Ships are vulnerable: post strike image of a destroyer target hit by an AGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile during trials. The Harpoon, with a larger warhead, is more lethal than the Exocet.

Earlier in Speedboat Diplomacy and Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept I discussed the possibility of asymmetrical attacks against a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and especially the possibility of a swarming attack by small boats. That carriers are vulnerable due to their size and in spite of their elaborate defenses I take to be proved by the ability of both Japanese and American forces being able to disable carriers in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.

Having thought about this, I think I can formulate my point more concisely: if one rejects the proof of concept of the vulnerability of a carrier, one must show that there have been revolutionary, game-changing developments since the sinking of carriers during WWII and the sinking of the Sheffield during the Falkland’s War. It could be argued that automated and computerized “smart” weapons constitute a revolutionary development. The next question is this: If automation technology constitutes a revolutionary development in weaponry, does it favor the attack or the defense? Does it favor conventional forces or unconventional forces? Does it favor symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare? The machine gun and barbed wire favored the defense; tanks favored the attack. The answer is different for different technological developments. However, I’m not going to go any further into these intrinsically interesting questions at the present moment.

In previous posts I’ve cited Craig Hooper’s Next Navy blog and Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog, both of which have covered the topic. More recently I noticed a short piece on Thomas Barnett’s blog, The long and the short of the U.S.-Iran naval showdown. Barnett writes:

“…anybody who sends a US carrier to the bottom has a bigger problem than the resulting bragging rights…”


“…if we admit, there’s [sic] plenty of realistic ways, for somebody who’s really committed, to sink a US carrier. But again, that ain’t the problem. The problem is what America would do next.”


“ANYBODY can sucker punch us at any time. It’s what comes next that matters.”

A comment by Joe K. on Mike Burleson’s Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2 made a similar point:

“There’s so much focus on the attack and not enough on the context… We have boots on the ground East and West of them, a naval force in and near the Persian Gulf, significant airpower, and several allies in the region (some of which we have been arming, i.e. Saudi Arabia) with aircraft that can fly transcontinental. Not to mention the local populace is not so keen on their own government.”

As these observations highlight, we must situate the sinking or disabling of a carrier, or the disruption of a CSG, in military and political context. What is the relevant political context of an asymmetrical strike against US naval forces? This depends upon the theater of operations, and the moment of the attack, of course. It also depends on the character of the asymmetrical attack. If we define an asymmetrical threat as anything other than a conventional engagement between conventional forces, like battles between carrier task forces in the Pacific theater of WWII, then anything that happens is going to be asymmetrical because there are no symmetrical matches to US naval power in the world today. Thus “asymmetrical” describes a spectrum of threats, each of which might be significantly different in weapons and tactics than any other. Nevertheless, some general observations can be made.

To discuss the military, political, and diplomatic context of a strike against US forces is essentially to discuss rules of engagement (ROE) and escalation. US forces on patrol will be under particular rules of engagement that will govern immediate response to an attack. The 1999 Marine Corps Close Combat Manual defines ROE as a “Continuum of Force” which is broken down into five (5) levels from “compliant” to “assaultive.” The nature of the individual naval mission will determine specific ROE, and this will be based on certain expectations. Ultimately, given that the US chain of command ends at a civilian Commander-in-Chief, the ROE will reflect diplomatic and political concerns as much as military concerns. The very fact that US forces are on patrol already points to the fact that political leaders have determined that a US show of force in the region in question might achieve certain political ends. As we know from the famous Clausewitz aphorism, the military and the political cannot be separated: each is an extension of the other.

Thus I take it that the military-political continuum of interests that governs ROE is a further and concrete extension of the idea of escalation, so ultimately we must focus on escalation in a political and diplomatic context. This is a large task, and a complete treatment of it would need to be based on a review of history and a consideration of game theory. I won’t attempt any of that here. I will simply focus on the obvious responses to Thomas Barnett’s question: “What will America do next?”

The spectrum of ROE and the spectrum of military-political-diplomatic continua mirror the possible spectrum of asymmetrical attacks. Any attackers would have many options, and the US would have many options of retaliation and escalation. When Al Qaeda, sheltered by Afghanistan, sponsored the September 11 attacks, the US simply eliminated the government of Afghanistan. This is a robust response, but also a problematic one because eliminating one regime means installing another in its place, and this means a political commitment that might have to be measured in decades. The stakes must be high in order to mount such a first step on the escalation ladder when other options are available.

The response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.

Since we’ve already discussed the possibility of Iranian swarm attacks by small boats in the Persian Gulf, let’s continue this theme with a quote from Worst Enemy, by John Arquilla (a book brought to my attention by Mike Burleson’s New Wars):

“The Iranians, who have clearly concentrated on building a substantial body of light coastal forces, appear to have rejected tele-operated vessels in favor of creating a swarm of manned craft, whose one- or two-person crews would simply sacrifice themselves in kamikaze attacks.” (p. 79)

Some of the comments on the New Wars blog also returned to the idea of a suicide swarm scenario, but a swarm need not be a suicide swarm. In fact, this observation is the ground of a distinction between suicide swarms and non-suicide swarms. We cannot assume that a swarm will focus on suicide attacks, though we must reckon with the possibility. Similarly, the goal need not be sinking a carrier. In some cases, simply harassing a CSG so that it is somewhat tied down and unable to devote its resources to other matters might be sufficient to the military-political ends of those ordering such a swarming diversion. In a diversion, there would be less motivation for suicide attacks, and one would suppose the that attacker would wish to preserve the lives of his trained and skilled forces.

With this in mind, imagine a scenario like this: a CSG is attacked by a swarming mass of small boats under cover of radar-confusing chaff. Their mobility and maneuverability, in addition to the cover from CIWS, would limit their losses. Such a swarm could come and go, harassing a CSG at will. A mothership or motherships at a relatively safe distance could increase the range of the power projection of such a swarm.

How might a nation-state such as Iran employ such a swarm, and how might the Navy and the US respond to it? Would a harassing swarm attack rise to the threat level that would justify substantial escalation? I think not. Certainly during an engagement US forces would do as much damage as they could to the swarm, but they would be as unlikely to eliminate it as an individual is unlikely to eliminate a swarm of mosquitoes by slapping those that land on one’s skin and insert their proboscis. Such a weapon might be used repeatedly. Its repeated use would allow swarming crews to gain valuable experience, and would allow military thinkers to formulate an effective doctrine for their employment.

Would the US want to send in a second or third CSG if one CSG has been attacked or harassed by a swarm? Would this show of force intimidate the enemy, or would the world media spin it so that more and more US forces were being “tied down” by a few small boats? As I noted before, this can become a David and Goliath moment. There might also be the perception that one CSG couldn’t defend itself and needed help. This could be potentially damaging to prestige.

Such a weapons system need not exclusively target other military forces. One of the concerns with Iran is that it might close down the Strait of Hormuz. But thinking in terms of closing the Strait of Hormuz is like thinking in terms of sinking a carrier. We need not take the enemy’s flag in order to change the enemy’s behavior, or even to win the battle of popular opinion in the media. A swarming weapons system with an appropriately formulated doctrine could temporarily halt transit of the Strait of Hormuz, or slow down transit of the Strait for extended periods of time. It would take very little restriction or slow down in order to dramatically affect oil prices and worldwide economic performance in the short term. Such actions could plausibly trigger a recession, and a recession could trigger a political change. I am sure that no one has forgotten the lesson of March 11 in Spain and the consequent fall of the Aznar government.

Escalation can be like the proverbial frog in a pan of water slowly brought to a boil: the transition is so gradual that the frog doesn’t jump out. Escalation is a political calculation, and political calculations can be successful, or they can go terribly wrong. At present, “going terribly wrong” could mean losing a carrier or losing one’s swarm. In the longer term, “terribly wrong” could mean something much worse.

Since the initial use of nuclear weapons against Japan, the actual use, especially the tactical use, of nuclear devices became unthinkable, and nuclear weapons have been thought of exclusively as strategic weapons. A clear distinction was made between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare, and, moreover, every effort was made to avoid any crisis escalating to a nuclear exchange due to mutually assured destruction (MAD). In the long term, it is inevitable that the rungs on the ladder of escalation will be more gradual and the black-and-white distinction between conventional and nuclear war will become gray through both the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially small devices, and the continuing improvement of conventional weapons. I have already mentioned the Russian so-called “Father of all bombs,” a thermobaric conventional device based on nano-technology that can have a yield equivalent to small nuclear devices. Such weaponry is not yet widespread, but our calculation of escalation in the future will have to take account of such developments. All weapons systems eventually proliferate.

I suggested previously that a thermobaric warhead on a supersonic torpedo or missile would make a good weapon for disabling a carrier. Suppose this technology develops to the point that a relatively small package or delivery system (something that could be mounted on a speedboat, for instance) could deliver the equivalent of a kiloton on target (keep in mind that the original Moskit P-270 was configured for a nuclear warhead, so we see once again a smooth gradation from the conventional to the nuclear). There is much yet to be expected from nano-technology, and I don’t think this is an over-optimistic suggestion. In fact, it is possible today, though not widely available. The sight of a mushroom cloud rising over a carrier would almost certainly galvanize the US public for a robust, regime-changing response. But the gradual transition to such a catastrophic scenario will be much more subtle and problematic. A range of responses will be required for a range of threats and actions.

The lesson to remember at all times is that there are options available to both attack and defense, and for this reason one cannot become overly-wedded to a single scenario. The enemy gets a vote, and each side is the enemy of the other.

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Note added Wednesday 25 February 2015: Today in a provocative military exercise called ‘Payambar-e Azam 9’ (The Great Prophet 9), the IRGC blew up a model of a US carrier. While I was not able to find images of this on the IRNA site, there are pictures on the TIME website in Iran Blows Up Replica U.S. Warship During Defense Drill (this item was brought to my attention by the new CSIS evening newsletter edited by H. Andrew Schwartz).

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Russian made 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Speedboat Diplomacy

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.

From the Navatek website: a Bladerunner 51 adapted as a patrol boat.

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.

The presence of Iran dominates the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

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.

From the Navatek website: illustration of the Bladerunner 51 hull design.

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.

The Strait of Hormuz: choke-point for some forty percent of the world's oil transported by tanker ships in transit from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

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.

The HMS Sheffield burning after being hit by a French-made exocet missile.

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.

Late Soviet military technology: the VA-111 Shkval supersonic torpedo, still a formidable counter-measure to large, expensive ships.

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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A picture of the Bladerunner 51 from the ICE Marine website.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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