I recently had the pleasure of talking to a Financial Times reporter about Iran’s appetite for small boats. The story, dealing with the saga of the “Bradstone Challenger“, a Bladerunner 51 speedboat, just hit the press today (and it got some love from Drudge (bottom middle column), so…good times). (.pdf here)

I noted Iran’s interest in the Ice Marine’s Bladerunner back in early 2009–in fact, I reported that the Commerce Department’s “stop order”, coming on January 22, was one of the Obama Administration’s first actions taken after the inauguration. But, sadly, bureaucracy intervened–South Africa mislaid the order, sending the boat off in the “Iranian Diplomat.”

“The loading went ahead because, said one source, no one saw the US notice sent by fax over a weekend. US special forces were ready to intercept the Iranian merchant vessel but the operation was called off, the source said”

So now the vessel has, reportedly, been militarized (or, more likely, is being reverse-engineered).

(I won’t bore you with this story’s nitty-gritty details–as fascinating as they are. If you are interested, go read the full post at NEXTNAVY.COM–it’s a rollicking story of international intrigue, politics and…Italian speedboats!)

But for now, let’s focus on the strategic question…Iran’s apatite for small boats aside, just how big a danger are Iran’s little boats? Should the U.S. worry?

Not really.

Outside of surprise (a la the USS Cole), the small boat “record” since World War II fails to live up to the modern-day hype. Certainly, small boats are not things to completely disregard, but I do have serious doubts about the danger a swarm poses to a prepared US vessel. And, in the article, I said so:

“Though the US Navy is very concerned a swarm of small boats can overwhelm and sink a large warship, the hypothesis is untested. It has never been done,” Mr Hooper told the FT. “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.”

The proof just ain’t there. Once a fast boat swarm is identified as “hostile,” those small boats tend to lead relatively short, exciting lives.

In 1987, U.S. helicopters made quick work of Boghammar speedboats, and during the 1991 Bubiyan Turkey Shoot, helicopters helped sink or damage 143 small Iraqi naval vessels.

The trick, of course, is avoiding any losses as a “swarm” transforms from “traffic” to a swarming “attacker”…

And that might be a tad difficult.

Or…maybe not. Discuss!

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Posted by Defense Springboard in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Navy
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  • SCOTTtheBADGER

    While they are no real threat to real warships, I could see a ‘swarm’ overwhelming an LCS. You can only shoot a single 57MM gun so fast, and so far, there doesn’t seem to be any helos flying off of LCSes.

    But a ship like an ABSALOM, or a NANSEN, would have those little speedboats at it’s mercy.

  • doc75

    No, Scott, actually they are operating helicopters off of LCS:
    http://www.navy.mil/management/photodb/photos/100323-N-7058E-133.jpg

  • YNSN

    It is a threat. One that is easy to counter. Yet, when faced with it, we try to nuke our way out of it.

    Lots of crew served weapons, lots of rounds put down range. We do not need new fangled missiles that probably cost $10K a piece. Give me a Ma’duce and a runner to keep me flush with ammo and I will keep us afloat. All this is coming from a SCAT gunner with 6 Hormuz transits to my credit.

    I really like how we put ourselves out in the NAG back during the tanker war. Those barges were armed to the teeth with all sorts of weapons. We can do the same with our ships, and should.

    Is it really cheaper to get a new system, maintain it and train Sailors on it. Than it is to train them on crew served weapons?

  • LT L

    It also appears that LCS can have 30mm cannon modules installed:

    http://www.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=83866

  • Chuck Hill

    If they are suicide boats, lots of Mk38mod2s, but lets up-gun them. On the other hand, perhaps the Iranians are going to put little cruise missiles on these?

  • WTH

    On day three of war with Iran the speedboats are probably not so much an issue. Day one on the other hand they are a huge problem, discount Millennium Challenge at your own peril.

    The small boat threat is hugely problematic:
    -We overestimate how easy they will be to kill in numbers.
    -They have proven capability to hide well and thereby shorten the reaction time line.
    -What is the threat from the speedboat, missile? torpedo? suicide? mine?
    -Other intangibles are also a factor, who remembers that the Vincennes incident really began with small boats? I’m not saying that would happen again but think how much more important the media war is today? The pressure this type of platform can put on a situation is drastically underestimated and the results of an incorrect decision are arguably greater.

    The USN is scared about the Chinese ASBM, the small boat threat from the IRGCN is scarier to me because many of the problems are simplified, the Gulf is not that big an area and once you’re in there is no way out that doesn’t fall under Iranian influence.

    As a cheap and attainable area denial weapon for Iran the return on investment is huge. Think about the effects of a couple of torpedoes into a carrier, is the US prepared for that?

  • http://bowramp.blogspot.com William Powell

    Small craft like that have squat for underway endurance. Getting all of them underway at approximately the same time is one hell of a warning sign. On the one hand they have to operate in large numbers to be a major threat, while on the other hand, having large numbers underway at once gives us the heads-up we need to avoid a surprise attack. So long as we have sufficient sufficient survelience in place the threat would seem to be greatly reduced.

  • Jack Osborne

    Here we go again!!! They can not do it! We can always stop them!

    When in hell are we going to learn!

    We seem to get into this belief that our weapons are 100% perfect , 100% accurate, and that they can never fail.

    All you have to do is look at some of the pictures from WW2 where a 150 knot plane could fly in from 5 miles, heading straight for the target, and still fly over the target in the face of 5″, 40mm, 20mm, and 50cal machine guns from multiple mounts on the target ship.
    And , somehow, now, we have single mounts, no crew served armament, and we are prepared to take on and kill swarms of boats, missles, and miscellaneous rocketry attacking the ship.

    Ah, the beauty of computer controlled weapons, and dumb minds, combining to protect the ship.

  • Michael Antoniewicz II

    When I first read this, this morning, over on Mr. Hooper’s site this was my reaction and posted comment.

    “*WHY* was the quote ‘Close only counts in Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Nuclear Devices’ going through my head after I read this article?!?”

    Combine Iran’s growing threat of being able (if not already able) to build a Nuclear Device (or any other WMD for that matter) with their growing fleet of State-of-the-Art small speedboats and you can begin to see where I’m going. Anywhere they can quietly put one into the water even somewhat far from a Fleet/Task Force Anchorage, CONUS Homeport, Overseas Homeport, Foreign Port Visit/Liberty Call, somewhere that’s NOT the Strait of Hormuz or Persian Gulf were the U.S. Navy and Allied Navies would be a bit more on guard … you get were I’m going with this. Now add in a Bladerunner 51 (or a knockoff of one) that looks very much like a civilian speedboat.

    Yeeeaaahhh. A Brown Pants Day.

  • Chuck Hill

    If you want to deliver a nuclear weapon, use a sailboat.

  • Gordon Levine

    Problem is always saturation of the defense. Assume 25+ attackers equipped with short-range guided missiles and/or light acoustic-guided torpedoes, have them stay out of range of 20mm fire, equip some with shoulder-fired antiair missiles to take care of helicopters,
    and although they’d take heavy casualties, enough missiles and torpedoes could get through to take out a capital ship. You will quickly have a congested air/sea space loaded with both friendlies and targets in close proximity. That is a formula for saturating the defense.

  • http://springboarder.blogspot.com Defense Springboard

    Gordon–That’s correct. But where, outside of a sneak attack are we going to see such an assemblage of vessels? Once hostilities are an actual fact, 25+ vessels makes a darn good target.

    Small boat fear-merchants seem to assume that an overwhelming fleet of small boats will just sorta appear (boop!) out of nowhere (the magic Iranian threat teleporter!) and then we get into some ugly calculus about gun mounts and crew-served weaponry that inevitably lead us to a conclusion of “saturation.”

    Not true. Those boats gotta come from someplace. Gotta get coordinated somehow. Gotta get ammo, gas and beans somewhere too. During wartime, that becomes hard.

    It’s during peacetime–when you don’t know the plan (or that you don’t know you’re at war)–that small boats are a threat to big warships. After that, they’re just gonna transition to pieces of flaming, shredded fiberglass…

  • Michael Antoniewicz II

    @Chuck; A sailboat is not going to give you the final leg dash capability an Enemy would need when shifting from ‘blending in with Civilian/pleasure boat traffic’ to ‘Attack mode’ to get as close as possible before you can take, much less *decide* to take, defensive action.

    @Gordon et al; This is not the World of Jutland or Leyte Gulf but the World of Asymmetric Warfare were an Enemy action can and will come from an unexpected/unguarded quarter. So stop thinking that an Enemy can’t learn from their past and other’s mistakes, much less won’t study us to find weak points to exploit. You’re missing the point that the Italian Speedboat tech transfer got the Iranians knowledge and examples of high speed hull forms and shoehorning in high power engines into small hulls, but in form factor that stands out from surrounding pleasure boat traffic. The Broadsword 51, on the other hand, is a Speedboat design that will/does blend in well with the mid-to-high end pleasure craft found around the World.

    Picking out the one to a dozen Asymmetrical warfare craft with that design heritage out of tens to hundreds of recreational pleasure craft in the area is … beyond hard and well into giving the commanding Admiral down to the Seaman on the trigger enough acid indigestion to cause ulcers.

  • Chuck Hill

    Michael Antoniewicz II Says:”@Chuck; A sailboat is not going to give you the final leg dash capability an Enemy would need when shifting from ‘blending in with Civilian/pleasure boat traffic’ to ‘Attack mode’ to get as close as possible before you can take, much less *decide* to take, defensive action.”

    Note I said, “If you want to deliver a nuclear weapon.” How hard do you think it would be for a sail boat coming up from Mexico to get into San Diego? or you could meet the carrier in any narrow waterway.

  • Grayfox

    I hear talk about theory and never been done…didn’t the Navy say that about Billy Mitchell before he sank a Battleship from the air?
    Folks seem to have tunnel vision over swarm tactics and Iran.
    Actually The Tamil Tigers have used swarm tactics and sank Sri Lankan Navy ships and boats.
    So what do think out there on ops.. a quite night..a swarm of boats show up on the radar and you launch your birds. But then from another angle a white civilan boat is putting along. But when close enough suddenly bursts into a High speed ..over 50knots and this Suicide Boat with a large HE charge gets thru your 25mm and 50cal and 7.62.
    Boom..No longer theory. Beware the distaction and trojan horse.
    and I understand the Bradstone boat can reach almost a hundred knots Hmmmm.

  • jcraig

    We are still asking the wrong questions. We are asking whether they are a threat, when we should be asking is there a set of circustances in which they would be aq threat. Phrased that way the answer is yes. We are still trying to answer threat questions from a mid-twentieth century perspective, disregarding not only changes in technology, but also changes in culture, political conditions and perhaps most importantly, rules of engagement. In the right hands, with the right training and the right weapon a sampan can become a danagerous warship. We also fixate on whether such weapons will “sink or destroy” an American warship. The USS Cole was a much more potent propaganda instrument with a great hole in its side than if it had disappeared beneath the waves. Too perhaps it is a greater victory to create a large number of martyrs who died gloriously than achieve what we would consider a victory. It is time to think outside the box.

  • Craig

    The Iranians will get their first surprise shot in and hurt one or two of our ships….. after that, anything moving in the Gulf will be sunk quickly……

  • Jon B.

    Just remember that in WWII the Royal Navy crippled the Bismark using biplanes universally acknowledged to be obsolete at the time. Don’t say Iran’s small boats can’t sink a carrier – they can. Whether they actually will or not depends on many factors such as chance, defence in depth, the US Navy’s complacency and the Mark I Human Eyeball.

  • c jmort

    to discount the threat from small craft is foolish when one considers that their prime targets would be merchant and amphibious shipping which move a lot slower than a high tech warships add in restriction of draft along with poor visual conditions backed up with depleted uranium rounds from their heavy machine guns and Heat rockets/ missile’s and you have a very real threat that would lead to sinking of ships and crippling damage to their escorts never forget that in world war 2 the coastal light forces of both britain and germany achieved far more ships sunk and damaged between 1940 and 1943 than their “high tech” submarine brothers and indeed your own navy achieved great results with light coastal forces in world war two, vietnam and in the persian gulf they provide a very effective low cost expansion of naval power and when well trained witch the iranian navy and republican guard are they are very real threat to allied forces operating the gulf

  • Jon Coulter

    Low tech and high numbers will overload our weapons systems, and our untrained New Navy sailors…men who have little experience in crew served antiaircraft weapons. It is doubtful those weapons can be depressed enough to be effective, or that the US has enough ammunition to fight a week long invasion of small craft. A fifteen foot skiff with an outboard is more than capable of delivering severe waterline damage. One hit took out the USS Cole, a thousand such small craft could take out all the battle groups in Hormuz. Even if America retaliated, other countries will and could take advantage of a Navy weakened for the next ten years. Also remember, that like the Japanese kamikaze, Iranians may well be motivated to die delivering, where our technical New Navy may well falter in the sudden fires, mayhem, and fury of actual sea battles.

  • xmoe

    Correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t these assumptions all in line with the art of war, “fighting the last war” mantra? If the sole argument is that helicopters will kill these boats, what happens if the boats are armed with anti air missiles?! Iran has made a lot of progress with missiles of late, enough so that they should be respected. A small boat these days can carry a good number of missiles, and in past wars its not the big expensive weapons that change the game, it is the cheap easily mass produced weapons that have the most effect. Granted a US fleet can easily sink little boats, but if they are fast enough they could cause targeting problems even for the best gunners. Sure we have lasers, but again, a big enough swarm of these, backed up by small subs and ground to sea missile attacks could make Iran much more of a threat then people realize. Not to mention the loss of just 1 Aircraft carrier would be a huge set back for the US Navy.

  • juan green

    P L E A S E ! gimme a break!
    the only danger is u fucking gringos…. u make the guns and the trouble that comes with them…
    and if we want to fuck u over, we can do it, weapons or no weapons, think vietnam or 911

  • juan green

    tremble USA! iran has speedboats now!

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