The RN and USN adjust their tactics and equipment: can Canada do the same?

A recent report in the U.K. press describes the return of RN warships to the northern Arabian Gulf following the capture of 15 British sailors and marines in a ‘swarming’ attack by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval forces on 23 March. This time, boats from HMS Richmond F-239 (a 436-foot “Type 23” Duke-class frigate that replaced HMS Cornwall in July) are escorted on their boarding trips by two 34-foot American gunboats that are each armed with four 50-calibre heavy machine guns and four other medium-calibre machine guns. In addition, a suitably-armed helicopter from Richmond flies nearby the four-boat team. The “complete overhaul of procedures, training and equipment” conducted by the RN has resulted in the already obvious answers to the tactics employed by the enemy: at least match them in numbers of comparable types; surpass them in firepower; and exploit an asymmetric advantage if you have one.

The need for small boats was underscored when, on 24 April 2004, an Arab dhow exploded next to USS Firebolt’s boarding team, killing three American sailors. (Firebolt (PC-10) is a 170-foot Cyclone-class patrol craft.) Only a few minutes later, two explosive-laden skiffs heading for the Al Basra oil terminal were blown up just short of their target. Just as is happening ashore, the use of suicide bombers can now be expected as a routine event in counterinsurgency/irregular warfare at sea.

Neither improvised explosive devices nor short-range attacks pressed home with suicidal determination are new in naval warfare. However, the local situation does not allow maritime forces to employ their mobility to avoid hazardous areas and threats. The $230M worth of crude oil that flows out of Iraqi oil facilities daily necessitates a continued naval presence. A resourceful, determined and innovative enemy is dictating the tactics and countermeasures that we must employ in order to be successful while avoiding losses.

Ships that are employed in these inshore waters should be small and manoeuvrable (and expendable, if need be), armed with close-range weapons capable of generating devastating stopping power in all four quadrants, and equipped with at least a couple of types of boats. One of these should be a remotely-controlled and armed robotic vessel, akin to the Protector (built by BAE, Lockheed Martin, and Rafael), or an unmanned but unarmed vehicle of which there are now several types available. Air support should come from a ‘mother ship’ that will have to stand off in order to avoid unnecessary risk (and embarrassment).

The age of robotics is upon us. If Canadian naval vessels are to be deployed into coastal areas plagued by instability, the threats they will face will look a lot like those in the northern Arabian Gulf. The ‘answers’ about how to deal with these threats should provoke significant changes in force structure, operating concepts and equipment.