6 April 2010
Everyone has heard of gunboat diplomacy, but what of speedboat diplomacy? An instance of speedboat diplomacy is playing itself out as we speak, and it offers us some interesting insights. I never would have thought of a speedboat as sensitive technology that the military establishment would try to restrict, but this is the case in fact. The Bradstone Challenger, a one-off speedboat built with the assistance of a US defense contractor and which holds the speed record for circumnavigating Britain in 2005, is on its way to Iran despite the efforts of the US and UK to keep it out of their hands. But, apparently, not very strenuous efforts.
In an article in the Financial Times, Iran-bound powerboat raises fears, the journey of the Bradstone Challenger from the plaything of British adventurer Neil McGrigor to sensitive military asset is detailed. The story has since been repeated, for example, Iran speedboat threatens U.S. carrier? on the Space Daily website, drawing from the FT story.
When I first heard the story it struck me as odd that a speedboat would be the focus of international intrigue, but it seems that the Bradstone Challenger (also called the Bladerunner 51) was more in the way of a prototype than a production line model, though it now seems to be in limited production. The defense contractor involved in its construction, Navatek, is reportedly building a naval version of the boat. The Iranians are said to be interested in the advanced hull design — an Air Entrapment Monohull (AEM) — the work of naval architect Lorne Campbell and built by ICE Marine.
The ICE Marine website has the following to say about the Bladerunner 51:
The all new Bladerunner 51 is the current flagship model to the Bladerunner Series. Powered by twin 1000hp Caterpillar C18 inboard engines combined with a pair of Arneson surface drives, with a top speed in excess of 65 knots (74 mph) in full leisure format, the all new Bladerunner 51 is one of the fastest luxury high performance sports cruisers in production in the world today. In late 2005, this remarkable boat smashed the Round Britain World Record in an astonishing 27hrs and 10mins at an average speed of 63.5mph, proving its astounding offshore capabilities.
The Navatek website had this to say about the Bladerunner 51 Patrol Boat:
Navatek’s Bladerunner-51 ALB Patrol Boat incorporates two advanced technologies — a 51-foot, Bladerunner entrapment tunnel monohull (ETM) hull form licensed from Navatek development partner ICE Marine (UK); and twin Navatek aft lifting bodies (ALB). ICE Marine pioneered Bladerunner technology starting in 1975, and has built 34-foot sport/recreational boats. In 2003, Navatek teamed with ICE Marine to develop commercial and military craft incorporating Bladerunner technology. These include the BR-35 “Mosquito” RIB interdiction/boarding boat; and the BR-51 hull form. In Aug. 2005, a sports version of the BR-51, the Bradstone Challenger, set a new Round-Britain world speed record, circumnavigating the isle of Britain in 27 hours and ten minutes, including five refueling stops, while averaging over 62 mph to smash the existing record by almost four hours. It has been tested to speeds of greater than 70 knots. Navatek subsequently developed a military version of the BR-51 using the same hull mould.
Thus we see that this isn’t just another speedboat, but an advanced design that has been incrementally improved (according to its designer) since first conceived in 1974. A robust naval version of the boat would be an asset to any of the world’s navies.
I wrote to the naval architect responsible for the design, Lorne Campbell, to ask him about what would be involved in copying the design, and he responded as follows:
In theory the craft, being of composite FRP construction, is relatively easy to copy; a mould just has to be taken from it. In practice it is a complicated set of moulds and inaccuracies will result in poor performance. We believe that the hull shape is an advance in the art of high speed powerboat design but we have developed the concept since the Bradstone Challenger and will continue to do so.
Mr. Campbell gave me permission to quote him here, and he also added, “…it will obviously be very galling if the design is a), copied without payment of a license fee and b), used in an aggressive manner against us.” I suspect that in this case it would be somewhat difficult to successfully pursue intellectual property rights. However, Iran is in the process of accession to the WTO, against repeated objections in the US, and may ultimately pay licensing fees even where practically unenforceable in order not to prejudice the accession process. If the Iranians do not pay licensing fees for the design, if would certainly be in the interests of Lorne Campbell Designs to bring this to the attention of the WTO during the accession process, and I can’t imagine that this would be overlooked by those who have worked to keep Iran out of the WTO.
Given that Iran possesses a technological and industrial infrastructure equal to the task of being on the cusp of producing nuclear weapons, it should not be beyond the capacity of Iranian industrial expertise to design a good patrol boat of their own, but it is almost certainly cheaper to buy an advanced design outright than to develop it oneself. Probably the Iranians could, with less controversy, purchase one of the less advanced models and do their own refinements after testing and proving, but, again, if the advanced model can be had for cash, there’s no reason not to cut to the chase. Iranian persistence and perseverance have served them well in this instance.
Several stories on the Iranian purchase featured the concern that the Iranians would arm the boats with high speed torpedoes, making them a threat to warships and carriers, and also suggesting the possibility that, in a conflict, Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz and thus interrupt the flow of 40 percent of the world’s oil that passes through the Strait on tanker ships.
While there are reasons to be skeptical that a speedboat with torpedoes could take on a carrier battle group, there are also reasons to be concerned. Ever since the small and inexpensive French Exocet missile sunk the HMS Sheffield on 04 May 1982 during the Falklands War (to be more accurate, the ship was hit on the 4th and sank on the 10th), it has been obvious that large and expensive warships, crewed with hundreds if not thousands of sailors, are vulnerable to relatively cheap counter-measures. While the Reagan-era defense build up took battleships out of mothballs, not least for the prestige of the Navy, the other side of the prestige of an enormous battleship is the devastation to public morale when something so formidable is destroyed in seconds by a missile with massive loss of life. It’s a David and Goliath moment.
None of this is new. The Soviets focused on creating supersonic missiles (the P-270 Moskit) and torpedoes (the VA-111 Shkval) to counter US technological superiority that was often installed on vulnerable platforms. It is a lot cheaper and quicker to develop a supersonic missile or torpedo, and one can field a great many more of them, than to build a supersonic fighter or a carrier battle group. This equation still holds true. The FT story quoted Craig Hooper, a San Francisco-based naval strategist, as saying, “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.” Yet a sufficient number of small, fast boats launching a sufficient number of supersonic torpedoes could be a very serious threat to a carrier battle group. Only one torpedo would have to get through in order to cause enormous damage. The odds are on the side with the greatest numbers.
Large and expensive weapons systems will continue to be vulnerable to (relatively) small, fast, and cheap counter-measures. In so far as these counter-measures can be pushed to the limits of their development, they could prove to be a formidable force. The Bradstone Challenger now on its way to Iran could help the Iranians to push the limits of the development of such counter-measures. Coupled with late Soviet technology, already dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s and therefore increasingly available with the passage of time (as well as open to improvements by retrofitting with more recent technology), this is a counter-measure that no navy with vulnerable assets could afford to ignore.
The story in the Financial Times also included this interesting bit:
The US commerce department’s Bureau of Industry and Security asked South African authorities to block the transfer. It voiced concern that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards intended to use the boat as a “fast attack craft”. The bureau noted that similar vessels had been armed with “torpedoes, rocket launchers and anti-ship missiles” with the aim of “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats”.
This was of particular interest to me, as I briefly discussed swarming tactics in The Power of Mobile Fire.
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I have elaborated some of the ideas mentioned above regarding swarming and small boat tactics in The Swarming Attack.
I have written more about some of the above concerns in Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical?
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