Regional battles and asymmetric warfare are pushing naval conflicts to the littorals, where a range of tactics that rely as much on numbers for success as firepower are evolving to threaten capital ships. Key to these tactics are small boats, which have a history of successful deployment in hit-and-run attacks against materially superior adversaries. A combination of swarming tactics, where small boats converge rapidly for hit-and-run attacks, coupled with the limited maneuverability of large vessels in littoral waters, increases the danger that small and marginally equipped naval forces pose to large targets.
Iran for one has practiced naval swarming for years. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC) used swarming tactics against Iraq. Iranian naval forces have lately adopted dispersed harassing assaults, but this could change if Iran decides to block shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The RGC operates at least 1,000 speedboats. Some are in the MIG-S-1800 class (56 ft. long, 15 ft. wide and displacing 22 tons), built by Iranian Maritime Industries Group. These are armed with weapons ranging from 12.7-mm. machine guns to 23-mm. automatic cannons and unguided rocket launchers. Boghammar fast-attack craft, manufactured in Sweden but modified by the RCG, include the monohull RL-118 and RL-130-4A types (42 ft. long., 8.7-ft. beam, 2.2-ton displacement), which have a variety of weapons including large-caliber recoilless rifles, unguided rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. A new version, probably modified by the local marine industry and displayed in parades, is equipped for special operations and light-strike missions, and has broad weapon configurations including 107-mm. multiple rocket launchers on the bridge.
Between 2007 and 2008, Peykaap torpedo boats (53 ft. long, 12-ft. beam, 13.7-ton displacement) were mounting two launchers for the Kowsar antiship missile (ASM), an Iranian-modified copy of the Chinese TL-10. These boats are referred to as Tir-class IPS-16 and Peykaap II vessels. Another version of the Tir class is the larger ISP-18 (69 ft. long, 19-ft. beam, 28-ton displacement), which has a third motor and 533-mm. (21-in.) torpedo tubes. Iran has reportedly equipped Tir-class boats with Noor ASMs, Iranian copies of the Chinese C-802, a weapon that damaged the Israeli Saar-5-class missile corvette Hanit off Beirut in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War.
Maritime suicide attacks have been relatively effective, and Iran might use small boats to launch such attacks on tankers in a campaign to close the Strait of Hormuz. RGC planners have doubtless studied the USS Cole incident of October 2000, when a suicide attack launched from a 15-ft. boat killed 17 sailors and almost sank the vessel in Aden.
One region where swarming and suicide attacks threaten shipping is the Indian Ocean. The Sea Tigers are the naval force of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. They conduct attacks using small boats in swarming formations and suicide missions.
Milan Vego, a professor at the Joint Military Operations Dept. of the U.S. Naval War College, advocates new tactics for Western navies operating in shallow waters. He has written in various articles that the U.S. Navy is traditionally opposed to operating small surface combatants in peacetime, and warns that a force of the new Littoral Combat Ships, upon entering service in the next decade, would not significantly improve combat capabilities in littoral warfare.
Vego says littoral waters are ideal for fast-attack craft armed with antiship cruise missiles, torpedoes and guns. The Navy’s smallest surface combatants comprise only eight lightly armed (2 X 25-mm. guns and two machine guns), 355-ton Cyclone-class patrol craft.
Change may be afloat: The Navy continues to experiment with the highly maneuverable, 45-ton M80 Stiletto, built in 2005 by M Ship Co. of San Diego. The 88-ft.-long composite vessel has an M-shaped hull that provides a fast, stable platform for missions (DTI November/December 2005, p. 14). A flight deck launches and retrieves unmanned aerial vehicles, and a rear ramp can recover 36-ft. rigid-hull inflatable boats or autonomous underwater vehicles.
Photo: US Navy
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