Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical?

28 July 2010


Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog brought my attention to an interesting post on Craig Hooper’s Next Navy blog, regarding the ongoing saga of the Iranian acquisition of the Bradstone Challenger, which I wrote about last April in Speedboat Diplomacy. In his In Press: Discussing the small boat menace and the illicit international arms trade on the BBC, Craig Hooper recounts how he was interviewed by the BBC’s File on 4 regarding several issues of naval concern, though the segment of the interview that ultimately aired concerned the Bradstone Challenger.

Hooper’s interpretation of the events surrounding the acquisition of the Bradstone Challenger is that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps wants publicity and wants to be known as the baddest of the bad, and that they purposefully went about acquiring the Bradstone Challenger in such as way as was likely to garner the attention of the international press (which it did), thus enhancing their reputation and mystique.

Hooper writes:

For the Revolutionary Guard, the value of the Bradstone Challenger seems to have depended upon the vessel’s ability to boost the global perception of the platform as a potential threat. I feel like this is something of a bluff–-The moment the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is not seen as the toughest bunch around, that group is going to encounter problems-–both at home and in the Gulf.

In other words, Hooper’s interpretation of the events surrounding the spectacularly surreptitious acquisition of the Bradstone Challenger through South Africa is that the idea of Iran armed with such a unique platform is itself a deterrent. Again in other words, the Bradstone Challenger — and, by implication, the whole idea of small boat swarms putting out to the Strait of Hormuz, as in Iran’s Great Prophet 5 exercises — is a strategic gambit. Or, if you prefer a more cautious formulation, it is primarily a strategic gambit, and only secondarily a weapons system intended for actual tactical engagement with enemy forces.

Hooper makes several further points, including the distinction between acquiring the overall technology that would be needed to produce significant numbers of high performance small boats vs. the focus on high profile single boats, and especially the possibility of miscalculation that arises from the growing presence of small fast boats “bolstered by military, smuggler and luxury-oriented markets.” This focus on the potential problems of miscalculation leads Hooper to de-emphasize the whole role of Iran in the discussion and to see catastrophic misunderstandings elsewhere as small boats, “become operationally viable in weather and conditions that challenge even the best, most seasoned maritime surveillance assets.”

While I would not want to be the nay-sayer in considering the larger political context of the acquisition of the Bradstone Challenger, as Hooper has done, I nevertheless find that I cannot agree with Hooper that “An accidental dust-up near Gibraltar would do far more damage to the West than the Iranian Revolutionary Guard could ever hope to achieve,” nor do I think that NATO or the US-UK alliance would be seriously damaged or even compromised by such an accident. Fratricide is a fact of war. It is also a fact of peacetime training accidents. If the North Koreans can sink the Cheonan and enjoy complete impunity, without so much as a slap on the wrist, I can’t imagine an accident among friendly forces (or, at least, putatively friendly forces) with smaller assets suddenly bringing on an international incident that threatens the mission or force cohesion of NATO.

As I see it, the big question is not that of miscalculation (of the sort that worries Hooper) or of catastrophic accidents, but the question of whether small boat swarms should be considered strategic or tactical weapons systems. Does one go to the trouble of assembling a small boat flotilla and engaging in exercises only to “send a message”? Is the small boat swarm Iran’s equivalent of SDI? That is to say, is it merely a nice idea that can be used as an idea — used as a threat and as a bargaining chip in international diplomacy — but unlikely to be effective in actual use?

Clearly it has emerged from the extensive discussion on the topic that Iran has explicitly formulated a small boat swarm doctrine and has conducted exercises. Whether or not this too is the diplomatic equivalent of performance art is an open question. A large military exercise can serve a purpose not unlike a large military parade, like a Cold War May Day in Red Square with ICBMs on trucks rumbling past as the geriatric Soviet leadership waved and the Kremlinologists read their positions on Lenin’s Mausoleum like tea leaves indicating unseen realities.

At any stage in the design, development, construction, training with, and operations of a weapons system we can make the case that the justification for the weapons system is strategic rather than tactical, and, if we want to be really reckless, we can dismiss its tactical threat as illusory — up until a battle. When a weapons system is deployed in battle, its purported tactical advantages are either revealed as illusory or shown to have some validity of some degree. And since one (usually) does not know exactly what weapons systems the enemy is going to field, other than through observation of preparations, one prepares for as many possibilities as one can conceive. Therefore the development, construction, training with, and operations of a weapons system by an enemy power must be the occasion of the development of counter-measures and doctrinal innovations intended to address the potentially novel threat.

Of course, all of this is going on as we speak in regard to small boat swarms, as Iran develops the weapons system and the US engages in its own exercises intended development counter-measures for small boat swarms. This is exactly what any rational agent would expect, and this is exactly what is happening.

It is also rational, if indeed not actually predictable, that Iran would pursue such a weapons system. It does not have the resources even to seek regional parity with US forces. It does not have the resources to build a single carrier strike group. Because it cannot reasonably seek parity, however, does not mean that Iran meekly cedes the field without a fight. Iran is developing a small boat swarm weapons system simply because that is what it can do.

Just as no political entity in the world today (whether nation-state or non-state actor) can compete symmetrically with the US when it comes to signals intelligence, so too no political entity in the world today can compete symmetrically with the US when it comes to big sexy weapons systems. No other political entity in the world has the resources — capital, industrial plant, technology, and expertise — either to build (or to operate) the signals intelligence network possessed by the US or to build the vast weapons systems fielded by the US. But when a rival cannot compete symmetrically, they do not for that reason simply abandon the competition; rather, they compete asymmetrically. The unclassified DOD report on the military power of Iran from April 2010 explicitly states that, “Iran’s principles of military strategy include deterrence, asymmetrical retaliation, and attrition warfare.”

The fundamental asymmetry that holds between what we may called distributed weapons systems (which, compared to the familiar alternative of concentrated and hierarchical weapons systems, involve a devolution of combat power to the smallest possible unit of operations) and what we may call comprehensive weapons systems that aspire to totality is that the distributed weapons system is likely to suffer harm, but unlikely to experience catastrophic failure, whereas the comprehensive weapons system is unlikely to suffer harm, but if it does suffer harm it is likely that its failure will be correspondingly catastrophic, comprehensive, and total.

This fundamental asymmetry has two important consequences: 1) a distributed weapons system possesses a unique degree of survivability, with the ancient military axiom that “he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day” being true in spades for distributed weapons systems, and 2) the survivability of distributed weapons systems coupled with the vulnerability of comprehensive weapons systems to catastrophic failure and total loss means that the former can return to the latter time and again in a quest to fulfill its combat mission. Iterated engagements of these two distinctively conceived weapons systems — the distributed and the comprehensive — favors the distributed over the long term.

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I am in the process of writing a couple of more extensive posts on swarms and swarming tactics, though this is taking longer than I expected or intended. As always happens, the more one digs, the more one finds, and interesting ideas emerge from the systematic exposition of what initially seemed like a simple idea. Any simple idea put into practice in a complex world rapidly becomes a complex idea.

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