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Examples of Seapower Seen off Yemen

November 21, 2009

Royal Saudi Navy patrol gunboat FAISAL (PGG-517) underway.

Seapower, like a game of chess, consists of moves and countermoves. At some point you may think you have your adversary in check, then he does the unexpected and you are in checkmate. A Special Report from the UPI notes such an ongoing duel between warships of Iran and Saudi Arabia off Yemen:

Iran has sent warships to the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly to combat Somali pirates preying on major shipping lanes.
But the deployment, announced Saturday in Tehran, could bring closer the prospect of a confrontation with Saudi Arabia, its regional rival, amid rising tension in the Gulf and Red Sea regions, both vital oil arteries.
The Iranian move coincides with a Saudi naval blockade in the Red Sea to intercept arms shipments allegedly sent by Iran and Eritrea to Shiite rebels fighting Saudi forces in northern Yemen.

Here is how the Iranians skirt the Saudi move, and also how the latter will probably react:

Stratfor says that since the Saudi blockade began, the Iranians are now using a longer route that starts at Asab, a port in southeastern Eritrea, to move the weapons.
The route curls eastward around the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula into the Gulf of Aden, where Iranian naval vessels are now deploying, to Shaqra on Yemen’s southern coast.
From there, Stratfor maintains, the arms are moved north overland to Marib in central Yemen, and then on to the Saada mountains. If that is the case, the Saudis are likely to deploy their own warships in the Gulf of Aden.

I once predicted that the next war at sea would probably be in Asia, and perhaps not involving the United States Navy. According to ongoing events, it does appear that this could happen sooner than later.

Note also the current naval races further over in the Pacific region, which seem to dwarf anything happening in the West. History shows that though major naval clashes are much more scarce than land conflicts, they do occur, at least one or two every generation. The last one, more of an air-sea fight, was the Falklands Island War of 1982, and to an extent the Iran-Iraq War of the same decade. We can only surmise that if growing economies with nationalist tendencies such as Korea, Japan, China, even Australia are producing these nautical technical marvels, at some point they will end up using them.

25 Comments leave one →
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  2. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 23, 2009 6:50 pm

    Helos are useful as a quick reaction weapon and for lots of other things, but in terms of maintaining a blockade a single helo on each ship adds almost nothing to the effective sweep width of the ship alone, since it is probably not going to be up for more than about 4 hours a day. You either need more ships, or more helos on each ship. And when there are lots of targets to be boarded, you need lots of surface vessels which may obviate the need for helo search.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 23, 2009 1:53 pm

    “What the navy should conclude from this is that having organic helicopter capability is key.”

    Again I disagree with this assumption. Important, certainly, but not the key. Practically every warship we have in this region hunting pirates have helicopter ability, but so far we’ve been unable to contain them except in a few places. Otherwise, why would the US be encouraging its merchant mariners to tackle the problem themselves, as happened recently with the Mearsk Alabama?

    The key is more hulls and we aren’t there yet, not even close. The flotilla needs to be sizable, 200 ships for the US Navy, but 400 would be better. You can’t get there building modern frigates which start at $500 million each and are usually more.

    Concerning FSF-1, this is a very adequate vessel for chasing or deterring piracy in this region, much less overkill than a DDG-51 battleship or even the LCS. She prices around $100 million and I heard quotes for less. She can be uparmed with numerous weaponry, and from the refit it seems something is ongoing in this direction. You can build 200 Sea Fighters for the price of the entire planned LCS program, maybe even less.

  4. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 23, 2009 12:34 pm

    The Royal Saudi Navy also has four Al Medinah class frigates ships based in the Red Sea. These were built in France during the mid-80s. These too should be some of the types of warships that might encounter Iranian arms smugglers in the Red Sea.

    Full load of 2,610 tons
    Eight Otomat AShM
    One 8-cell Crotale SAM (26 missiles total)
    One 100 mm/44 DP gun
    Two 40 mm AA
    Four torpedo tubes
    Aft helicopter deck and hangar, with one Dauphin helicopter.

  5. Hudson permalink
    November 23, 2009 12:39 am

    Below are some characteristics of the gunboat Faisal pictured above. This is yet another example of a boat built in the U.S. for a foreign power that might be of service to our Navy. Just not big or expensive enough for us, I guess. Tough little street fighter. No helo, but ASW torpedo tubes.

    “9 Al Sadiq class patrol boats built in the United States 1972-1980, full load 495 tons, 4 Harpoon SSM, 1 76 mm OTO, 1 20 mm Phalanx CIWS, 2 20 mm, 1 81 mm mortar, 2 40 mm grenade launchers, 2 triple 12.75inch torpedo tubes.”

  6. DrRansom permalink
    November 22, 2009 8:18 pm

    Chuck Hill,

    I wasn’t talking about sinking cargo ships, I’m sorry if it looked that way. What I meant was: with helicopters carrying medium sized ASMs, you can threaten Iranian corvettes, who are escorting the cargo ships. Instead of bringing the LCS or Sea Fighter into radar, and therefore missile, range of the Iranian ships, you can use the Helicopters to do the dirty work, keeping your own warships below radar horizon.

    As for boarding in international waters, unlikely, but, if the situation gets out of hand, not impossible.

    I agree, the Saudi’s will probably work within Yemeni waters, if Yemen allows them. And, the Saudis will probably have air cover too, giving them a very large advantage.

  7. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 22, 2009 6:24 pm

    This is going slightly O-T, but Iran has reportedly been supplied with stealthy torpedo boats by North Korea and so this particular thread from over at seems to be appropriate. The author of that thread has pulled in information from news reports, ship sitings, and Google Earth to compile an intelligent estimate of the whole range of North Korean naval vessels. The entire thread is well worth examining.

    Bluffer’s guide: North Korean Naval Power 2007

    “Stealth” SES

    North Korea appears to have a Fast Attack Craft with significant radar signature reduction characteristics. That NK possesses stealth technology is not all that surprising since they exported torpedo boats with these features to Iran in about 2002 (Tir and Peykaap classes). But we’ve seen no evidence substantiating that NK operates similar stealthy torpedo boats.

  8. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 22, 2009 5:43 pm

    Dr Ransom,

    You would not sink the merchant ship without boarding it first. If you are thinking about boarding from a helicopter, they are extremely vulnerable when hovering over a ship so your team can FAST rope down. Plus you would not have the right to board unless authorized by the flag state or the ship is inside territorial waters and you acting as an agent of that state.

    Best bet is to intercept inside Yemani waters with a Yemani officer on board to represent his state. If it looks like the Iranians might use force to stop you, have an F-15 Strike Eagle flying top cover.

  9. DrRansom permalink
    November 22, 2009 3:10 pm

    About the blockade, what ships are the Iranians using to smuggle arms? If the ships are large, it is possible that the Saudi’s may move into the Indian Ocean, and there clash with the Iranian ships.

    Second, both the Iranian and the Saudi navy seem particularly old, how does their ship age and capability affect their ability to carry out the blockade / defense of supply lines? Would the poor ship capabilities, relative to more modern corvettes / frigates, limit the ability of the Saudi’s to really interdict smuggling?

    Finally, how does the long range, for the Iranians, affect their operational abilities? If the Iranians are using smaller Corvettes, with limited endurance, they can only remain on station for a short period of time, unless they are operating out of Eritrea (most likely). Does the Iranian navy have the ability to replenish at sea? If they don’t, the Iranians may have to resort to blatant convoying of the supply ships. Or, the Iranians can place two ships on station, while the third replenishes. This too limits their power projection capability.

    All of these factors go into the final question, will the Saudis actually try to stop the arms convoys? If the Iranians can only place a limited number of warships off of Yemen, the Saudis may think that they can get away with some boarding actions. But, if the Iranians are smart with their ship deployments and the Saudi Navy lacks sufficient overwhelming power, the Saudi blockade may remain perpetually stalled.

    Which would work better? LCS or FSF-1. I think the LCS, particularily the GD one. Why? The LCS can carry more helicopters. In this situation, Helicopters with Penguin ASMs become very useful. Using the helicopter, the LCS can threaten Iranian warships and board the suspected smuggling vessels, while staying out of Exocet range, or the Radar range of the Iranian warships. Because the Iranians probably won’t have helicopter reconnaissance capability, they may be limited in their ability to do an over the horizon missile shoot. Given the LCS helicopter capability, they would be able to keep their distance from the Iranians and still threaten them and do the blockade work.

    Why wouldn’t the FSF-1 work? Because of two reasons, first the Fire Scout doesn’t carry enough weapons to threaten a Corvette. It could be modified to carry an ASM, a worthy taske, but right now it doesn’t. Second. for the FSF-1 to board a vessel, it would have to get within small boat range. That puts it within the range of Iranian vessels, who will outgun it (or the LCS for that matter…).

    What the navy should conclude from this is that having organic helicopter capability is key. In many cases helicopters are better than small boats. Secondly, and more importantly, both the LCS and the FSF-1 need better armament. Specifically, the LCS needs ESSM SAMs and maybe the Harpoon or a Harpoon equivalent, for long range ASM strike. As it stands right now, the LCS would be the best, specifically because the LCS, compared to the FSF-1, can hide better. That’s hardly a good reason to choose a warship.

  10. Bill permalink
    November 22, 2009 10:43 am

    And her bow-down trim problem is fixed too!! Thta bodes well for future seakeeping AND higher speeds both.

    When launched, she was bow heavy and could not achieve the design running trim without teh bow foils assisting and that is a ‘bad’ use of what are only supposed to be motion-damping effectors. That bow-heavy condition also precluded the proper use of her active stern interceptors, since she could not tolerate the addition of stern lift.

    With the LCG now correct, she can hit higher speeds with the interceptors partially deployed*and gain more overall control from the entire RCS suite. Good job!

    * Applying dynamic lift at the transom of a cat (and many monohulls too, for that matter) that is properly designed to be statically ‘stern heavy’ increases, often quite significantly, the overall hull L/D ratio over that of the bare hull alone. This effect is only valid over a certain range of Foude number..but that is exactly the range FSF-1 operates within.

  11. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 22, 2009 2:32 am


    Mike and I were discussing a FSF-1 deployment. I believe that you, Mike, and I are pretty much reading from the same script in regards to FSF-1 and where she might prove to be useful.

  12. leesea permalink
    November 22, 2009 12:52 am

    Why not a ship like FSF1 carrying NECC boat crews and UAVs for naval raids? Sure put some weapons on her too. Fast to catch the small boats, big enough to take onboard victims, and crewed/weaponed to react to hostile pirate actions

  13. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 21, 2009 8:50 pm


    If based in Djibouti, then she could join other PC or corvette-sized craft (Sweden has deployed two such vessels into the area) in working to the east in the Gulf of Aden (off the northern coast of Somalia) or else work to the northwest beyond the Bab-el-Mandeb into the southern Red Sea. There are at least three things of interest to us occurring in those waters:
    i) Somali piracy;
    ii) Human trafficking or refugees escaping Somalia for Yemen (humanitarian relief);
    iii) Arms smuggling – probably mainly Iranian origins shipments being delivered into Eritrea or Sudan for transshipment into Yemen or further north to Hamas or Hezbollah.

    Lots of opportunities for a fast ship carrying UAVs and SF troops to find things of interest to investigate and act upon, methinks.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 21, 2009 8:20 pm

    Thats true DE. A good workout is called for here, like off Somalia?

  15. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 21, 2009 8:13 pm


    The original configuration could handle 11 meter long surface boats and submersibles. Those would include larger RHIBs and perhaps SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDVs). But, who among us actually knows what her new capabilities and taskings may prove to be?

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 21, 2009 4:35 pm

    Perhaps she might handle Special Forces, as the old Sea Shadow was geared to do, but never properly operated (as far as we know).

  17. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 21, 2009 3:33 pm


    I simply read that same ID thread started by Galrahn and then checked some webpages I found by searching for FSF-1 imagery via Google Images. I read between the lines from all of the comments regarding FSF-1 and the stated intent to arm her during the course of her rebuild. Her forward section below the bridge is higher (everything forward seems to have been gutted during the rebuild – a picture of her in drydock shows this). The windows of the aviation control deck are gone (automated video & remote control for UAV deployment replacing that function, maybe). And there’s that stealthy-seeming screen surrounding the aviation deck. What -all- does it conceal? Have some mission modules been fitted which penetrate the flight deck?

    I just don’t know. Perhaps I’m being wildly speculative. But, there are new features evident in that post-rebuild image which stress concealment / stealth and yet there are visible additions. Could the two aft structures be the upper works of VLS tubes? Or perhaps they conceal pop-up remotely controlled chain-gun mounts routinely kept within a stealthy box container (some other naval service has such on a FAC, OPV, or corvette class [I can’t recall who has done that, though]).

    I stared at that new image and wondered about what could have been added to FSF-1 which required such a degree of increased stealthy concealment. Maybe someone else has answers, as all that I have are questions and speculations.

  18. November 21, 2009 3:05 pm

    D.E. do you have a link with the info you just provided? The following via Galrahn is all I have heard on FSF-1 in months:

    She looks spectacular doesn’t she? Even a little intimidating with all the grey. Hardly a Luxury Combat Ship this!

  19. November 21, 2009 2:40 pm

    “Even Israel, our one supposed true ally in the region, spies on us”

    And you spy on them too. And us Brits, the Germans, the Japanese etc.

    Everybody spying on everybody else means there are no nasty surprises that can lead to nasty things like war.

  20. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 21, 2009 2:21 pm


    LCS-1 USS Freedom is supposed to be headed into that region in the coming year. One might wonder whether the assignment will be to:
    a) counter Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden & Indian Ocean;
    b) patrol the Straight of Hormuz & Persian Gulf;
    c) patrol the Red Sea and observe Iranian naval operations along the coasts of Eritrea & Sudan (across from Yemen & southern Saudi Arabia).
    Or, some combination of the above three might be its tasking.

    Then, Sea Fighter (FSF-1) has just finished a rebuild. Her bow is now higher with what appears to be greater forward clearance. She also has her third configuration of the tower structure above her bridge (an apparently different radar installation is visible). And most interestingly, her flight deck is now concealed behind a seemingly solid stealth shield, rather than the safety screen previously utilized. Aft along that solid stretch of siding there appear to be two structures both port and starboard. I suppose those might be weapons systems structures. Or – something else, altogether – maybe something to do with flight operations?

    So, what mission might Sea Fighter be preparing for (if any)? Is she going down into the Caribbean to chase drug smugglers? Or is she going to be tasked to operate with CTF-150 or CTF-151 in the Middle East? If she deployed out of Djibouti with a detachment of Fire Scouts then she might be useful in monitoring that Iranian naval presence in the lower Red Sea. If the balloon doesn’t go up too soon between the Saudis and Iranians then we may have one or two of our latest & greatest high-speed ship designs present to watch and perhaps even provide intelligence to the Saudis. Anyhow, you can see the differences between old and new when comparing the two following picture links for Sea Fighter.

    Older view of FSF-1:

    Recent view of FSF-1 following refit / rebuild:

  21. Hudson permalink
    November 21, 2009 1:06 pm

    Mike, that sounds like a useful phrase: “all help short of war.” The administration would certainly re-supply the Saudis if they asked for it, although they have quite a diversified arsenal these days. I cringe when I hear the term “close ally” in connection with Wahabi Central. They do more than their fair share, to use an Obama expression, in undercutting us with their support for madrassas and terror interests in the region. Even Israel, our one supposed true ally in the region, spies on us and constantly lobbies for the release of Jonathan Pollard. The M.E. is a nest of vipers and scorpions, and someday, inshallah, we will have as little to do with the place as possible.

  22. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 21, 2009 12:03 pm

    Hudson at the very least, we might expect “all help short of war” from the USA. This region is too important, and the Saudi too close an ally.

  23. Hudson permalink
    November 21, 2009 11:17 am

    I guess one question would be: How long would a Saudi-Iran conflict go on before larger powers became involved, notably the U.S.? Would the Obama administration welcome such an involvement as a back door way to punish Iran on the nuclear issue?

  24. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 21, 2009 8:09 am

    Oops! My browser’s spell checker! Thanks!

  25. Spleet permalink
    November 21, 2009 7:36 am

    “dwarf annoying happening in the West”

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