Now think about what this tactic would look like if they weren’t playing around
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Another few sunny days in the Persian Gulf, and another several days of scarily-close encounters between Iranian boats and U.S. warships. And this time they provoked an American ship into firing warning shots.
That’s not a reassuring series of events at a time when Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally — and Iran fight devastating proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. It’s only a little more than a year since the landmark deal between Iran and the West, while still shaky, halted Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons.
If the incidents in August are any indication, relations between the United States have a very long way to go before they get any better. Tehran, or at least elements within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, seem to prefer it that way.
The first incident on Aug. 23 occurred when four IRGC boats — weapons uncovered — came within 300 yards of the destroyer USS Nitze, which fired off flares to warn the boats away, in the Strait of Hormuz.
Video of the incident is below:
The next day, Iranian boats harassed American ships on three separate occasions. The first incident on Aug. 24 occurred when three Iranian vessels approached the patrol vessels USS Tempest and USS Squall — and crossed the Tempest’s bow back and forth three times.
A few hours later, an Iranian boat played chicken with Tempest by speeding toward her head on.
“This situation presented a drastically increased risk of collision, and the Iranian vessel refused to safely maneuver in accordance with internationally recognized maritime rules of the road, despite several request and warnings via radio, and visual and audible warnings from both U.S. ships,” U.S. Fifth Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told USNI News.
That’s when Squall fired three .50-caliber warning shots, which apparently convinced the Iranian boat to turn around. But that wasn’t the end of it. The same boat later harassed the destroyer USS Stout.
Close encounters between Iranian patrol boats and U.S. warships are hardly unprecedented. The Iranian navy often shadows American ships as a means to signal strength and to keep its sailors steeled for a potential armed conflict.
In July, Gen. Joseph Votel — commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East — got a first-hand look while sailing on board the amphibious transport USS New Orleans when five Iranian boats came within 500 yards. And on Aug. 15, IRGC vessels “launched rockets in exercises a few miles away from two U.S. Navy ships,” Defense News reported.
This isn’t to suggest that a naval conflict between the United States and Iran is likely, just that Tehran finds it useful to train its sailors for that possibility. And what better way to prepare for war than to scope out and engage in high-risk maneuvers in close proximity to U.S. warships?
The biggest potential downside is that someone — an Iranian or American commander — may miscalculate. The fact that the most recent set of incidents provoked an American ship into firing warning shots shows just how close both sides can come to igniting a flashpoint.
Call it a inherent risk given Iran’s penchant for swarm tactics. Iran’s navy has deliberately cultivating such tactics, which involves sending large numbers of small vessels to outnumber and overwhelm larger and less-agile American warships.
It’s an evolution in Iranian naval doctrine since the Iran-Iraq War, when the U.S. Navy destroyed much of the Iranian surface fleet in Operation Praying Mantis in retaliation for Tehran planting naval mines in the Persian Gulf — one which exploded and nearly sank the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts.
Tehran correctly discerned that challenging the U.S. Navy at sea on America’s terms, which favors large and heavily-armed vessels, would be doomed to fail.
Fortunately for Iran, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman provide an 1,100-mile-long coastline with plenty of launching pads for gun- and missile-boat swarms. These boats can also threaten the strategic Strait of Hormuz, where around 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through on container ships.
Iran possesses a fleet of small boats optimized for this kind of war. Basically, the idea is to launch them from many different places at once, and as the swarm converges on their targets, they confuse and overwhelm them.
Swarms have some disadvantages. While some of Iran’s boats (many of them glorified speedboats) can carry anti-ship missiles, the vessels’ meager size means they cannot carry sophisticated target acquisition radars.
As a predictable result, the boats must come relatively close to secure a high probability of scoring a hit. In any case, most of Iran’s fast-attack boats do not carry anti-ship missiles but rockets and torpedoes, which means they must get close anyways.
The problem is that getting close means coming within range of those heavily-armed American ships. The U.S. Cyclone-class patrol boats such as Tempest and Squall bristle with .50-caliber machine guns, anti-ship missiles, Mark 38 autocannons and Mark 19 grenade launchers.
If the Cyclones’ crews wanted to, they could have made quick work of the Iranian vessels.
However, it’s not that easy for the U.S. Navy. Even at long-range and accounting for the Iranian navy’s poor sensors, they can still mass in large numbers and present a major tactical problem.
America’s anti-ship missiles are also a grossly inefficient response to small, cheap boats — which, like a swarm of insects, can still bite even if you swat back as much as you can.
The Navy should further expect Iran to send surveillance boats to get close and pinpoint targets before transmitting the data to other vessels armed with ship-killing missiles. “Countering fast attack craft, that’s really the niche where the Navy’s got this capability gap,” Paul Daniels of Raytheon Missile Systems told Breaking Defense. “Right now there’s no way to stand off and shoot them first before they shoot you.”
It only takes a single missile — or torpedo — to score a hit and disable or sink a warship. No wonder the U.S. Navy is on a hair trigger.