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Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2

April 13, 2010

March 2004-The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) and a small boat participate in a simulated small boat attack exercise (SWARMEX).

The helicopter comes to mind when considering the threat of swarms of Iranian speedboats attacking the big ships of Western navies like their highly capable and costly aircraft carriers. It also comes to mind that a speedboat, even with the very impressive performance of the Bladerunner 51 (Bradstone Challenger) recently acquired by Iran through guile would be no match for an aircraft armed with subsonic anti-small boat missiles. But is this an oversimplification of the problem, and can we consider the matter closed? Here is the question pondered by J. N. Nielsen at Grand Strategy, who discusses Tehran’s Speedboat Diplomacy:

While there are reasons to be skeptical that a speedboat with torpedoes could take on a carrier battle group, there are also reasons to be concerned. Ever since the small and inexpensive French Exocet missile sunk the HMS Sheffield on 04 May 1982 during the Falklands War (to be more accurate, the ship was hit on the 4th and sank on the 10th), it has been obvious that large and expensive warships, crewed with hundreds if not thousands of sailors, are vulnerable to relatively cheap counter-measures. While the Reagan-era defense build up took battleships out of mothballs, not least for the prestige of the Navy, the other side of the prestige of an enormous battleship is the devastation to public morale when something so formidable is destroyed in seconds by a missile with massive loss of life. It’s a David and Goliath moment.

This is looking at matters differently. While the Navy might feel extremely confident in their massively equipped and impressive warships, that size and power alone is enough to ensure safety, a rising and opportunistic nation might view them as a chance for glory. As with the David and Goliath story, such instances are replete through history. The new weapons which light and stealthy craft can deploy might be the great equalizer, knocking the massive American giants down to size. At least theoretically, but still cause for concern.

None of this is new. The Soviets focused on creating supersonic missiles (the P-270 Moskit) and torpedoes (the VA-111 Shkval) to counter US technological superiority that was often installed on vulnerable platforms. It is a lot cheaper and quicker to develop a supersonic missile or torpedo, and one can field a great many more of them, than to build a supersonic fighter or a carrier battle group. This equation still holds true. The FT story quoted Craig Hooper, a San Francisco-based naval strategist, as saying, “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.” Yet a sufficient number of small, fast boats launching a sufficient number of supersonic torpedoes could be a very serious threat to a carrier battle group. Only one torpedo would have to get through in order to cause enormous damage. The odds are on the side with the greatest numbers.

Historically, aircraft carriers have only operated in conjunction with other warships. In the few instances of combat during world war 2 and more recently the Falklands Crisis, they were kept well away from the danger zones of land areas, only just barely in range of their naval attack bombers to make an impact. They did this for survival, but also for practical reasons, allowing smaller warships leeway to perform shore bombardment, anti-submarine warfare, anti-mine warfare, and radar picket. Though some consider that the aircraft are there to defend the ships, their primary purpose is for attacking other targets. The small ships defend the carrier, as the head of the Royal Navy Admiral Mark Stanhope reminded us recently:

The carriers are about supporting effect ashore, not protecting the fleet, as at Jutland. We have got to be clear that the requirement for carriers is a joint requirement for Defence as a whole and the effect they provide is a joint effect, not a maritime effect in isolation.

But ships are about sea control, so there must be warships to defend the carriers and the rest of the fleet, to allow unimpeded access to the oceans. In the late 1800s and early 1900s navies developed the destroyer in answer to the threat of small torpedo boats against fleets of battleships. These versatile craft also proved the perfect anti-submarine vessels when the torpedo boat learned to submerge. I call for a return to Fast Boat Destroyers, which I think too will be find its place in future war at sea:

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. We are thinking something along the line of torpedo boats destroyers of the early last century, which were just a little larger, faster, and more heavily armed than their torpedo-armed antagonists, which some navies were building in many hundreds as a threat to the battleship.

Artist rendering of Bladerunner-51 ALB Patrol Boat. Graphic used by permission from Navatek.

 Plus the difference is, unlike large and very expensive frigates, which are pricing themselves into capital ship status, small corvettes and patrol ships can be purchased in large numbers, more closely matching the threat than a few exquisite and hard to build ships. The ongoing difficulties the Western navies are having managing the piracy problem in the Gulf should send off alarms that we are over-stretched, and declining.

Tomorrow-Speedboats in action.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2013 1:44 am

    is self-confident, is professional.

  2. Scott B. permalink
    April 14, 2010 4:40 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “But small warships versus small warships is historically and financially acceptable, and logical.”

    Historically, this statement is totally inaccurate.

    Financially, such an investment would be a disaster.

    Logically, *symmetrizing* asymetric threats (as people like Thomas P.M. Barnett keep suggesting) is by far the dumbest way to go. In fact, it’s criminal (or suicidal).

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 14, 2010 3:23 pm

    Joe K. wrote “Ah, but note one of Sun Tzu’s maxims, “He who tries to defend everything defends nothing.””

    That is not a maxim for all occasions. You have the recent Sri Lankan Civil War as an example, complete with suicide speedboats, and the Government forced to respond with their own more numerous, somewhat more capable versions. I wrote on that here:

    I constantly harp on the U-boat war, but I believe its lessons are still relevant concerning asymmetric conflict at sea. Frigates, now being sized and cost into capital ship status, you can never afford enough of them for proper sea control. But small warships versus small warships is historically and financially acceptable, and logical.

  4. Scott B. permalink
    April 14, 2010 3:15 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Plus the difference is, unlike large and very expensive frigates, which are pricing themselves into capital ship status, small corvettes and patrol ships can be purchased in large numbers,”

    Once again, if you don’t make the right observations, you won’t make the right recommendations.

    Some of the right observations to make are :

    1) Not all frigates (or frigate-sized warships) are pricing themselves into capital ship status : the ABSALON cost less than $230 million a copy, whereas the IVAR HUITFELDT cost less than $290 million a copy.

    2) Conversely, quite a lot of small corvettes (or glorified FACs) cost quite a lot of money : $137 million for the Baynunahs, at least $184 million for the Visbys (they actually cost MUCH MORE than that).

    3) In fact, when you look at the numbers carefully, what you’ll find out is that the much touted JHSV cost 30% more to acquire than the ABSALON.

    Once you make the right observations, you’ll be able to ask the right questions and come up with the right answers.

    And small corvettes / high speed aluminium boondoggles is NOT the right answer !!!

  5. Joe K. permalink
    April 14, 2010 12:23 pm

    Mike said: “The defender must be strong everywhere, the enemy can strike at a time and place of his choosing.”

    Ah, but note one of Sun Tzu’s maxims, “He who tries to defend everything defends nothing.”

    Iran may deploy a swarm force of speedboats to “defend” its waters but how effective is that against a warfare-designed fleet of naval vessels? Forget the “one suicide boat” idea for a second. Let’s say Iran did deploy a “fleet” of these speedboats. Certainly, it’s a threat. But it’s an incredibly sharp double-edged sword. In using a boat to carry out an attack they are sacrificing manpower and resources to do so – an attack which has a low success rate of sinking ships of superior firepower, armor, size, etc. (it certainly ain’t comparable to an RPG used on a tank).

    Not to mention that deploying such a force only makes them more likely to be blamed if a suicide speedboat actually tried to attack a ship close to their territorial waters.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    April 14, 2010 11:13 am

    leesea said, “I do not think the solution is small, or in other words one does not fight small boats with more small boats (be they CB-90s or USVs).

    I agree that we shouldn’t attempt to address the small boat threat solely with our own small boats. However I do think “defense in depth” applies here as much as it ever does. Airpower and long-ranged PGMs (NLOS-LS, if it ever lives up to the hype) should be the our primary offensive counter.

    But as others have said, the transition from “small boat traffic” to “attacking small boat swarm” may be so quick that it behooves us to have a means to screen high-value assets in the littorals. Having at least some ability to “counter-swarm” seems prudent, IMHO. The counter-swarm’s primary purpose shouldn’t be offensive (though no reason to preclude this). It should be a credible deterrent though, and should be able to occupy the enemy swarm until the helo or fixed-wing CAP arrives to finish them off.

    Anyone know how these Bladerunner-51s handle in rough seas? At slow loiter/patrol speeds? Are they just go-fasts? Are they even worth considering for a counter-swarm?

  7. Hudson permalink
    April 14, 2010 1:53 am

    Anyone who has been attacked by swarms of insects, mosquitoes, say (200 bites), knows the irritation, frustration, panic even, of dealing with the swarm attack. You can smear yourself bloody with the critters, and more come. The swarm acts like an individual but shows no concern for individual losses. It is heedless, remorseless, and apparently of infinite strength.

    In the Millenium 2000 simulated attack by swarms of small craft and missiles on Blue Team’s big boat fleet, Red Team’s tactics were based on animal and insect swarm and pack behavior, and Red Team won the simulation. Its losses were not posted, and it was allowed to shadow Blue’s ships for days before staging its preemptive strike at point blank range–something to remember in comparing this game with the challenge speedboat flotillas in the Persian Gulf would face in attacking an alert, aroused battle fleet.

    History has shown examples of one who has stood against many; and many overcoming smaller, better equipped forces. Take your pick. We know that the Navy is well aware of the challenge it faces, prepares for it, drills for it, has probably mapped every boat basin and shore missile battery along the Gulf and programmed that info into its computers. It has its own swarms of shells, missiles, bombs, and rockets–surely, more than one round for every boat Iran possess. Probably thousands of lethal fragments for every enemy surface vessel. It could be that the most dangerous vessels will be individual subs and semi-submersibles, if it comes to war. The Navy is aware of them, as well.

    The Navy consistently announces confidence in its anti-swarm strategy. Whether that is bravado, I don’t know. Does it have all the weapons it needs? Maybe not. The Navy doesn’t spell out its plans and defenses in detail. I do know that the most formidable insect swarms in nature can be defeated by relatively simple measures (beekeeper hats, gloves, etc.). Which somehow gives me confidence that the Navy can defend itself against these critters.

  8. leesea permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:42 pm

    Chuck you are right about the paucity of platforms being a major factor in helo CAPs I proposed. I would think that more helos on more ships and more UAVs everywhere might tip the balance.

    I am highly skeptical of advanced weapons being launched successfully from speedboats? Sure they might fit but handling and targeting become problematical. That is not the same with *real* FACs built for the purpose of attacking other ships. The PLan Houbeis as discussed in current USNI Proceedings article on the other hand scare the blazes out of me!

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:30 pm

    If we are going into make an opposed landing. We will not wait for the speed boats to attack us. We will hit everything they have to oppose the landing with aircraft and missiles.

    It is when hostility is unclear that there is danger to warships.

    Smart weapons are getting cheaper and smaller. There is the possibility of putting small cruise missiles, torpedoes, and ManPADs on even small speed boats. Once small cruise missiles swamp the defense and start hitting, even if the ship is in no immediate danger of sinking, they will rapidly degrade defenses as sensors and fire control systems go off line and power is lost to weapons. This will make it easier for each successive wave of missiles to hit their target. Perhaps the idea would be to make an initial covert attack, followed closely by a simultaneous launch from a swarm to degrade the defenses, and then make the kill with heavier missiles launched from shore.

  10. Distiller permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:18 pm

    I can’t share the optimism of the helicopter vs spped boat crowd. I mean, how many armed helicopters are out there in a Navy task group? In the Strait they will be busy with anti-mine and ASW ops, how many are left to be armed with Hellfire and 25mm guns? More precise: how many are out there at any given moment? The approaches are short, the number of attackers will be substantial, and they won’t be so friendly as to come from one direction. Due to the nature of the Strait all ships will be in a line, so the flanks are vulnerable. How good is the radar in directing ESSM against speed boats, and not the big fat carrier 4 degrees further to the right? Same for the gun.

  11. geopolicraticus permalink
    April 13, 2010 1:55 pm

    Thanks for citing my post and discussing the scenario from my Speedboat Diplomacy. I further developed the idea of swarming in The Swarming Attack, and from a different angle in Revolutionary Violence, though I see now that this is just a start and I will have to work more on this.

    Best wishes,

    J. N. Nielsen

  12. leesea permalink
    April 13, 2010 12:35 pm

    I do not think the solution is small, or in other words one does not fight small boats with more small boats (be they CB-90s or USVs). When a naval task force goes into restricted waters (as in the dangerous green waters), it should have a CAP up. Think of that not necessarily in carrier terms, but as what an ARG would have the capabiliy for. So when an ARG heads to its AOA, they need to have armed helos gunships with needed sensors ALOFT on patrol to counter the threat of small boats (individually or in swarms). A good long duration UAV would be a needed asset to patrol overhead. The Fire Scout seems to fit the bill I am thinking of, but I am just going its recent testing reported?

    So with the task force’s aviation assets up, they are coveing tht OTH area, AND presumably can identify/sink individual attacking boats, so what else is needed? The answer is pretty obvious. Major naval ships like LPD17s need many more weapons to defend against that boat swarm. LCS will have to keep its gun modules onboard full time I think and add more medium and small caliber weapons. Big deck amphibs are painfully under-armed. And which warships will be protecting the NFAF, MPS, AFOE and sealift ships that need to move through chokepoints often?

    There could be a long discussion of guns versus missiles, but the important thing is MORE barrels and tubes must be available to shoot back at small boat attacks. Until the Navy recognizes it has a serious problem in the middle & short range waters around a TG, they will not modify any ships to deploy such weapons.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 13, 2010 11:58 am

    Joe K said “And a swarm of suicide speedboats is no substitute for a working Navy.”

    Certainly, but it is a form of sea denial that can’t be ignored. Consider the position of the Iranian Navy, right among one of the world’s most important waterways, if not the most important considering our dependence on the oil flow (the oil must flow!). The denier always ties down exorbitant forces to its size and capability. The defender must be strong everywhere, the enemy can strike at a time and place of his choosing. Here is the irregular warfare on land transported to the sea.

    Arkady wrote “To design the USN to only fight in confined waters would be to make the USN unable to fight in the ocean.”

    Here is the problem I have with the premise of that statement, and it is also the Navy’s opinion. To think that seapower is black and white, that you can only deploy either a Blue Water fleet or a littoral navy is a fallacy. A superpower like the USN should make the transition with ease as does all dominate Blue Water navies historically.

    I have never said we must give up Blue Water dominance to fight in the littorals, and actually it would be a further extension of our current command of the sea. Jerry Hendricks pointed out in his recent Influence Squadron article that only 10% of the current shipbuilding budget. I think we could expend much more than that without effecting our superiority. Which nation has a single carrier with the ability of our 11, plus a like number of V/STOL capable ships? What other navy other than allies deploy Aegis type warships or nuke submarines with the ability of ours, which we deploy 100 and more?

    So you give up nothing but actually increase capability by dispersing it into the littorals.

    Concerning LCS as a speedboat destroyer, if you are going to arm a ship like a corvette or patrol boat, it should be of like size and cost. Using frigates against small craft won’t work because the frigates are needed for Blue Water warfare. For sea control numbers count as much if not more than capability. Capability cannot duplicate availability. There is no historical basis that technology will replace hulls in the water, in fact the opposite has always been the case.

  14. ArkadyRenko permalink
    April 13, 2010 11:08 am

    This is the problem with swarming speedboat attacks. Are they any good 300 nm from shore? Do you fear a sudden swarm of small boats, when the carrier battle group is that 300 nm away? No.

    Carriers properly deployed, that is in open ocean, have immense advantages over speedboats. And, if your navy has to travel over the open ocean to reach its patrolling group, your ships need to be bigger.

    The LCS, for all its flaws, does have a fairly inventive anti-speed boat design. First, it has a selection of light armament (not enough, but a good amount) that is solely designed to target speedboats. Second, the LCS will deploy unmanned speed boats. These unmanned speed boats will be able to fight against other speed boats, probably with greater success due to the increased accuracy of the boat’s guns.

    The fact is, though, that in confined water any ship will be at a disadvantage to a swarm. That is undeniable. But, the USN does not only operate in confined waters, it also operates on the open ocean. To design the USN to only fight in confined waters would be to make the USN unable to fight in the ocean. The question is not how do we fight swarms in the Persian gulf. It is, how can we give a blue water fleet the capability to fight those swarms.

    Perhaps, you want LPD-17s deploying unmanned speed boats from its stern ramp to help break up the attacks.

    Finally, the speedboats shown usually only armed with RPGs, RPKs, and several tons of TNT. I don’t think that Iran arms its boghammers with anti-ship missiles (because of the size requirements) or supercavitating torpedoes (ditto). Those weapons would be put onto larger ships, which would be the first target for air attackers.

    As the USN has just cleared the guided 2.75 in rocket for service, that will help with the smaller swarming boats. Attack helicopters can carry a large number of those rockets, so you can save the Hellfires for the more important targets.

  15. Joe K. permalink
    April 13, 2010 10:57 am

    There’s so much focus on the attack and not enough on the context.

    If Iran was to use speedboats as suicide bombs against our forces they will not deploy swarms. They will likely use one or two at a time, hit the target(s), and with those small numbers will probably deny involvement (which would still be iffy because of this publicity). Not to mention the moment they hit a ship (be it destroyer or carrier) unless they somehow get out of the blame they will be incurring the wrath of the US military. And a swarm of suicide speedboats is no substitute for a working Navy. They tried a massive draftee/suicide force during the 8-year-long war with Iraq and it still ended up as a stalemate. Considering what Saddam had then, how likely are the results going to get better against what we have now?

    Also think about their position. We have boots on the ground East and West of them, a naval force in and near the Persian Gulf, significant airpower, and several allies in the region (some of which we have been arming i.e. Saudi Arabia) with aircraft that can fly transcontinental. Not to mention the local populace is not so keen on their own government.

  16. Hudson permalink
    April 13, 2010 10:53 am

    One simple solution to the few places where the Navy would face large numbers of small craft in confined waters, i.e., the Persian Gulf, would be to unleash numbers of Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles into the mix.

    The EFV is a true amphibian: It can zip along at 28mph in up sea state 4, according to its specs, and has a range of 74 miles in water. Armed with 30mm cannon and 7.62mm machine gun, it has plenty of firepower to destroy a speedboat. It can carry 17 troops; or fewer troops and more supplies and equipment. It is small enough with a distinctive shape that Navy shooters would not mistake it for an Iranian vessel.

    Additionally, it could raid Iranian shore targets and speed away. An LPD-17 can carry 14 or more EFVs. A simple, cost-efective solution as part of the overall defense of Naval ships–if the Marines ever get these powerful, versatile vehicles, that is.

  17. Chuck Hill permalink
    April 13, 2010 10:35 am

    We have sufficient resources to address this threat, if we shape the circumstances. CBD showed us the perfect weapon over in “Breaking News.”

    “APKWS II (Laser guided Hydra rockets) approved for LRIP by USN. Initial deployment planned for USMC AH-1W helicopters, many of which are still in Iraq and a few of which are now in AFG. Looks like wartime trials of the laser guided hydra are in the works. Should be interesting to see how well these work.”

    (Bet these could also be mounted on the side of the Mk38 mod 2.)

    Unfortunately if we get arrogant, sloppy, or just lazy they are going to score some successes.

  18. B.Smitty permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:30 am

    Phalanx 1B has upgrades for dealing with surface threats. There was a video of Phalanx testing against a small boat target on the Internet a while back. I don’t know about an automatic acquisition mode though.

  19. Charley permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:04 am

    I’m curious if the CIWS can be adapted to deal with this threat. Maybe an automatic acquisition mode, but engaging is commanded.


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