Thursday, 29 May 2014

Iran’s new asymmetric naval tactics

Iran’s naval leaders have come up with a new naval tactic to attack and defeat US Naval forces in the Persian Gulf.  Instead of merely using their swarm tactics of fast attack crafts to execute hit and run tactics against US Navy ships, Iran is now planning to use suicide attack runs on US Navy ships.

Suicide tactics are a game changer and they have a possibility of tipping the balance of power to the Iranian side. This is because, unlike the swarm attacks the Iranian Navy used until now, suicide craft aren’t require to survive the engagement.

Swarm attacks are designed to overwhelm US Navy defenses. A large group of small and maneuverable warships, called Fast Attack Crafts or FAC’s, is assembled to attack a single or a small group of US Navy warships. FAC’s are very small craft and they don’t have heavy weapons. Most of the times they carry small rockets to engage their opponent. Because they carry small weapons with a small range, they have to come close to their targets. During this approach they are under fire of the heavier weapons on board of the US destroyers and frigates. Notably the main gun, a 76 or 127mm gun, and the Close In Weapons system (CIWS), a fast firing 20 to 30mm canon, have the capability of rapidly taking out FAC’s.  The only defense these FAC’s have are their large numbers. The tactic requires that the enemy defense is to be overwhelmed by presenting more targets then the enemy ship can engage. That way, several ships can get close enough to fire their weapons and try to disable the enemy ship.
The surviving FAC’s then have to retreat, while under enemy fire until the distance become too great. One can see that this is a war of attrition in which more FAC’s will be destroyed then conventional enemy ships. Iran’s strategy of a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz only works as long as it has the numbers to keep forming new swarms of FAC’s to engage and deter enemy warships.

Suicide tactics change the game. FAC’s already have to close an enemy warship to engage them successfully. The retreating phase exposes the FAC’s longer to enemy fire. Iran will lose ships both in the attacking and in the retreating phases. By choosing for a suicide tactic, in which FAC’s explode themselves against an enemy warship, Iran is canceling the retreating phase. However, the FAC’s still have to overcome the distance between their normal firing distance and the enemy warships. As the FAC’s keep closing in they come under even more fire from machineguns and sailors armed with rifles. This means that more FAC’s can be stopped before one of them is capable of coming close enough before it can explode and do any damage. Iran thus is hoping by using a suicide tactic it still loses less FAC’s then during a conventional attack in which FAC’s have to return to base to form a new swarm.
The major question on everybody’s mind is if this suicide tactic will work and whether or not it allows for less boats to be taken out during such an attack compared with a conventional attack. As said above, the closer the FAC’s come, the more weapons that can be fired against them, decreasing their chances of surviving the attack run before they can explode.
One must never forget that a FAC doesn’t have to be destroyed. FAC’s are very small boats ranging from jetski’s to speedboats. They are very vulnerable and can be disabled with a couple well placed bullets.  A disabled FAC is no longer capable of closing the enemy warship and executing its suicide tactic.

Iran’s suicide tactic can work if it has the element of surprise, that is when the targeted warship is not prepared to defend against a swarm/suicide attack. Only in such a case can the Iranians hope to have enough time to close the distance before they are taken out the fight by increasing firepower thrown against them.
One such case would be a night attack. Iran’s FAC’s are small and mostly made of polymer. They are hard to detect on radar and are mostly spotted by look outs. The FAC’s however can carry small radars that allow them to detected US Navy warships early. In a night attack, lookouts will have a hard time to spot FAC’s early enough to allow the ship to react although night vision cameras or drones with infrared cameras can overcome these problems.

We thus can conclude that there is a certain military logic for using suicide tactics with FAC’s but the chances of success are low as a warship can throw a lot of extra firepower against a FAC once it is at a short range. Their best chance of success is a surprise attack before the enemy warship is capable of manning every machinegun and equipping every sailor with rifles to destroy or disable a FAC. Night time attacks would be the best choice as FAC’s are faster spotted visually then with radar. However night vision goggles and drones with infrared cameras can turn night into day and can help spot suicide attacks well in advance during the night.

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