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Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 1

April 12, 2010

Jan. 2008-Small craft suspected to be from the Islamic Republic of Iran Revolutionary Guard Navy (IRGCN), maneuver aggressively in close proximity of U.S. Navy ships.

In an operation worthy of the Israelis, the Iranians have acquired an advanced British-built speedboat designed for sustained high speeds. The fear is they will be used in suicide attacks against US warships, especially aircraft carriers since these are ultimate symbols of power and might. Story is from the Globe and Mail:

Iran has outwitted U.S. and British efforts to keep it from acquiring a superfast powerboat that could be loaded with high explosives and used in a suicidal attack against one of the huge U.S. aircraft carriers deployed to the Persian Gulf.
Unidentified intelligence sources quoted in published reports say Tehran’s Islamic regime managed to acquire the Bradstone Challenger, a 15-metre-long craft designed especially for sustained high speeds, early last year.
While naval analysts differ over whether a serious threat exists from so-called swarm attacks by such fast small boats against larger, less-maneuverable warships, fears that the rulers in Tehran wanted to use the high-tech Bradstone Challenger – which averaged nearly 100 kilometers an hour in a record-breaking 27-hour circumnavigation of Britain – as a weapon prompted both Washington and London to try to block any sale.

Is there a threat? It was serious enough for the US government to try and block the sale, lobbying harder than they did the giant Mistral amphibious carrier from reaching Russia! In all truth though, speedboats against major surface vessels haven’t faired so well historically, as the article points out:

Small-boat attacks on modern warships face long odds. The Tamil Tigers attacked cargo vessels with explosives-laden launches with some success. Against Sri Lankan warships they rarely succeeded. In 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and a U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq, a Canadian CF-18 warplane joined U.S. aircraft in destroying a flotilla of small Iraqi patrol vessels. Automatic, radar-controlled Gatling guns designed to destroy incoming sea-skimming missiles traveling hundreds of kilometers an hour would face no difficulty engaging even the fastest patrol boat. Helicopters firing heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles have been used to defend warships against small-boat attacks and the U.S. and other navies practice against such attacks routinely.

Something to consider though is the use of asymmetric tactics at sea, which have been very effective in changing the world’s mightiest armies. As for helicopters versus speedboats, New Wars has posted on this before.

…some small boat navies, notably Iran, practice swarming tactics which might overwhelm the handful of choppers our rapidly shrinking fleet will be able to deploy, unless of course you plan to have a carrier with you at all times…We can only conclude that to make a permanent effort against small boat threats, you would need a more sustainable platform to defend against and to launch strikes against them as well….Their ability to sustain contact with any fast boats is greater than that of the helicopter, and some can be equipped with aircraft themselves, preferably the Fire Scout UAV which can be armed with Hellfire.

Craig Hooper, familiar to New Wars readers, who was quoted in the original Financial Times story and now in the Globe and Mail, has since posted the following on his blog Next Navy:

…is the U.S. Navy prepared to confront a potential surprise in the Gulf? Are U.S. vessels in the region operating at a level of readiness sufficient to rebuff a surprise “out-of-the-blue” small boat attack?
Is the U.S. Navy ready?  Or are U.S. warships relaxing a bit too much in the ‘ole familiar Gulf?

And in a similar vein, Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq, reminds us of a recent and very real incident:

Fast-forward to the present-day. Iran is purchasing several speedboats, and already possesses anti-ship missiles like the C802 (it was assumed that the C802 that struck the Hanit was supplied by Iran). Could a navy such as this pose a threat?


Tommorow-Iran’s Speedboat Diplomacy

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    May 18, 2010 6:48 pm

    Another possible use of these boats might be as a delaying tactic against a UNS strike force. Imagine the task force traveling through the Persian Gulf and encountering a group of two or three patroling speed boats armed with torpedoes every hour or so. The boats would launch their torpedoes then depart at speed, most likely leaving a couple damaged ships in their wake.

  2. D. E. Reddick permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:52 pm


    Yes, like with the Danish Absalon class C&S ships – two 35 mm Millennium gun systems, one forward and one aft, acting as CIWS and anti-surface weapons.

    But, if you’re really concerned about swarming attacks then maybe some additional gun systems should be added to highly valuable assets like the big gators. So, perhaps four 25 mm Mk 38 Mod 2 cannon mounts should be the backup to the 35 mm Millennium CIWS. Or, use the 30 mm or 40 mm versions of the Bushmaster chainguns to increase engagement range. The two 30 mm chainguns of the San Antonio (LPD-17) class do seem to be too few in number to provide adequate defense of those tremendously expensive and valuable gators.

    A pair of the new 76 mm / 62 cal. Oto Melara Strales gun system mounts might also be quite beneficial to a large, valuable gator asset. Its guided DART munition should be able to deal with all sorts of maneuverable targets such missiles, helos, and fast boats.

    Add those systems to a couple of RAM launchers and a VLS containing quad-packed ESSM canisters and then you’ve got a large, slow, valuable target that can defend itself.

  3. Distiller permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:10 pm

    Looks like I’m not fanatic or desperate enough for a suicide mission, I would use these speed boats for rapid mining of the Strait of Hormuz just in front of a USN task group leaving the Gulf, when they might not expect it any more and the Indian Ocean Surface Water pushes the mines against them. And then see if some other boats with big fat 53cm fleet torpedoes can achieve anything. Some anti-ship missiles from the southern coast might also be a nasty surprise.

    Did I mention recently that I think the Navy should install Millennium gun systems on their surface units??

  4. D. E. Reddick permalink
    April 12, 2010 10:54 pm


    The semi-submersible torpedo boats are fast / slow attack platforms. Or, conversely – slow approach / fast attack/retreat ‘attack’ boats (or, however you wish to mix up an approach strategy with a subsequent withdrawal strategy). Anyhow, some form of such may be what happened to RoKN Choenan.

    A small number of such platforms dispersed amongst a flotilla of fast-boat attack craft might just ruin someone’s day with a couple of 21-inch (533 mm) torpedoes. Add in a limited number of such small craft carrying AShMs such as C-802 or other types where one or two missiles could be fit onto a 50 foot (15+ meter) speedboat / torpedo boat and matters could become extremely dicey! A pre-packaged swarm attack featuring divergently different platforms carrying diverse weapons platforms might prove to be a capable opponent – once, twice, or perhaps even three times. But then, their bases would soon be aflame from various strike packages…

  5. April 12, 2010 10:24 pm

    And there you have my biggest complaint with the think tank guys. They’ll develop a ‘new doctrine’ but ignore glaring issues facing the Navy and the country today.

    I followed the link and I wonder if anyone in plans has done scenarios with all aspect attacks featuring fast boats, aircraft and mini subs…lets sprinkle in a few anti-ship missiles for good effect.

    No a speed boat might not be able to sink a carrier but if a determined and coordinated effort were launched against one in a a surprise attack…we’ll you’d have alot of dead Sailors and a ratings boost for CNN.

  6. D. E. Reddick permalink
    April 12, 2010 7:57 pm


    I’ll up you one by another scale of worrisome developments…

    Consider that Iran has been acquiring mini-sub technology, semi-submersible tech, and stealth torpedo boats from North Korea.

    Now, consider what it was likely that occurred to the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea.

    Then, ponder the effects of such low visibility attack platforms in the Straight of Hormuz. Swarming fast boats may be bad, but there may be worse forms of surprise.

    Go to this link from Planeman’s Bluffer’s Guide: Iranian Naval Power 2007. Scroll down to his posting / entry # 2 and have a look at the stealthy and semi-submersible torpedo boats that Iran has acquired from North Korea.

  7. April 12, 2010 7:21 pm

    I hope Mike doesn’t get mad but I think everyone is missing the unconventional warfare potential of these ships. The hit and run potential is enormous.

    The ability for each to carry a single anti-ship missile and strike from distance? Load one up with RPG’s and go for a bombardment attack against a civilian ship?

    The rules have been played with the idea of pirates capturing ships. What happens when another party decides to use the pirates as cover to start sinking them?

    Add to all this rules of engagement on the high seas. One terrible mistake will get the rules tightened and it will be a free lunch.

    I just see this as being the next logical battlefield with terrorist or terrorist supporting nations. US troops will be out of the Middle East next year simply because politics at home, economics of continuing the effort and the beginning of major budget cuts will deem it necessary.

    You can’t pull out of shipping oil to the west though…and that’s where we’re vulnerable and that’s where the Navy could take the lead.

    As a side note for all the think tank guys. Do you think that Air-Sea Battle will enhance the effort against the pirates? No? Then what good is it?

  8. Chuck Hill permalink
    April 12, 2010 4:49 pm

    Changing the rules and unsinking carriers sounds an awful lot like the Japanese preparation for Midway

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 12, 2010 2:56 pm

    Morgan wrote “There was a war game a few years ago in the US pitting the Red team vs Blue and the setting was in the Persian Gulf.”

    You’re exactly right! More on this in Pt 3 of this series of posts.

  10. Hudson permalink
    April 12, 2010 2:00 pm

    Kudos, a salute, and extra tot of rum for Jed and his brave shipmates for rescuing the crew of the burning naptha carrier in the Persian Gulf during time of war. More than 500 tankers and merchant vessels were damaged by hostile fire in that conflict.

  11. morgan permalink
    April 12, 2010 1:39 pm

    There was a war game a few years ago in the US pitting the Red team vs Blue and the setting was in the Persian Gulf. The Red Team leader was retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper. He attacked the Blue forces–read US Navy–in the Gulf by utilizing swarms of speedboats attacking US ships like the scenario listed in the post. Apparently his efforts were too successful for they stopped the game in mid-stream, so to speak, and changed the rules so Blue team came out smelling like roses.

  12. CBD permalink
    April 12, 2010 12:04 pm

    It should be noted that the Tamil Tigers actually did have good effects against many larger Sri Lankan naval vessels with suicide boats & swarms. The Sri Lankans got Israeli and other patrol boats and were able to counter-swarm to protect their commercial and larger military vessels.

    The problem in the Operation Praying Mantis and OIF operations (as with many of these scenarios) is the expectation that we’re striking first…they’re not DEFENSIVE victories unless you count disarmament by attrition as a defense. The helicopter or fixed wing victories against these boats have almost all been against known targets in known locations (or specified areas)…with lots of planning and logistical support.

    Any surprise attack will not allow one time to deploy the Seahawks, Cobras and F/A-18s. Yes, we could do armed transits with armed helicopters and fixed wing aircraft protecting the area…but those will do little against AShMs from trailer trucks or mini-subs, and they must have enough ammunition (that can arrive quickly enough) to interdict the enemy craft at beyond torpedo/missile/rocket ranges. They also have to be able to read the intent of suicide boats. The greatly improved Mk 38 Mod 2 mount is a huge boost, but we’re only putting so many on each ship. If it came to a hostile passage by USN vessels, they should double the complement of such systems on each ship and install many pintle mounted .50 cals to ride through the storm.

    The issue is that such fast moving craft as the Bradstone allow more fast boats to rapidly converge on any specific area by setting out from various small ports and coves. It is not an existential threat to the CVNs…but it will make any threat that exists that much more reliable for the IRGC.

  13. leesea permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:17 am

    Small boats by suicide atttack can not sink a US carrier, maybe some minor hull damage IF they get through the ships’s defenses. Small boats are not the same as FACs. There is some hype it the news reports.

    The carriers can take care of themselves. The USS Cole incident was a wake up call for warships which have weapons and trained sailors to protect themselves, not so US merchant marine ships.

    IMHO Solomon is 100% right, the US Navy is paying lipservice to its Constitutionally mandated mission of anti-piracy and instead leaving it up to shipping companies and US merchant mariners to protect themselves. I don’t hear anyone talking about an operation like the Tanker Escorting in the Persian Gulf? And as I recall many tankers were hit by weapons from small combatants

    Re-establish the Naval Armed Guards. And give those sailors anti-boat defensive weapons.

  14. west_rhino permalink
    April 12, 2010 9:26 am

    How hard are fast little fiberglass boats vs FAE?

  15. April 12, 2010 9:14 am

    But we have a different market dynamic these day Jed.

    The Chinese are the number oil consumer, not the US. Speculators are able to influence the market more than back then. Oil was still relatively low and the US wasn’t involved in two wars.

    The oil market would boom if an LNG was lost. An act of war (hitting a carrier) would be just another everyday occurrence.

    You probably know better than me but I wasn’t aboard ship when the Cole was hit but outside of the Navy and a few FAST teams it was not a big deal to most of the US population.

  16. Jed permalink
    April 12, 2010 9:09 am

    Solomon asked a good question: “What would shake the markets more. An attack on an aircraft carrier or the sinking of a LNG tanker?”

    Unfortunately probably not, as its been done before, well sort of. On my first Armilla patrol in 1984/85 during the Iran v. Iraq ‘tanker wars’ we rescued the mainly Filipino crew of a Naptha carrier that had been hit by Iranian RPG’s fire from their Boghammer type craft. Naptha is a constituent of Napalm – it was burning like a oil rig, you could literally feel the heat from a mile away.

    My point is, they have hit civilian traffic before, there is historical precedent for it, and I don’t think it hit the markets that hard back then ??

  17. Joe K. permalink
    April 12, 2010 8:35 am

    I’d say the reason they’re scared is because of the USS Cole which is perfectly logical. Even though the perpetrators didn’t sink the Cole, the damage done was enough.

    I question how effective a speedboat would be against a carrier since the speedboat isn’t designed to be a projectile weapon. Plus if they did use it on a carrier, politically they’d be signing their own death warrants.

  18. April 12, 2010 8:09 am

    What would shake the markets more. An attack on an aircraft carrier or the sinking of a LNG tanker?

    I personally think the LNG. An aircraft carrier would cost a $1 rise in gas at the pumps. Hit an LNG…and sink it and you have gas up $3 at least.

    Merchants are where terrorist would make their money. Iran too.

  19. April 12, 2010 8:06 am

    Thanks for the link.

    I was discussing this same topic with a few people from the USNI this past weekend. I don’t think that these sorts of portable weapons might SINK a carrier, but they could at least damage it enough that it would make for a good propaganda victory for a terrorist organization.

  20. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 12, 2010 6:49 am

    Carrying your thought further, like has often happened recently in our land wars, at sea the Navy could win every battle against the speedboats, but still lose the war! This is why I call for many small ships, to fill in the gaps of essential escorts for sea control.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 12, 2010 6:45 am

    Good point Solomon, and you may be right!

    Maybe thats why the submarine threat wasn’t taken seriously early on in the World Wars, because they were too slow for the battlefleet, and easily destroyed on the surface which was then still their natural habitat. Like the old U-boats, you see the pirates ravaging our merchant ships, not quite the same of course, but the bigger battleships equally helpless to contend with the threat. Certainly the Iranians and maybe the terrorists are taking note of the lessons being learned by the new freebooters.

  22. April 12, 2010 6:09 am

    Great post but you’re zeroing in on the wrong target.

    Attacks against a warship might or might not succeed. I predict that it could work once but only once.

    A prime target for these boats would be merchant ships. They could paralyze shipping for weeks and could even provoke an incident by sending civilians out on some hoping for an over reaction from Sailors that were sent out to protect them.

    The Navy is so focused on its own force protection that they haven’t yet realized that the vulnerability for their emerging doctrine is the lack of protection for commercial ships.


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