Swarming Tactics

Today's Navy Times (28 March) has an article that reports 'swarming tactics' were used by Iranian forces when they captured fifteen Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel on Friday. Their use of this tactic should come as no surprise, and yet that appears to have been exactly the case.

In his article, Andrew Scutro cited Cdr. Kevin Aandahl, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, who said the British force was "swarmed by six motor patrol boats from the IRGCN [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval]." Although full details of the action have yet to be made public, the Iranians conducted themselves very efficiently, taking advantage of the physical disposition of the boarded Indian merchant vessel that screened HMS Cornwall from her own boats.

The fact that the IRGCN has been practicing swarming tactics was identified in an article by Fariborz Haghshenass, entitled "Iran's Doctrine of Asymmetric Naval Warfare" that was published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy on their "Policy Watch" website, on 21 December 2006. In a typical, example of 'mirror imaging', the assumption was that these tactics would be used against enemy warships. There was no suggestion that the tactic could be used in this innovative way to achieve a very local albeit very temporary superiority, and that it could achieve practical but non-lethal results. The Iranian's new operating concept has now been employed tactically, and it is time to examine our vulnerability to further incidents of this type.

Built in 1985, Cornwall is a 'stretched' Type 22-class frigate and is one of the many examples of her type of warship that are so often described as 'general purpose' and are employed on a myriad of tasks. However, as this case illustrates, littoral operations in high traffic areas present opportunities for tactical surprise that are unlikely in more open waters. At 5,300 tonnes displacement and 148 metres in length, Cornwall is too large and un-manoeuvrable to react appropriately to sudden and unexpected developments. Moreover, they lack the all-round defensive weaponry that is essential to counter a swarming attack. Unable to react and lacking the necessary armament to deal with six-to-one odds, Cornwall did the appropriate thing and did not intervene. The real question now is: "What lessons can Canada draw from this event?"

Canadian naval vessels and their boats are frequently employed on tasks identical to that assigned to Cornwall. Indeed, the article records that American and Australian crews frequently operate in the same area and that it could have been their personnel that were captured by the Iranians. At 4,750 tonnes and 134 meters, our Halifax-class frigates are only marginally lighter and shorter than Cornwall and are no better armed with short-range weapons. Given much the same circumstances, it could just as easily been Canadian sailors taken captive.

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