Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 3
New Wars has been pondering all week what if any threat is there in the Iranian acquisition of an advanced high speed vessel, literally a speedboat, the Bladerunner 51 built by Ice Marine and a record-breaking design. Specifically do such small but lightly armed and potentially vulnerable-to-aircraft platforms threaten the most powerful warships ever to sail the oceans, and symbols of the might and dominance of the US Navy. The original designers of the littoral combat ship (LCS), when it was known as Streetfighter, thought the Big Ships might be at risk from such craft:
By spring 2000, Adm. Cebrowski had developed a pretty clear idea of what Streetfighters might look like. New, wave-piercing catamaran hulls, made of kevlar and carbon fiber, would allow the small ships to navigate rougher seas and carry far more weapons than previous generations of small ships. Working with the engineering faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., Adm. Cebrowski sketched out designs for some Streetfighter ships.
Tested in a Game
Three months later, he introduced a class of them, based on the designs, into the Navy’s annual war game, a computerized mock battle. Initially, the Streetfighters inspired confusion. China’s commanders, played by intelligence specialists and retired officers, began the war wanting to hit something that would produce a big body count — “something that would make the folks in Dubuque ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” says George Price, a defense intelligence specialist who led the Chinese forces.
Streetfighters were relatively easy to hit, compared with the Navy’s big ships hundreds of miles off the coast. But with their crews of 13, killing them wasn’t going to yield many casualties. The Chinese commanders were never sure whether they were worth hunting down. “They represented a problem for me because I couldn’t get the shock value I wanted from killing them,” says Dr. Price. “To be honest, the ships were a nagging sore.”
This may remind you of another wargame, played out to test the effect of saturation and swarm attacks against the US Navy. This time it was a prelude to the Iraq Invasion, with a maverick Marine general leading a force of small attack boats against the carriers, in a 2002 test titled “Millennium Challenge”. David Crane at Defense Review writes:
Oh, but, David, even if they’re successful in producing hundreds of Bladerunner 51 / Bradstone Challenger rip-offs, small boat swarming tactics will never work against the great and powerful U.S. Navy. Really? Try telling that to Opposing Force (OPFOR) Commander, Gen. Paul Van Riper, who ripped through the U.S. fleet like a ravenous hyena feverishly devouring a giraffe carcas during an infamous training exercise called “Millennium Challenge 02“. Basically, he sank two thirds of it with “nothing more than a few small boats (fishing boats, patrol boats, etc.) and aircraft.” Gary Brecher a.k.a. “War Nerd” described Gen. Van Riper’s naval combat tactics and the ramifications (i.e. big-picture significance) of the resulting (simulated) carnage to our warships, as follows:
“He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, Van Riper had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.”
It was the same thing, only this time it wasn’t the unprepared and poorly maintained speedboats of Revolutionary Iran, which was already fighting with one hand tied, on land distracted by a grueling war with Iraq. It was a modern fleet filled with modern boats, using the tactics a well-trained and prepared force might use against the Navy.
Somewhere, out of all this, the USN rejected the concept of small boat warfare, despite mounting evidence that such vessels would be trouble in the future, and took a more familiar route. Still fighting the last war, specifically Operation Praying Mantis against the Iranians, they constructed a more familiar frigate, a $700 million wonder vessel which could never begin to equal the speedboats in number. It’s only protection so far against the swarm is the traditional helicopter, so proven against Iranian and Iraqi small warships that there was no challenge to their dominance of the skies. Or was there?:
…that’s the thing about technology; it just keeps moving forward, and guided missile technology seems to be advancing as fast or faster than any other kind of military tech–and getting cheaper and more plentiful by the day, to boot. What if all the Iranian boat crews are armed with KBM IGLA-S (“Needle-S”), or IGLA-Super, portable antiaircraft missile complex (PAAMC)/MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense System) systems? Attack helicopters and armed fixed-wing aircraft are much more expensive than MANPADS.
…but what if the Iranians purchase a fleet of Mi-28A/N Havoc attack helicopters and Su-25SM Frogfoot Grach (Rook) aircraft to counter our Cobras, Apaches, and CAV I LAARs? Or, what if they simply augment the armed speedboats with large numbers of torpedo and anti-ship cruise missile-armed (low-cost) fixed-wing, prop-driven reconnaissance/attack aircraft (armed with the latest Russian and/or Chinese torpedoes and missiles?
Understanding they could never build carriers or giant missile battleships to counter the carrier strike groups of the West, the Iranians have persisted in perfecting what they could afford, which was the small boat swarm. The LCS’ high speed is intentionally meant so it could outpace the speedboat, though remember the battlecruisers from the last century which was almost built for speed, at least they only ran from something larger and more heavily gunned, unlike LCS will do.
OK, I get it. It is about gaining maneuvering room so the LCS can engage the enemy boats more effectively. Still, it would have been better for LCS, or Streetfighter to be the threat to the other side, instead of creating its own revolution with untried and uncertain technology. The Iranians seem less reluctant, apparently not so bound by the traditions of the past and the Big Navy mindset.
So did I answer the question? Can a speedboat sink a carrier? Well, under the right conditions, any warship is vulnerable to surprise attacks, but with a few simple countermeasures, the carrier will likely be fine against this particular menace. She can surround herself with escorts, and sweep the seas with plentiful attack planes and missile armed helos. A more logical strategy would simply be to keep away from shallow water regions where the small boats are confined, which means no more sailing leisurely into the Taiwan Straits and especially not boldly into the Persian Gulf as they often do in wartime or crisis.
While the Navy is focused on defending her Big Ships, what will the Iranians be doing but attacking America’s merchant assets. While the giant ships are safe enough, the vulnerable commercial fleet is often told to fend for themselves from attacks by small craft, notably pirates around the Gulf of Aden. Obsessed as they are with carrier-warfare and defense, the Navy has lost the vital sea control that ensures unimpeded passage on the high seas. The small speed boat navy roams at will, but the admirals in their floating fortresses feel secure, content with the occasional headline making takedown of a pirate skiff or mothership.
As often happens with Western land armies versus the insurgent of late, by ignoring the rise of these speed boats navies, by refusing to build many cheap but essential small craft for sea control themselves, the Navy can win every battle at sea, but still lose the war.
(Thanks to Solomon at Snafu! blog for help with the closing point.)