Dispatch October 2008

Asymmetry at Sea

What war with Iran in the Gulf could be like

The heart of the IRGCN arsenal is its 200 small potential-suicide boats. They tend to be locally produced fiberglass motorboats with a heavy machine gun, a multiple rocket-launcher, or a mine. They may also carry heavy explosives, if rigged to ram and blow a hole in the hull of a larger ship. These boats will likely employ a strategy of “swarming”—coming out of nowhere to ambush merchant convoys and American warships in narrow shipping lanes. Iran’s three Kilo-class submarines and four smaller, locally made midget submarines will help out, the latter by mining channels and choke-points.  And the most potent weapon the IRGCN may possess is its religious zeal and culture of martyrdom. Thousands of religious commissars buttress its ranks, and the IRGCN has emphasized preparing spiritually for asymmetric combat.

The U.S. Navy is certainly not defenseless against kamikaze warfare. “We have been preparing for it for a number of years with changes in training and equipment,” said Vice Admiral (ret.) Kevin Cosgriff, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Cosgriff told me that the U.S. has put more machine guns and 25-millimeter gyro-stabilized guns on the decks of warships, modified the 5-inch gun to make it more capable of dealing with high-speed boats, and improved the sensor suit of the Aegis computer-integrated combat system aboard destroyers and cruisers. But Cosgriff cautions that the IRGCN represents an “evolving, thinking adversary” who may employ not only simple swarming tactics but also attacks by fewer platforms that come armed with more sophisticated weapons, like anti-ship missiles and long-range torpedoes.

In 2002, the U.S. military conducted a war game that revealed a critical vulnerability to swarming speedboats in shallow coastal waters like the Gulf. The war game led to “the worst [simulated] naval defeat since Pearl Harbor,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Stanley Weeks, a naval specialist at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington, told me that “swarming, together with mobile coastal missile batteries aimed at our ships, might overload our combat systems and is, therefore, a real concern and stress.” U.S. ships and helicopters with precision guided weapons might destroy most of these small boats, but if even a few boats and missiles get through, they could create psychological and financial havoc.

There is one nightmare scenario, however, that will not happen. A third Gulf war won't replicate many times what happened in 2000 in Aden, Yemen, when a suicide bomber rammed the USS Cole and killed 17 sailors. The Cole was at anchor and at a minimum state of readiness. In the next Gulf war, our ships will be moving and on high alert. And the Aegis system is designed to shoot over the horizon at multiple attackers. Swarming small boats might turn out to be an unnerving nuisance, rather than a pivotal threat, somewhat like the attacks from small trucks of the Fedayeen Saddam on U.S. ground forces en route to Baghdad in 2003.

We can’t be sure how a naval war will play out. We defeated Iran’s conventional navy in the Gulf in 1987-88, during the reflagging and escort of Kuwait tankers. The Iranians have, as the losing side, worked hard to find fixes to the problems that conflict revealed. Despite all our preparations, the Iranians have been faster and more aggressive in expanding their sea-based asymmetric warfare capability than we have been in countering it. The U.S. Navy has been working on the Littoral Combat Ship, which would provide added protection against swarm attacks. But it could be years before the required dozens of these ships are ready. The U.S. Navy is still, by and large, a conventional blue-water force designed to patrol vast oceans, win classic sea battles, and pound an enemy with overwhelming firepower from offshore positions. A close-in, dirty war in narrow coastal waters is not something we can’t do, but it is something we should try to avoid. It does not play to our strengths.

Some of the promoters of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities have sold the strike as a high-tech, airborne surgical attack. But a look at the naval environment indicates that like the Iraq invasion, what starts surgically could end very messily indeed.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington. His most recent book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground (2007).

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