Swarms, Drones, and Decoys

14 October 2013


The Escalation of Integration

in Combined Arms Operations

In separate posts that made no attempt at a comprehensive treatment I have written about the past, present, and possible future military use of swarms, drones, and decoys. I realize now that a tactical doctrine that could integrate swarm, drone, and decoy weapons systems and their tactics would be a powerful conceptual tool for future combat scenarios, and possibly also would point the way to an extended conception of combined arms operations that transcends that concept as it is known today.

If the reader is familiar with some of my other posts, you may be aware that I have some interest in what I call extended conceptions and have written about them on several occasions, most specifically in relation to an extended conception of ecology that I call metaphysical ecology and an extended conception of history that I call metaphysical history. You can readily understand, then, the intrinsic interest that I find in an extended conception of combined arms operations. From a philosophical point of view, we have an intellectual obligation to push our ideas to the very limit of their coherency and applicability to order to explore their outermost possibilities. That is what I have suggested (or attempted to suggest) in relation to ecology and history, and that is what I am suggesting here. But even a sketch of an extended conception of warfare — call it metaphysical warfare, if you like — would be beyond the parameters of a blog post, so at the present moment I will confine myself to mostly practical consequences for combined arms operations in the light of an extended conception of warfare, but I hope to return to this topic in more detail later. In fact, I hope someday to literally write the book on metaphysical warfare, but that remains a project for the future.

One of the distinctive aspects of combined arms operations is to recognize both the individual strengths and weaknesses of a given weapons system and its particular doctrine of employment in the battlespace and to integrate individual weapons systems in their doctrinal context with other weapons systems that can, in combination, uniquely facilitate the strengths of a given weapons system while compensating (to the degree possible) for the weaknesses of the same. This is a principle that admits of generalization both to smaller scales and to larger scales. It brings a certain unity to our conception of combined arms warfare when we can see this single principle expressed at different orders of magnitude in space and time.

An illustration of what I mean by combined arms warfare “expressed at different orders of magnitude in space and time” (and, I might add, integrated within and across different orders of magnitude, diachronically and synchronically) can be seen at the microscopic level with the trend toward integrated avionics in the F-22 and F-35A, which seamlessly bring together mission systems and vehicle systems in a tightly integrated package — this is combined arms (better, integrated arms) within a single weapons system. At the macroscopic level, combined arms warfare goes beyond the integration of many distinct weapons systems and naturally seeks the integration of distinct forces — this is usually called “inter-operability” — so that inter-service rivalries and differences in training, doctrine, and tactics among the services of one nation-state (in the case of the US, this means Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard) and among multi-national forces do not become obstacles to unity of command and clarity of the objective.

Neil Warner provides a clear definition of inter-operability that illustrates this macroscopic sale of combined arms that converges on the interoperability of distinct forces:

“Interoperability can be defined as the ability of systems, units or forces to provide to and accept services from other systems, units or forces and to use the services so exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together. Interoperability cannot solely be thought of on an information system level, but must include doctrine, people, procedures and training.”

Neil Warner, ADI Limited, Interoperability – An Australian View, 7th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium

Given the realities of interservice rivalries and the disproportionate control that each service may have over particular classes of weapons systems (e.g., the Air Force has more jets than the Navy, but the Navy still does have jets), ideal interoperability must not only integrate the forces of distinct nation-states but also the various forces of a single nation-state.

Between the polar extremes of microscopic integration of individual weapons systems and the macroscopic integration of entire armed forces there lies the middle ground, which is what most people mean when they talk about combined arms operations — the integration of soldiers on the ground with man-portable systems, mobile fire, armored assets, air assets and so on in a single battleplan in which all act in concert under a unified command to achieve a clearly defined objective.

Combined arms operations are as old as warfare, which is in turn as old as civilization. The most famous examples of combined arms operations were those of mobile mechanized units with close air support that came of age during the Second World War and which are still the basis of military doctrine in our time. Rapid technological advances in weapons systems in recent decades, however, points toward a new era of combined arms operations.

In terms of air power, we are all aware of the rapid success of drones both for surveillance and combat roles, there have been many recent discussions of swarm warfare (something I have attempted to contribute to myself in The Swarming Attack), and decoys are, like combined arms operations, as old as war itself. I think that these three elements — swarms, drones, and decoys — will come together in a very power way in future military operations. Drones are more effective when sent out in swarms and accompanied by decoys to increase the numbers of the swarm; decoys are more effective when accompanied by drones and flying in a swarm; swarms are more effective when they combine drones and delays into an indistinguishable whole that descends upon an enemy like a plague of locusts.

Already we have seen the utility of drones, and many have forecast that the F-35 will be the last generation of human-piloted fighter aircraft. Just recently, an F-16 was fitted out as a drone and was flown without a pilot. It ought be possible, in theory, to do exactly the same thing with an F-22 or an F-35. Drone warfare is not something that is coming soon; it is here now. But drones are vulnerable (as are all pieces of hardware), and the best drones are expensive and complex pieces of equipment. It would make sense to deploy a few expensive drones with offensive capabilities with a much larger number of cheaper drones that would be indistinguishable from the drones with offensive capabilities. A few combat capable drones together with a much larger number of decoys would constitute a swarm of drones and decoys, and a swarm has combat advantages of its own that would make this combined arms weapons system of drones and decoys all the more powerful.

Combined arms operations of swarms, drones, and decoys need not be limited to air assets. Most of the considerations above I mentioned in relation to aerial swarms, drones, and decoys are equally true for naval swarms, drones, and decoys — something that I discussed in Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical? and Flying Boat Swarms? Recent reports have also discussed the DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which includes a variety of distinct robots for land-based warfare (cf. Pentagon-funded Atlas robot refuses to be knocked over by Matthew Wall, Technology reporter, BBC News) including both two- and four-legged robots, some built to carry heavy loads and others built for speed. Land-based robots could also be deployed according to the combined arms principles of swarms, drones, and decoys.

While the robotization of warfare — drone aircraft, drone naval vessels (both surface and subsurface), self-driving vehicles, robots on two legs and four legs — presents significant opportunities for the most technologically advanced nation-states, their deployment would require a highly robust control architecture, without which unity of command would be impossible. The growing acronyms to describe the kind of control architecture necessary to automated combined arms operations have gone from command and control to command, control, and computers to C4 to C4I to C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). What this culminates in is now called the networked battlespace or netcentric warfare (something that I discussed in Epistemological Warfare).

Future wars will always be parallel wars, with one war being prosecuted in the actual battlespace and another war being prosecuted in parallel in the virtual battlespace (i.e., cyberwarfare or netcentric warfare). There has always been a parallel prosecution of wars on the homefront and on the front line, with the homefront being a war of propaganda, information, and ideology, while the front line is a war of men and machines thrown up against each other.

The opening of a virtual front is closely analogous to the advent of air power, which added the need for command of the air to the already familiar need of command of the ground and command of the seas. Douhet’s visionary treatise, The Command of the Air, set this out in astonishing prescience. It is impossible for me to read Douhet without being impressed by his clarity of vision of the future. This is a rare ability. And yet we know that by the time of the Second War War (and even more so today) the command of the air is not merely another front: command of the air is central to warfare as we know it today.

The fact that I wrote that it would be the virtual battlespace that hosts a parallel fight betrays my now-archaic point of view: the primary battle may well be in the virtual battlespace, while the actual combat in the actual battlespace is that which is fought in parallel. A first strike could come in the virtual battlespace; an ambush could come in the virtual battlespace; a war of attrition could be fought in the virtual battlespace. Command of cyberspace may prove to be as central to future warfare as command of the air is to contemporary warfare. This introduces yet another conception of integrated warfare: the integration of actual and virtual battlespaces.

Each party to a conflict will see to secure its own C4ISR capabilities while compromising the C4ISR capabilities of its adversary or adversaries. Each will develop its own strategies, tactics, and doctrines for this new front, and it is to be expected that in the attempt to overwhelm the enemy’s computer and communications systems that we will see that electronic equivalent of B. H. Liddel-Hart’s “expanding torrent” in cyberspace seeking the disruption of enemy computer networks.

It may be taken as axiomatic that computing power is finite. Although the upper bound of computing systems is not known, and may not be known, the fact that there is an upper limit is known. (I will observe that this is a non-constructive assertion, which demonstrates that non-constructivist thought is not abstruse but often has a direct applicability to experience.) A finite computing system can be overwhelmed. If a system is 99% effect, a swarm of a total of 100 drones and decoys may result in one getting through; if a system is 99.9 % effective, a swarm of 1,000 may result in getting through, etc. If you know the limitations of your enemy’s targeting computers, you can defeat them numerically.

In many cases, the operational parameters of a computerized targeting system may be known, or can be estimated with a high degree of accuracy. Continuous improvements in technology will continuously augment the parameters of updated or newly designed computerized targeting systems, but even the latest and greatest technology will remain finite. This finitude is a vulnerability that can be exploited. In fact, Leibniz defined metaphysical evil in terms of finitude. We can to better than a definition, however: we can quantify the metaphysical evil (i.e., the finitude) of a weapons system. More importantly — and this is one of those rare cases in which comparative concepts may be more significant than quantitative concepts — we can introduce comparative measures of finitude. If one party to a conflict can simply get the better of its adversary in a comparative measure of computing finitude, they will win the C4ISR battle, though that does not yet guarantee a win on parallel fronts, much less winning the war.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Consequences of the 1993 bombing masterminded by Ramzi Yousef.

Some time ago (probably on PBS’s Frontline, but I can’t find the reference now) I saw an interview with a law enforcement official who was escorting Ramzi Yousef, responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to a legal proceeding. They were in a helicopter in New York City in view of the World Trade Center. The official pointed to the twin towers and said, “They’re still standing.” Yousef replied that they wouldn’t be standing if he had had more money.

I found another version of this story at CNN, recounted by CNN correspondent Brian Todd:

In the book, The Looming Tower, author Lawrence Wright says: “When Yousef was captured in the mid-’90s, brought to New York and flown in a helicopter by the World Trade Center, one agent said, “You see, it’s still standing.” And Yousef replied, “It wouldn’t be if we had more money.”

From what I have read about Yousef, he wanted to be remembered as being the man who brought down the World Trade Center Towers. He tried and failed, and the title ultimately went to others. The point here is that, quite apart from the ideological views that may inspire the chosen target, men can take personal pride in a difficult accomplishment, can indeed aspire to such an accomplishment, however incomprehensible it may seem to others. The aspiration and the accomplishment become disconnected from the the ideological superstructure that inspired the task, and takes on a life of its own.

On the New Wars blog, Mike Burleson has written a three part series, Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? In the second of these installments, Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2, Burleson quoted a couple of paragraphs from my Speedboat Diplomacy and developed the theme.

Harry S. Truman Strike Group 10

Unparalleled and perhaps unprecedented (it could be argued that the 19th century British Navy was in a similar position of mastery) US mastery of the seas has created a World Trade Center-like center of gravity surrounding the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Such symbolic displays of force constitute an irresistible target and exercises a particular attraction (if not fascination) for the kind of people who want to be remembered for a famous (or notorious) exploits. We could call them evil geniuses or criminal masterminds, but it is not the evil or the criminality that is the motivation; these are, at most, “collateral.” What matters is the desire for honor and glory, and anyone who could engineer the sinking of a carrier would certainly accrue accolades in many quarters of the world, however much they would be cursed elsewhere. The more difficult the challenge, the greater the glory for having succeeded.

The Bismarck was an irresistible target; sinking it wasn't chance, it was inevitable.

Irresistible targets are not new. Germany’s Bismarck and Tirpitz and Japan’s Yamato and Musashi were built to be the biggest battleships ever. Enormous resources were invested in their construction and operation. Their mere existence was seen as a threat, and considerable resources were invested in destroying them. These ships took enormous punishment. The Musashi was hit by 10-19 torpedoes and 17 bombs. Martin J. Dougherty in his The World’s Worst Weapons calls these ships “a waste of resources” that were obsolete by the time they were built. This is at least arguable, but if it is arguable it is at least as likely to be true as false.

Any discussion of sinking a carrier must refer to the great carrier engagements of the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Although technology and weapons systems have changed, the verities that come into play in the circumstances of carrier battles, and the naval doctrine that expresses these verities, is not likely to have changed dramatically. I don’t say that it hasn’t changed at all, but that the changes are not likely to have been large or to address essentials. Changes in naval warfare involving carriers since the Second World War have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, contingent rather than essential.

Then, as now, carriers were deployed with several support vessels. During WWII, this was called a Carrier Task Force (CTF); today it is called a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), or, more recently, a Carrier Strike Group (CSG). These CTFs were as bristling with weaponry as the contemporary CSG, only less advanced than what we have today, and with many specialized functions represented today by Guided Missile Cruisers, Anti Aircraft Warships, and Anti Submarine Destroyers. The carrier, then as now, surrounded by its support vessels, was on watch for attack from below, beside, or above.

Japanese carrier Akagi

Some of the carriers of the great Pacific Theater engagements, like the battleships mentioned above, took enormous damage and still stayed afloat. Of the four Japanese carriers lost at the Battle of Midway — Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, and Hiryū — all were ultimately scuttled by Japanese torpedoes. However, the Akagi was disabled by a single 1,000 lb bomb from an SBD Dauntless, and all were rendered inoperable by enemy fire. Thus it is somewhat deceptive to speak of sinking a carrier. It would be better to focus on rendering a carrier incapable of fulfilling its designated role.

Japanese carrier Akagi

In recent discussions of sinking carriers, such as the three part series by Mike Burleson mentioned above, it is assumed that the US CSGs will maintain unquestioned air superiority, so that the only opportunity for another power is with ships, with the particular concern being a swarm of smaller ships coming at a CSG simultaneously from all points of the compass. These seem to me to be valid assumptions, though the possibility of cruise missiles launched from shore or ballistic missiles launched from further inland also need to be taken into account. The US Navy, of course, is well aware of this threat and has even conducted SWARMEX exercises to assess the threat and develop means of countering it.

Deck of the Yorktown, view taken forward after torpedo attack, US Navy (Bill Roy http://www.johngreavesart.ca/cv5.htm). The story of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) is one of the most extraordinary of the Pacific Theater, from being disabled during the Battle of the Coral Sea to ultimately being lost at Midway, though very nearly saved.

These recent discussions and exercises seem to diverge over the very possibility of anything getting through that could sink (or disable) a contemporary carrier. The reader-generated discussion of Mike Burleson’s second piece, commenting on my Speedboat Diplomacy (Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2), was particularly revealing in this respect. This begs a central question: what would count as proof of concept of sinking a contemporary carrier? Since carriers don’t act in a vacuum, but are part of both a structural context of a CSG as well as being part of a doctrinal context of established procedures of naval warfare, one can’t reasonably reduce the discussion to a single weapon or a single tactic. The operations of a CSG have become so complex that nothing short of a full battle would settle the question, and then the question would be settled only if a carrier was destroyed. If a carrier was not destroyed in an engagement, this would not prove that it wasn’t possible, only that it is difficult to do. Successive engagements, like successive scientific experiments by independent teams of researchers, would serve to increase the inductive knowledge we have of the situation but would not yield certainty.

Carriers can be and have been sunk: the USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the bottom, more than three miles down — deeper than the wrecks of the Titanic or Bismarck. Discovered in May 1998 by underwater explorer Robert Ballard.

Since I asserted above that nothing essential has changed since the CTFs of the Second World War engaged each other on a large scale, but rather that changes since then have been evolutionary in nature, I take it as proof of concept that a carrier can be sunk that carriers were in fact sunk at this time. Obviously, many were sunk (or fatally disabled) by the action of dive bombers, and there are no more specialized dive bombers. Also, there were no helicopters at that time, and no radar-guided Phalanx CIWS Gatling guns. This list can be extended almost indefinitely. And I have no doubt whatsoever that the world’s navies have learned the lessons of bombs and fueled aircraft on the flight deck and below decks burning and exploding, as happened so often with WWII carriers. But in the confusion of battle and the fog of war, with these enormous armed platforms surrounded by combat air patrols and destroyers and submarines, something still managed to get through.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, rationalist philosopher and big hair afficianado, understood that all sublunary things suffer from metaphysical evil, even apparently invulnerable military hardware. Indeed, the very fact of their armor is proof of the degree of their vulnerability.

Aircraft carriers, the CSGs of which they are part, and the doctrine by which they are employed, suffer from what Leibniz called metaphysical evil. In one of the few books he published in his lifetime, the Theodicy, Leibniz wrote, “Metaphysical evil consists in imperfections, physical evil in suffering and other like troubles, and moral evil in sin.” (I discussed metaphysical evil yesterday in Metaphysical Responsibility. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to inquire into what sense moral and physical evil might apply to non-sentient objects, but I will save this for another time.) Like everything else in this world, aircraft carriers necessarily suffer from limitations and imperfections. In so far as they are limited and imperfect, they are vulnerable. In so far as they are vulnerable, they invite attack. We cannot wish this away.

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

Given that most carriers lost in the Second World War were disabled by fires, and that the HMS Sheffield lost in the Falkland’s War was also lost to fire (the British claim that the warhead didn’t even explode), one obvious approach to targeting ships and carriers is to exploit this vulnerability to fire with modern technology. Much recent research on thermobaric weaponry has focused on bunker buster bombs and caves, but the interior of a ship’s hull is in some respects not unlike a cave. The Russians have built an enormous thermobaric bomb based on nanotechnology — the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP) — with a yield in the range of small nuclear weapons. This has obvious implications.

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

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a single supersonic cavitating torpedo with an armor-piercing head and a thermobaric charge could take a carrier out of action with a disabling fire below-decks. Throw a hundred of these in the water, and assuming that your counter-measures are 99 percent effective, only one will get through — but, as with the Akagi, sometimes one is enough. If it becomes a mere numbers game, like playing a single number on the roulette wheel, eventually your number comes up. This then ceases to be chance and becomes inevitable. Once we understand that it can be done, it becomes a question of how it is done and who does it. Enter creativity, ingenuity, and personal pride in accomplishment.

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I have written more, and in more detail, about aircraft carriers in The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier and The Political Context of Striking a Carrier.

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Note added Friday 06 March 2015: Recently 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). While this Iranian exercise was widely dismissed as a stunt, carrier vulnerability has been underlined by a recent exercise involving an updated and refitted carrier, as reported in French Submarine ‘Sinks’ Entire US Aircraft Carrier Group During Wargames. The article credits the French submarine with, “sneaking deep into the defensive screen of the Strike Group, avoiding detection by the American anti-submarine warfare assets, and, on the last day of the drill, ‘sinking’ the Roosevelt and most of its escort.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Swarming Attack

7 April 2010


A sufficient number of tanks massed in attack can transform the efficacy of mobile fire into a swarm.

Yesterday when I wrote about the Iranian acquisition of the high-performance speedboat Bradstone Challenger (in Speedboat Diplomacy) I also had occasion to review a post from last August, The Power of Mobile Fire, and in retrospect I now see, despite my satisfaction with the argument in the latter piece, its inadequacies. But even as I wrote it I knew that I would need to revisit the topic, for I merely mentioned the contribution of mobile fire to swarming attacks, but did not develop it there because I had only begun to think of it at that point.

The Apache helicopter gunship is one of the preeminent weapons of mobile fire of our time.

In yesterday’s piece I quoted the Financial Times article to the effect that armed patrol boats based upon the design of the Bradstone Challenger, might be used for, “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats.” This led me to reflect on what I had previously implied about swarming attacks and mobile fire.

The Lockheed AC-130 gunship is a fixed wing platform for mobile fire.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I wrote:

The most advanced weapons systems of our time are those of mobile fire: the helicopter gunship and the aircraft carrier. Precisely because these are the most advanced weapons systems of our time, technological marvels of unrivaled sophistication, they are subject to severe constraints …one of the distinctive features of effective mobile fire has been its mass deployment. This hasn’t been discussed in the above simply because I am not sure of how to formulate it, but mobile fire is like a swarm that engulfs an enemy…

It would be worthwhile to think a little more clearly and more systematically about mobile fire. It would not be difficult to calculate, for various weapons systems, what we might call a mobility quotient, which would take into account the weight (and therefore the inertia), top speed, acceleration and deceleration, time to execute a 180 degree turn (inversely proportional), number of crew required to operate (inversely proportional), and the number of dimensions in which the weapons system in question can operate. This wouldn’t take much research, but at the present moment it takes more time that I am going to invest today. But we can calculate a very rough mobility quotient for some obvious weapons systems by taking top speed multiplied by the number of dimensions in which a weapons system operates. This is limited and imperfect, but it will make a point.




in knots


of operation



M1 Abrams tank 36.50 2 73
Apache helicopter 148.00 3 444
Nimitz class carrier 30.00 2 60
armored Humvee 56.48 2 113
AC-130 gunship 260.00 3 780

Even a rough calculation of the mobility quotient of a weapons system reveals the differences that should be obvious even without any explicit analysis: an Apache helicopter gunship is far more mobile than a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The above rough method has obvious problems: the Apache can reverse its facing far more quickly than the AC-130, but the AC-130 has a higher top speed. That is why I said in the above the a more thorough calculation would take in additional factors like the ability to turn and acceleration. Also, a warship or a tank can bring its gun turrets to bear on a target without having to turn to face the target. But I’m sure you get the idea.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I identified aircraft carriers as mobile fire, and certainly to an extent carriers and warships are mobile on the seas, but there is a more important sense in which an aircraft carrier is a platform for mobile fire. True mobility on the water would be something like the craft that the US Bureau of Industry and Security warned that the Iranians would make by adapting the design of the Bradstone Challenger: 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”. By the above rough calculation, the Bradstone Challenger has a mobility quotient of 130, better than twice that of the carrier. We know that a small patrol boat would be crewed by just a few men, reducing response time to commands, and that it would turn far quicker than any carrier or warship. Thus a more sophisticated mobility quotient calculation would only show a greater disparity between the large ships and the small boats.

The next step is to go from mobile fire to a swarm of mobile fire, and this could also be rendered in a rough calculation such that mobility quotient multiplied by mass (in the sense used in military doctrine, not inertial mass) equals a swarm. That is to say, the mobile fire unit multiplied by a mass deployment equals a swarm of mobile fire. This is where a platform for mobile fire becomes important: an aircraft carrier is sufficiently large to carry sufficient numbers of mobile fire units to induce a mobile fire swarm. On land, an airbase would be a platform for mobile fire. Or, for ground-based swarm attacks, a staging point, perhaps a military base with infrastructure such as fueling and repair, would be a platform for mobile fire swarm attacks.

In Speedboat Diplomacy I quoted the Financial Times quoting Craig Hooper to the effect that, “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.” This seems to call into question the possibility of the efficacy of a swarming attack by patrol boats. I consulted Craig Hooper’s website, Next Navy: Future Maritime Security, where he makes the point again, writing, “Once a fast boat swarm is identified as “hostile,” those small boats tend to have relatively short, exciting lives.” Hooper, however, ultimately leaves the question open: “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.”

The “maybe not” deserves our attention. Helicopters have the advantage of operating in three dimensions and of speed, but a patrol boat is potentially less sensitive to the direction it is facing, if it has a deck-mounted heavy machine gun with a 360 degree range of motion. Are there patrol boats that have been armed equivalently to the AH-64 Apache? I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. It would also be interesting to run a war game with patrol boats armed as heavily as an Apache, and with boats and helicopters present in equal numbers. Lessons might be learned that could teach the boats a few things about anti-helicopter tactics. Certainly, somewhere in the world, someone is conducting such exercises, in so far as it is within their capability, and learning the lessons. Presumably this would be those most heavily invested in the idea of swarming patrol boat attacks.

It is interesting that this discussion of swarm attacks should emerge at the same time as the BBC has reported swarming tactics by Somalian pirates. In Navies struggle with ‘swarming’ pirates, Rear Adm. Peter Hudson is quoted as saying, “What we’ve seen in the last month in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the Somali basin, is almost swarm tactics by some of the pirates who try to flood the area with action groups.” While the small pirate boats are mostly taking on unarmed and defenseless commercial shipping, it is also to be noted that the pirate’s boats are far from being anything like the Bradstone Challenger. If the pirates had to take on armed vessels they probably wouldn’t have a chance, but if the pirates, with their experience of small boat mobility and boarding on the high seas, were given a squadron of Bladerunner 51s and more sophisticated weaponry, they might well prove an adversary to a naval ship. Experience is key. It has been reported that the remarkable marksmanship exhibited by the Taliban with weapons such as shoulder-launched missiles is a result of the protracted civil war in Afghanistan and the resultant extensive experience accrued thereby.

In a swarm attack one can expect that there is a “tipping point.” This is what a philosopher would call a “sorites paradox” also known as the paradox of the heap: if you progressively add more and more grains of sand together, at some point they stop being a few grains of sand and become a heap. There is no definitive answer to when this transition occurs. That is why it is a paradox. For the same reason, there will be no definitive answer for inducing a military swarm attack: reaching the tipping point from massed deployment to the “lived experience” of a swarm (to borrow a phrase of phenomenology) will always depend upon variable factors like weather, terrain, morale, and cultural factors.

In a swarm attack, the forces attacked are ideally not merely demoralized and panicked, they are overpowered, overwhelmed, and utterly bewildered. In other words, the point of a swarm attack is to induce the enemy to experience the sublime. This may sound a little odd, so I will try to explain.

While in ordinary language “sublime” is used almost interchangeably with “beautiful,” in the technical jargon of aesthetics it means a distinctive aesthetic experience different from the beautiful. I have written about the sublime several times in this forum, for example, in Algorithms of Ecstasy, The Intellectual Sublime, and Salto Mortale. In the latter piece I elaborated on the Kantian conception of the sublime. Kant, primarily remembered as an abstruse metaphysician, devoted the third of his three critiques to the sublime. He makes a fundamental distinction between the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime. While almost all of his examples of the dynamic sublime are instances of natural beauty that overwhelm us, the idea of the dynamical sublime could be equally well applied to war, or perhaps better applied to war.

Immanuel Kant wrote extensively on the sublime.

Even Kant, in his genteel eighteenth century way, can glimpse the sublimity of war, although for Kant war was the sort of relatively well-behaved exercise between small professional armies to be found in the Europe of his day:

“Even war has something of the sublime about it if it is carried on in an orderly way and with respect for the sanctity of citizen’s rights. At the same time it makes the way of thinking of a people that carries it on in this way all the more sublime in proportion to the number of dangers in the face of which it courageously stood its ground. A prolonged peace, on the other hand, tends to make prevalent a merely commercial spirit, and along with it base selfishness, cowardice, and softness, and to debase the way of thinking of that people.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Sec. 28

To say that war is sublime is not to say that it is good, or that it is inevitable, or that it is anything else flattering or unflattering. The point is that war, and especially the experience of battle, can overwhelm a man, or a group of men, and leave them disoriented and bewildered. One can imagine (I must attempt to imagine for I have never been a soldier and never been in battle), that if one is on the side that is winning, confidence grows and one feels an increasing sense of power and control over the situation. On the losing side, the opposite happens: confidence collapses and one feels a dwindling sense of power and control over the situation. Past a certain tipping point, this lack of control passes over into an experience of the sublime when one is utterly at the mercy of circumstances.

I am not suggesting that there is anything essentially new about swarming tactics. On the contrary, in The Power of Mobile Fire I recounted the history of swarming mobile fire in the form of Hittite chariot archers and Mongol mounted bowmen. Moreover, since the emergence of Blitzkrieg, almost all battlefield tactics are implicitly aimed at swarming around and over enemy positions, leaving strong points to be “mopped up” later. What I am suggesting here is that a swarming attack by mobile fire is an effective way to think about such battlefield tactics, and that we can further conceptualize the situation in terms of inducing an experience of the sublime among the enemy. Since the sublime will be culturally relative to a certain degree, military doctrine might profit from studying the culture of the enemy in order to better understand how an experience of the sublime can be induced through military action.

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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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