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Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 3

April 14, 2010

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

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.)

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2014 5:47 pm

    Type 022 Fast boat of china weakest defending at rear section.. If we attack them with helicopters from behind, the victory belong to us.

  2. AmericanVet permalink
    August 27, 2010 10:50 pm

    I would like to believe our navy has devised methods and tactics to deal with these small speedboats. They have, I would surmise, consulted with retired Marine General Van Riper.

    I would speculate that missile equipped helicopters would be used to easily seek and destroy very vulnerable surface vessels. Hard to hide on the seas or in the desert.

    In addition, I would suspect they would use massive explosive ordinance to drop on the speedboats by drones, an “airborne depth charge”, so to speak, dropped in front of a speedboat. Even if the boat sharply turned, it still would be caught in the proximity of a huge blast.

    They could also use jamming equipment to disable the boats electronics, as well as airborne lasers.

  3. CBD permalink
    April 19, 2010 2:43 pm

    “Because they’re using swarm of small speedboat, so the USN must do the same?”
    No, but we should have some craft more appropriate to engaging the speedboat threat. A ship similar in scale to the old torpedo boat destroyers and destroyer escorts, to face threats as numerous and of similar scale as the threats those ships engaged…but threats that, with modern electronic systems that make them much more powerful on that small scale.

    While there is nothing that can hope to challenge our Burke-class destroyers on equal terms, there are many other ships that could sink these destroyers…ships that do not match the Burkes in their ability to strike at targets on land or in the air, but only capable of striking the Burkes from beyond the range at which the Burkes can strike back at them.

    It’s the same trick in land warfare: tanks are superior to infantry or light vehicles, but sending a tank platoon into an infantry-rich environment without an infantry escort will result in the rapid and thorough destruction of the entire tank platoon at the hands of the ‘inferior’ infantry with the aid of concealment and a few light weapons (mines, molotov cocktails, grenades and RPGs/ATGMs). Tactics allow those light infantry to destroy the massive tanks. But put a couple of infantry teams alongside the tanks and you’ve protected them from surprise infantry attacks and you’ll have a force that can defeat any land force. It’s the core of the combined arms tactics employed in every modern military force.

    Why should naval vessels be immune from the rules of land warfare? A ship without sonar capabilities is unable to defend itself against even the simplest of mines or submarines. Ships are benefited by their ability to contain many, heavy systems that would be immobile if included in a single craft on land…but they still require the equivalent of infantry to guard against the small but powerful threats while they threaten the large enemy assets on shore, in the air and at sea.

    “You utilize your strengths and advantages to counter your enemy’s strengths and advantages. That’s warfare.”
    Yes. And to ignore an enemy strength and one of your own weaknesses is to needlessly leave yourself open to defeat.

    “I’m sick of ‘analysis’ saying ‘we must use this, we must use that, our enemy has this, has that…’. Its not about WEAPON or PLATFORM, its about SYSTEM and TACTIC. ‘Swarm’ is doomed against superior air power and ISR. Period.”
    If we have superior air power to spare and ISR to spare. UAVs with sufficient range and minimal deck requirements have only recently arrived in the form of the Insitu ScanEagle and Integrator UAVs…these will cover the issue of ISR and, even more importantly, targeting. But we can’t guarantee air superiority in all environments and at all times…but improving our ships to handle the threat without the air superiority.

    That means systems to engage smaller craft (like the Mk 38 Mod 2, but also laser guided rockets and ATGMs/small missiles in appropriate stations) and the means of engaging enemy ships at longer ranges (with newer ASCM technology, like the NSM and supersonic strike systems). We have the means of making very small, but powerful weapons to engage these threats.

    So, you might ask, why bother with the smaller ships? Why bother with patrol boats or frigates that are any less capable than the Burke-class destroyers with these ISR and strike upgrades?

    Because we can’t afford the presence that the USN desires if the only ship available to respond to low-tech pirates is a $1.8 billion Destroyer, a $1.8 billion LPD or an aging and decreasingly capable Frigate (fewer of the last are even available). It just doesn’t make sense. The proposal is, thus, to seek cheaper alternatives…admittedly less capable alternatives, in order to provide the desired presence.

  4. Saberhagen permalink
    April 19, 2010 12:30 pm

    Because they’re using swarm of small speedboat, so the USN must do the same? So may I suggest the US Army drop the professional volunteer force and go back to the massive draft force, and get rid of all the heavy vest and stuffs to ‘match’ the simplicity and speed of insurgents? That’s nonsense. You utilize your strengths and advantages to counter your enemy’s strengths and advantages. That’s warfare. I’m sick of ‘analysis’ saying ‘we must use this, we must use that, our enemy has this, has that…’. Its not about WEAPON or PLATFORM, its about SYSTEM and TACTIC. ‘Swarm’ is doomed against superior air power and ISR. Period.

  5. CBD permalink
    April 19, 2010 9:54 am

    But can we do it with our surface vessels alone striking at an enemy that is over 100 miles away? Can we detect them in time, can we intercept in time? If the Chinese use satellite data to vector in the missiles or if the Iranians manage to repeat their feat from Lebanon of using non-threatening radars to determine target vectors, what is our counter?

    The latest Burkes apparently lack their Harpoons and those are surprisingly short ranged. Our Tomahawks can reach far, but must be programmed and are thus slow to launch. Our SM-2s have apparent anti-ship capabilities, but aren’t necessarily prepared to engage in a competent ECM environment…and not at such ranges.

    The US never developed high-end AShMs like the USSR/Russians, because no threat was seen that could overcome the air strike package of the A-6, F-14 and F/A-18. But the longest ranged and fastest responding of those are gone…and many threats may not wait for carriers these days. Harpoons are good, but outclassed by many Russian and European competitors (in range, speed, stealthiness and maneuvering).

    I think that there’s a serious lack of practical surface-engagement capabilities at these longer ranges…and that few nations would bother firing such missiles from close ranges. This may, IMHO, result in our surface vessels being unable to engage the shooters in a timely manner without the capabilities of the CVBG.

  6. leesea permalink
    April 18, 2010 8:49 pm

    CBD, of course the USN could “shoot the shooter” and is does NOT require a CVBG to do that. More small combatants could be used to take the Houbeis out enroute to getting into range (I believe I saw 150 mile range for the ASM?). The Type 022 do not have long legs and need target direction. Another two vunerabilites which COULD be exploited, but not by a few big ships far away in a CVBG.

    Boosting big ship self defense weapons would seem to be an obviouse precaution the USN is not adopting in any signficant manner? That of course is subjective.

  7. CBD permalink
    April 18, 2010 11:09 am

    Certainly…especially when you’re lacking in means of intercepting such craft before they can strike at friendly forces. Or, in question form:

    Can the USN “Shoot the Shooter” in a modern, at-sea war without the presence of a CVBG?

    Can the USN “Shoot the Shooter” in a modern, at-sea war with the presence of a CVBG?

    Can the USN “Shoot the Shooter” in a modern, at-sea & on-land war with and without a CVBG?

    How many carrier groups would be needed to provide for both carrier-based strikes ashore AND dominance of the air-sea battle? Would an entire CVN be needed to defend a 2 CVBG group from air and sea attacks when opposing an enemy with long-ranged ASCMs placed on aircraft, shore batteries and on ships? Is our ISRT up to the task of targeting for anti-ship TACTOM strikes? Are the numbers of Harpoons enough? Are the Harpoons capable enough?

    Lots of unanswered questions in my mind out of that. Many of those questions I have answers to just reveal more problems.

    Boosting AShM and CIWS capabilities is important. So is ensuring that we have the types of ships that can serve as pickets (since aircraft can’t always be there and neither can our modern day DDG/battleships). If a CVN is damaged so that most flight operations aren’t possible (a strike to the forward end of the runway, where the 2 main cats are), does its protection cost more than the benefit of the few sorties it can support?

  8. leesea permalink
    April 18, 2010 12:53 am

    When on throws PLAN Type 022 Houbeis into this discussion, I think the results will change drastically?

  9. CBD permalink
    April 17, 2010 4:23 pm

    Little boats off of Somalia are making ranges of >1,000nm. They don’t need to start from shore bases…they don’t need to come from the coast of Iran. They can come from the southern shores of Yemen and the northern shores of Eritrea…they don’t need to be definitively associated with Iran. They could be used to cripple a carrier in the Suez…which would block traffic through the Suez and delay a carrier response to a crisis near Iran for over a week…or entirely block the arrival of an additional carrier to the South China Sea.

    The current US response to a mine strike on a CVN would not be to push on at 95% capability…even when responding to a crisis. So an enemy need not completely incapacitate a CVN, just cause enough of a crisis to impair its response.

    The USN needs to develop smaller ships (torpedo boat destroyers/corvettes) to counter small threats because they will be able to shift the threat balance and thus dissuade small craft attacks by making their chance of success against a major ship nil. Numbers of less capable ships will fill that gap and tilt the cost-benefit analysis in our favor.

    Other nations will use a similar rationale to dissuade an American response to certain crises. If they can cause even minor damage to a carrier it will be recalled and the response will be slowed and its force weakened. Small suicide craft, fast attack boats, explosives-laden UAVs and ASCMs are cheap and dangerous. They will try to tilt our cost-benefit analysis in their favor.

    Without some means of countering these threats, the persuasive force of the USN is diffused and lost.

    A USN corvette will have the capabilities in terms of ISRT, precision weapons and training to defeat ‘equivalent’ and even ‘superior’ opposing ships (by armament specifications) without occupying the time and efforts of a Burke-class DDG, our only remaining surface combatant. They’re superior to helicopters because they may need to refuel, but they can be deployed without deploying an AEGIS ship.

    They’re inferior to modern frigates or destroyers but superior to most of the ships that will face ours. They will take on the threats at sea while the CVBGs, DESRONs and SSGNs engage threats on shore and in the air. They can serve to boost the respect that friendly and neutral nations have for the USN and the US because we’ll know how to give them advice that will benefit the operations of their small ships because tips about operating a CVBG or ARG are much less important to most nations than tips on handling ships in the 1-3k ton displacement category.

  10. April 15, 2010 3:29 am

    The problem with the small boat against carrier argument is that the small boats are always seen as acting alone.

    The attack scenario assumes that the aircraft carrier will be able to deploy the full array of forces against the threat.

    But what happens when this small boat attack is coordinated with other forces? You add in aircraft, anti-ship missiles…even mini-subs and swimmers and what do you have? Additionally what happens when one of these ships are in restricted waters? Like at the entrance to the Persian Gulf?

    There are all kinds of vulnerabilities but no one wants to discuss them. I can understand it because it makes people uncomfortable, but its there.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 14, 2010 11:58 am

    “Speedboats don’t have great endurance.”

    Giving extra range to a speedboat gave us the LCS mistake, not quite a speedboat, or a frigate. Confusing roles will get us further from what we need in a present and future fleet.

    Continuing to argue against the “do it all nothing well” warship. Motherships support smaller ships by adding range and capability. Forward deployment of small ships have been used successfully in all wars, currently with the Cyclone patrol boats in the Gulf.

    Corvettes at one-third the size and cost of LCS also possess decent range and firepower for tackling small boats swarms. OPVs are even cheaper. I have been a consistent advocate for such vessels for building up fleet numbers, and also for use against low tech navies in the Third World. As is, we use our most expensive warships for this purpose, and the LCS falls in this category. Problem is, if you only possess high end exquisite warships geared for Blue Water warfare, what do you do when you are attacked by both high and low end threats?

  12. ArkadyRenko permalink
    April 14, 2010 10:57 am

    The Streetfighter and speedboat concepts are nice, but they suffer one glaring flaw: range.

    Speedboats don’t have great endurance. For the speedboat swarm to work, they have to be cheap and fast. Increasing the range of the speedboat will decrease their initial speed and reduce their cost. One strategy to attack the speedboats is to dedicate some fighters to bombing refueling sites along the coast. Yes, there will be many many refueling sites, but that’s where the Joint STARS would be handy. In any case, the commanders dealing with a swarm of speedboats in the gulf will have a tough time, because the gulf is not the ideal place for any ship. But, it will be manageable, if the commander keeps his wits (unlike those in the wargame…).

    As to your suggestion: What if the speedboats had air cover. Well, that air cover would be slaughtered by the F-18s flying from the carriers. And, MANPADs vs Hellfires is an unequal battle, as Hellfires have a longer range than MANPADs. What the air cover can do, combined with swarms of cheap missiles, is overwhelm the US fleet. That’s what the small boats will do. Not sink ships, distract ships and damage them, with RPGs and the like, so that the accompanying swarm of expendable airplanes and low tech cruise missiles have a better chance.

    To the Streetfighter. Wonderful idea, I’m just curious to know, how do you plan to refuel and rearm those vessels, when they’re operating right next to China’s coast? Will you sail an UNREP ship up to the coast and watch it be smothered with ASMs? Or do you spend tens of billions to design a stealthy UNREP ship?

    And, the Chinese Admirals in that wargame sound incompetent. They’re strategy is to break the will of the American people by sinking big ships. That’s a sound strategy for some circumstances. But, when the US changes its fleet design, than all the Chinese had to do is swarm the near seas with Tactical aircraft. The Streetfighters are unable to defend against a dedicated attack, and after several days, the Streetfighter fleet could be whittled down until its just a nuisance.

    Small boats need numbers to succeed. If the other side has the benefit of time, patience, and longer ranged weapons, then they can over several days bring the small boat fleet to something more manageable.

    I agree that in the Gulf, any ship will be doomed. But that’s just because of the nature of the Persian gulf. The USN should build ships to contest these waters, but don’t expect the Navy to design its whole fleet to fight in confined areas, or even half its fleet.

    As for fighting for control of the Persian Gulf, the best strategy there is to hold the merchant ships in port for the two – three weeks needed to break the Iranian Navy. Once that is accomplished, then you will run convoys through the Strait of Hormuz.

    And, the piracy example is not good, because no side is fighting the pirates. Everyone is ‘managing’ the piracy problem, and you’re seeing the results of trying to ‘manage’ pirates. If the USN moved in about 20 warships, and began attacking pirate havens with Marines and airplanes, then we could talk about a sufficient response or not. Right now, the anti-piracy measures seem to be motivated by the desire to do something, but not attack Somalia.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 14, 2010 10:18 am

    Sadly, you may be right. The world’s most expensive patrol boats!

  14. ShockwaveLover permalink
    April 14, 2010 10:05 am

    Sadly, what I think you’ll end up getting is 100 superships to cover a couple million square kilometres of ocean…

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 14, 2010 8:18 am

    SWL-I’d settle for a Pulitzer, or a Denny’s coupon!

  16. ShockwaveLover permalink
    April 14, 2010 7:12 am

    And…that’s a wrap, ladies and gentlemen!

    Mike, I’m thinking academy award material right here.

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