lack historical AIS records to confirm.
The Gray Star radar is an improvement over the original Cobra Gemini, both built to support the strategic warning mission. The longer range radar replaced the older one on-board the vessel, which had originally been fitted in the late 1990s. Last year, the Air Force awarded Raytheon a $24.6 million contract to continue to service the system.