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Iranian Lessons in Frugality

November 25, 2009

Saudi frigate Al Makkah. Author Jacques Lahitte via Wikimedia Commons

New Wars has been watching closely the ongoing developments off Yemen, with US, Saudi Arabian, and Iranian warships deploying to support one side or the other in the ongoing Civil War there. Before we get to our subject, here are a few details via Strategypage:

Saudi Arabian warships are maintaining a blockade on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, to prevent Iranian arms smugglers from getting weapons to the Shia rebels fighting in northern Yemen. On October 26th, Yemeni patrol boats in the Red Sea, seized an Iranian ship, carrying weapons, apparently meant for the Yemeni rebels. The Saudi Air Force is heavily patrolling, and bombing the Yemen border region, hitting rebels (and non-hostile smugglers) caught crossing the semi-desert frontier region. Yemen has had its differences with Saudi Arabia in the past, particularly over the largely unmarked, and disputed, border area. But on the subject of the rebellious Shia tribes of northern Yemen, both nations have quietly agreed to fight as allies to defeat a common threat…

It’s believed that Iran is supporting the rebels, mainly with cash. Since the Shia tribes are inland, away from the coast, it’s difficult for Iran to deliver anything else.

Note also we learned yesterday of the deployment of Iranian Ghadir class mini-subs to the region, which we consider tactically insignificant but certainly a distraction that can’t be ignored. Obviously the Iranian naval contingent is woefully outmatched by the Saudi Fleet alone, not to mention the mighty Aegis cruiser USS Chosin recently dispatched to the scene. This can only be seen as an ongoing act of defiance, a poke in the eye against the international community which Tehran seems to hold in contempt.

Without building mighty fleets, or possessing modern high tech forces, the Iranians still manage to weave a web of influence throughout the Middle East. Using the politics of bluff, propaganda, and fanaticism we mentioned earlier this week, she continues to distract the economic and military superpowers of the region, from Israel, the US, and now we see with the Saudis.

Her lessons in frugality should be duly noted. The high tech and grossly powerful military forces which the West will insist they must maintain to ensure National Security, has availed them little against such low tech tactics of the Revolutionaries. Maintaining the last century Military Industrial Complex, rather than securing the peace may be aiding the chaos, by distracting us from what is really important, poorly equipped insurgents who can bypass our superiority by blending into the crowds, or giving us a false sense of security that we are invincible.

By concentrating our military power in a few very capable, but increasingly hard to build or afford platforms, whether they are planes, tanks, or ships, we forget what is really important in warfare, which is people power. Iran has managed to tap into the fanatical devotion of its followers, turning this amazing energy toward its own designs. This is how in Centuries past, the comparatively backward and fewer European populations managed to conquer and settle a good deal of the Earth’s surface. The Iranians have managed to tap into this unlimited resource as well.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 28, 2009 7:54 am

    Currently reading a story on USS Stark in the 1980s Iran/Iraq war and I’m still struck how unready the navies are for missile war at sea. All attacks on Western vessels seem to be from carelessness. We give them the tools and they don’t even use them, meaning CIWS and it is a repeat tale for INS Hanit more recently.

    I don’t think this will continue for long. Just as with the air threat, if you sink a few more ships, especially in full scale warfare, they will finally get the message. Concerning helicopters, I don’t think small ships in the hands of Western navies will be such fodder, and probably not even these Third World navies, recalling how the Mujahideen handled them on land in the Afghan, as well as Viet Cong earlier.

    I’m just saying for the chopper pilots not to get complacent in the face of SAMs at sea.

  2. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 27, 2009 6:59 pm

    Small boats with SAMs will frag helos with impunities. Choppers are useful for recon, ASW, CAS (sometimes), insertion & extraction. That’s it. They’re worthless against dedicated land or sea-based SAM platforms. They’re slow, operate low, radiate lots of heat & can’t beat it out of dodge before the missile shreds them. Guys in speed boats with old Stingers can kill AS-oriented helos with impunity.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 26, 2009 5:24 am

    Following the numbers, its easy to see where we will be in a few years. By investing in only high end equipment, most grossly overweight and overbudget, we only end up with steady shrinking and less capable force structures. The Air Force will feel it first:

    We don’t need to get rid of all high technology. Just learn to better manage it with low end assets, and the latter should greatly outnumber the former.

  4. DrRansom permalink
    November 26, 2009 12:54 am

    Unfortunately, Mike, in your latest comment you seemed to have contradicted yourself.

    The Iranians, according to you, will be using small boat swarming tactics. But, they will also be capable of carrying heavy AA with their numerous Corvettes. This is contradictory. Either the Iranians use small boat swarming, or they use Corvettes. If they combine both, use heavy carrier aircraft, with Harpoons or something, and blow the Corvette out of the water. Then, attack helicopters can pick off the remainder.

    From Wikipedia, Penguin ASMs have a range of 34 km. Now, that is beyond the range of most, if not all, light air to air. For the Corvettes to invest in anything heavier would counter your assertion that they will be cheap and numerous. Indeed, as per your previous statements, in a battle of missiles vs. SAMs, the missiles win in the end. So, given the helicopters advantages in providing missiles, compared to a Corvette, speed, range, reloadability, the competition should not be in question.

    The battle plan literally writes itself. You have H-60 variants, doesn’t matter which, launch Penguin waves at the heavy vessels. Use the Penguins to thin / cripple heavier ships. Then attack helicopters, carrying Hellfires, with a range of 8 km, to take out larger speed boats. Given that each attack helicopter can carry 16 missiles each, a force of 4 helicopters carries 64 Hellfires. Now, obviously, all won’t hit, but that can deal with a pretty substantial swarm. Add in Predator / Fire Scout strikes at longer range, and anything but the largest (and most suicidal) boat swarms will be substantially reduced or weakened.

    But, lets continue looking at your assertions. You state that the enemy may be operating under their aircover. Why, if they’re operating under they’re aircover, then its certain that the USN will be working to re-establish air parity / air superiority. While this may take a while, given the difficulty eliminating all the airfields, the fact of the matter is, in a large scale war, you’ll have many more assets on both sides. In other words, if you give the small boat navy access to air power, then you can’t restrict the USN to just a minimal force. Because, in a big war situation, both sides will be bringing the whole deck.

    In either case, your assertions do not hold for the situation of Yemen. Given the ranges involved, its unlikely that the Iranians will be using small boat swarms. Second, its unlikely, but not impossible, that the Iranians will be deploying aircraft in Eritrea. If they did, which is not impossible, the number of targets needed to be hit is very small, maybe just a handful of airfields. Furthermore, the aircraft would be trying to fly against a superior, at least in a limited conflict, Saudi airforce. So, in the Yemen situation, you’re back to Corvette vs Corvette conflict. And, given the range of the Penguin missile and the speed and maneuverability inherent in a helicopter platform. I don’t see why the Iranian method will be anything special, if a conflict did break out.

  5. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 25, 2009 8:50 pm


    Consider a somewhat enlarged FSF-1 Sea Fighter derivative with something like 25 to 50 or so percent increase in displacement. With the same engineering plant you would have a decreased top speed, but also the range and endurance could be increased.

    Now, if the hull length were increased by 50 to 75 feet and its width also grew by 10 to 15 feet (with that increased displacement), then what use could be made of such an expanded deck area and below-deck added space? Here are my ideas:

    1) Mount a 57 mm or a 76 mm cannon on the starboard foredeck;
    2) Mount a 21 warshot RAM or an 11 warshot SeaRAM on the port quarterdeck;
    3) Mount a remotely controlled 25 mm or 30 mm chain-gun cannon on both the port foredeck and the starboard quarterdeck;
    4) Immediately aft of the bridge make space for deck-penetrating mission modules such as the NLOS missile system; with every unit of the class carrying at least one NLOS module for indirect fire missions (15 missiles, I believe);
    5) Preserve space outboard from the mission module area for placement of twin or quadruple Harpoon launch canisters (or whatever AShM missle the USN adopts / borrows in the near future (IDF Gabriel, etc.);
    6) Maintain the same flight deck area so that Sea Scout helo UAVs and either USN or USMC -armed- & replenishment helos can operate with this type of PC / corvette.

    And provide a mother ship for each squadron / division of four (maybe six or eight) of these PC / corvette type littoral warships. The mother ship could be: a modified gator / amphib type vessel (later LPD, LSD, or LST classes seem like good models) with -much- improved replenishment / support capabilities (absent the berthing spaces for a Marine battalion or vehicles); a large helo hanger and flight deck (supporting a mix of four to eight helos); and a weapons fit capable of defending it (like the Danish Absalom-class support ships). Think of the Absalom-class built larger with an emphasis on replenishment and helo operations along with having the same sort of weapons fit & generally stealthy charactistics (maybe it would conceptually be a reduced-size LPD-17 San Antonio-class lacking the Marine berthing spaces). Provide replenishment and support capabilities for those PCs / corvettes and then suppress the adversaries’ intended operations.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 25, 2009 7:31 pm

    Solomon wrote “You’re forgetting about the speed advantage of the Helicopter in this situation.”

    Again you are assuming that the enemy would use the same tactics as before, away from its own land based air, that it would not possess heavy AA armament, that it would let its boats again be sitting ducks to Western helos. Also an assumption is that the next corvette versus frigate encounter will be in the Third World. Today’s modern frigates are not the Iranian and Iraqi FACs of the 80s and 90s. These modern first-rate ships as deployed by an increasing number of oil rich Gulf States, plus many Asian powers are well armed, some even coming with their own helicopters.

    Helicopters are great for enabling warships but they can never substitute for such vessels themselves. Thus the best counter for a small ship navy are other small ships, preferably high end corvettes, in the hands of well-led, well trained Western navies which tend to take such threats in account before sailing into a danger zone.

    For many threats you need many ships. Concentrating power on land has proven a failure, so we increased the troops, spread them among the populations, and get results. It will be the same at sea or we lose against the worlds most minor threats. Warship for warship, we are way ahead, but still our superships cannot be many places at once, nor is there need if you have plenty of corvettes.

  7. November 25, 2009 5:40 pm

    Its a pure-dee win-win. You double combat power and coverage area on the cheap….you can house the aircrew in a mission module and even have a few Marines, NECC or Special Ops folks for boarding operations…

    I LIKE IT!

  8. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 25, 2009 5:35 pm


    Consider a division of four FSF-1 Sea Fighter style PC / corvette sized vessels each carrying two Fire Scout helo UAVs being deployed in an interdiction role (say, off the coast of Yemen [in support of the Yemeni Coast Guard]). Then add a rotation of armed AH-1Zs, UH-1Ys, & SH-60s moving back and forth from a support or mother ship. Armed and fueled on the mother ship, they could still refuel aboard the PC when needed and work with both the ships & UAVs in strike situations.

  9. Hudson permalink
    November 25, 2009 5:15 pm

    To your point about Iranian frugality:

    One of the designs I’ve seen on the Web is a speed boat with two rear launched Kowser (Chinese medium range anti-ship missiles), and two internal torpedoes. The idea seems to be launch the missiles and close with the torps. The Iranians say they have built 70+ of these small boats. With no visible defensive armament, you could pick them off with just about anything. But in the narrow confines of Straits of Hormuz, in a chaotic battle space with fanatical Revolutionary Guard crews, it’s easy to imagine that some of them would get through and do serious damage to much larger ships. Not a happy thought.

  10. November 25, 2009 5:13 pm

    D.E. Riddick,

    Another great point. It would dovetail in with what the Navy is already doing with H-60 class and would give them a “cheap” rescue/special ops insertion helicopter in addition (multi-mission!). After reading some of Mike’s concerns, the Israeli model H-60 with provisions for extra long range fuel tanks in addition to have a powerful bite would seem to be a winner. The AH/UH-1-Z/Y would still be useful for smaller ships however. The USMC tried to develop a navalized AH-64 but costs got wildly out of hand. In its current configuration NAVAIR wouldn’t sign off on it. How the UK is able to operate them onboard ship is beyond me but it must boil down to less stringent requirements.

    You’re forgetting about the speed advantage of the Helicopter in this situation. Ignoring the fact that the mothership would act as the eyes with its sensor suite and the fact that properly armed it will outrange the threat vessels weapons. Nothing would be lost on the host ship however, so close in defense against swarming attacks would first be thinned by the helicopters and any leakers would be swept up by the ships defensive setup.

  11. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 25, 2009 4:47 pm


    I wouldn’t mind seeing a navalized version of the AH-64 Apache.

    Or, the addition of the attack package developed for the H-60 series by the Israelis. Having SH-60s armed with an under-fuselage mounted .50 cal. tri-barreled machine-gun and several missiles and / or rocket pods might prove to be useful.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 25, 2009 4:34 pm

    “best defense against a small boat is a helicopter.”

    Some of these lesson of the past might be distracting. What if Iran decides to use swarming tactics against your handful of frigates, cruisers or destroyers? Can we always expect warfare to stand still for us, since they practice constantly to stand up to our big ships and aren’t above a suicide run if it is necessary. A helicopter then is useless if it doesn’t have a place to land, rearm, and refuel. Neither can a helicopter do presence very far from the reach of a mothership.

    But even a small patrol boat can loiter for days, carries stronger armament in many cases, and a better search radar than a helo possibly could.

    Consider also that your Big Ships are often needed elsewhere, to watch near peer threats such as Russia, China, or North Korea. What will deter the small boats when these ships are otherwise occupied, doing what they were built to do? We must bring back the flotilla, and they never will return if we continue building even frigates which are approaching or surpassing $1 billion each.

    We cannot maintain sea control with battleships alone, as Corbett maintained.

  13. November 25, 2009 4:16 pm

    D.E. Reddick!

    Good one. I hadn’t even thought of the UH-1Y! The main thing that they both bring to the table is that they are armed without modification and they are smaller than a SH-60….they would be ideal.

  14. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 25, 2009 3:53 pm


    I’ve had those same thoughts. FFGs, DDGs, CGs, Danish Absalom-class support ships, Japanese DDHs, perhaps even LPDs and any of the various forms of warship capable of supporting two or more helos would be suitable to this task.

    The two latest Marine Corps helos available for utilization on USN warships.

    AH-1Z Viper

    UH-1Y Venom

  15. November 25, 2009 2:23 pm

    But you ignore the real issue. The best defense against a small boat is a helicopter. What you’re actually advocating…in a round about fashion is the buying by the US Navy of AH-1Z attack helicopters.

    A dedicated attack helicopter or two on the deck of the USS Chosin would be a combat multiplier of the 5th degree! The ships sensors would act as the hunters and the AH-1Z would act as the killers. That would solve the littoral combat situation instantly. And before you start harping on the anti-air weapons on these little ships remember that a hellfire or penguin can certainly out range what the enemy ships would carry!

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