On February 12, two vessels were boarded and searched off the coast of Somalia. The boarding force, which had deployed from the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), searched the vessels and found a cache of weapons. According to a brief by the Department of Defense, the cache consisted of “thousands of AK-47 assault rifles, light machine guns, heavy sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs), and crew-served weapons.” 

According to the report, the Churchill’s VBSS (Visit, Board, Search and Seizure) team discovered the weapons while conducting a flag verification boarding. Such boardings are common in the Arabian Sea where smugglers use unmarked dhows — local motorized boats with medium cargo capacity — to move illegal weapons, explosives, and military equipment. 

Russian Weapons found off the Somali Coast
The guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), in accordance with international law, boarded a stateless dhow off the coast of Somalia and interdicted an illicit shipment of weapons and weapon components, Feb. 12. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Louis Thompson Staats IV)

Weapons smugglers in the Arabian Sea are routinely detained by the U.S. and other regional allies in an effort to choke off the flow of weapons into the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In most cases, the weapons originate from Iran. 

Last February, the Normandy, a U.S. Navy Guided Missile Cruiser, interdicted a dhow containing advanced weapons systems headed for Yemen. That cache contained surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, Iranian thermal imaging scopes, Iranian-made components for drones, and various munitions and weapons parts, according to a Military Times report.

From 2015 to 2018, several smuggling attempts were stymied in the Arabian Sea. In nearly every instance, the weapons on board were traced back to Iran.

In a 2020 intelligence report from Grey Dynamics, photographs of weapons seized in several VBSS operations in the Arabian Sea were analyzed. The findings of that report were two-fold. First, it outlined the basic visual identifiers for Iranian weapon systems typically smuggled into Africa or Yemen from Iran. Second, it tied those weapons systems back to known Iranian import shipments. The conclusion of the photographic analysis was that these captured caches — and many more like them that went undetected — were from Iranian stockpiles.

The three most common weapon systems smuggled from Iran are AK-47s, variants of the infamous RPG-7, and the Type 73 Machine Gun. The ubiquity of the AK-47 makes it very hard to trace, especially through photographic analysis. But Iranian RPGs and Type 73s are easy to spot. The Iranian RPG-7 has a telltale green heat shield and often has a cylindrical plastic firing handle. The Type 73, a machine gun, manufactured by North Korea and exported to Iran prior to and during the Iran-Iraq War, has a solid buttstock and ported flash suppressor. 

These visual identifiers make it easy to spot a cache coming from Iran.