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  • Writer's pictureCDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.

Damage to an Israeli Merchant Ship Near Iran

On Thursday evening, February 25, the United States attacked targets of the Shiite militia, which operates under Iran's auspices, using fighter jets in Syria. It was the first attack by the U.S. military under Biden's administration. The U.S. operation comes in response to an attack carried by Shiite militias on U.S. forces in Syria, and after Iran has threatened several times in the recent weeks that it intends to continue Uranium enrichment and its nuclear program.

The Iranian response did not take a long time. On Friday, February 26, shortly after midnight, two loud explosions silenced the deck of the merchant ship MV Helios Ray off the coast of Oman. This ship is intended to transport vehicles and is owned by the Israeli businessman Rami Unger.

At the time of the explosions, the ship was carrying the Bahman flag. Two holes were discovered on each side of the vessel's hull. The vessel's cruise capability and 28 crew members were not harmed. The ship sailed to the port of Dubai, near the area of the attack. The ship's owners said that the vessel was on its way to Singapore at the time of the attack after unloading vehicles from Europe at the ports of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.


From the explosion pictures, it can be seen that the four holes that were opened are several meters above sea level. The explosions' height, the holes' shape, their size (about 1.5 meters in diameter) indicate that it was not a mine that made the ship's explosions, whether leech mines attached to the vessel or floating naval mines.

The very existence of two entrances and two exit holes indicates that a missile penetrates through the vessel's sides. If it had been an anti-ship missile designed to penetrate a vessel and explode inside it, the damage caused to the Israeli ship would have been much more significant.

At the time of the incident, the ship was relatively far from shore, so it would be reasonable to assume that the ship's sides were infiltrated by two anti-tank missiles or two RPG rockets with "hollow" warheads, fired at short range from commando vessels.

Anti-tank rockets will achieve an effect similar to that caused to the Israeli merchant ship - an entrance and an exit holes if during the explosion the explosive did not "meet" another body.

Firing an anti-tank missile from a commando boat at sea, such as the Russian Kornet missile in Iranian possession, is a relatively complex firing, as the missile launcher needs stabilization (to compensate for the waves) when launching the missile. At the same time, Iranian Revolutionary Guards commandos are known to use RPG rockets from their boats.

It is, therefore, likely that the four holes in the two sides of the vessel were created by two RPG rockets with anti-tank warheads, which were fired at a relatively short range (100 to 300 meters).

The attack took place in an area where about a year and a half ago, in the summer of 2019, several merchant ships were hit by a naval and limpet mine explosion, attached by an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commando units, which operated using speedboats and documented by the U.S. Navy.

Israel has been quick to accuse Iran of deliberately launching offensive operations against an Israeli-owned commercial ship, in response to the assassination of the Iranian nuclear program founder, Dr. Fahrizadeh, in November 2020.

As of this writing, Iran has not yet claimed responsibility for the attack on the Israeli ship. Rami Unger, 77, (who is a person close to the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen), was quick to respond in the international media, that according to his estimation, the attack on the ship was not carried out because it belongs to an Israeli commercial entity, but as an Iranian response to American attacks in Syria and Iraq.

It should be noted that ships sailing at sea are required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to continuously operate the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which transmits the ship's identity, location, route, destination, and other information.

Global maritime traffic information can be seen (and at no cost) on various websites and mobile phone apps, such as the Marine Traffic app.

The Israeli ship that left the Persian Gulf was probably tracked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Naval Coastal Command and Control System and the AIS system, after which was decided to be performed action against it, somewhere far from the Iranian coast, to operate secretly and without being discovered.

The existing risk to Israeli merchant ships is not only in the area where Rami Unger's ship was hit but also in the Bab al-Mandab straits in the southern Red Sea, where the Yemen Houthi rebel forces are operating, against vessels sailing in the area.

The Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels have repeatedly hit Red Sea merchant ships and Saudi, Egyptian and American warships.

It would be recommended that merchant ships operating in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, including in the Persian Gulf region, be equipped with detection and protection systems against sea mines.

Activating defense systems against missiles or commando forces from a merchant ship deck would be very technically complex and incredibly expensive. However, it would be advisable to consider temporary solutions for protection against commando attacks, such as metal nets for defense, such as those mounted on tanks.

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