Although it’s unclear exactly what Marines would do if placed on commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, retired military leaders say they could deter Iranian forces from harassing or seizing the vessels — and quickly loop in the Navy if issues arise.
More than 100 Marines already have gotten training from the Navy and are prepared to be put on commercial vessels transiting the strategically important passage ― which links the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman ― if ordered, the U.S. Naval Institute reported Friday, citing an anonymous U.S. official.
The security teams are made up of between 15 Marines and 19 Marines, according to the U.S. Naval Institute. Training began before the Navy ships carrying them arrived in Bahrain on Aug. 6, the Institute reported.
The teams could prevent Iranian forces from coming aboard the ships, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Dave Beydler said in a webinar Tuesday moderated by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a pro-Israel think tank.
“You will not get on a commercial vessel that has a contingent of Marines on board,” said Beydler, the former commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command.
The Marines could protect against threatening close passes by other ships, Beydler said. They can fend off attacks with their counter-drone and counter-air capabilities. And with their communications capabilities, they could quickly alert the Navy if threats emerge from Iran, Beydler said.
Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO, wrote in a Bloomberg op-ed Friday that the Marines’ “jam-proof communications” would be their most important asset.
Stavridis noted that having U.S. Marines protect commercial vessels would mark a return to a historical role and a beginning as “a powerful fighting force on sailing ships, often protecting convoys of commercial craft.”
In 2019, Marines embarked on a merchant vessel to provide security during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz, according to a Central Command news release at the time.
The military also put armed troops on commercial ships in World War II. To protect logistics from attack, service members from the Navy’s Armed Guard operated the guns aboard merchant vessels.
The Defense Department declined to confirm or deny plans to place Marines on commercial ships.
In response to a query, a spokesman for the Marine Corps directed Marine Corps Times to query U.S. Central Command.
“CENTCOM remains committed to supporting our partners and collective efforts to protect the freedom of maritime navigation and the free flow of commerce throughout the region,” U.S. Central Command said in a Tuesday emailed statement to Marine Corps Times. “We do not discuss future/on-going operations.”
The DoD has, however, made clear that the recent Middle East deployment of approximately 3,000 Marines and sailors on the amphibious assault ship Bataan and dock landing ship Carter Hall was meant to prevent Iran from meddling with commercial shipping.
The Marines who would go on commercial vessels are part of the special-operations-capable 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is spread across those ships plus the amphibious landing dock Mesa Verde, the U.S. Naval Institute reported.
The possible deployment of armed U.S. troops onto commercial ships, first reported by The Associated Press, comes after a spate of Iranian interference with ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
On July 5, the Iranian navy attempted to seize two oil tankers moving through the strait and fired shots at one of them, the U.S. Navy said.
The U.S. Navy says Iran has seized at least five commercial vessels in the past two years and has harassed more than a dozen others. Many of the incidents have occurred in and around the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all crude oil passes.
“Achieving deterrence is one of those mission outcomes that’s tough to define at times,” Beydler said. “How do you know that you’re being successful in deterring big events, small events and so forth?”
Beydler noted that placing Marines on the ships could bring a potential for escalation.
“It’s a region that’s fraught with potential miscalculation,” retired Navy Vice Adm. Mark Fox, former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, said in the webinar Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This article was updated Monday with more accurate information about previous placements of troops on commercial ships.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.