Monday, January 28, 2008

Iran speedboat feigned attack

was interesting at a military strategy level; at an intelligence strategy level; at a political strategy level.

The military level: NYT
...a classified, $250 million war game in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful warships.
in August 2002. In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.

“The sheer numbers involved overloaded [the American/Blue team] ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack,” said Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the war game as commander of a Red Team force representing an unnamed Persian Gulf military. “The whole thing was over in 5, maybe 10 minutes.”
In the simulation, General Van Riper sent wave after wave of relatively inexpensive speedboats to charge at the costlier, more advanced fleet approaching the Persian Gulf. His force of small boats attacked with machine guns and rockets, reinforced with missiles launched from land and air. Some of the small boats were loaded with explosives to detonate alongside American warships in suicide attacks.
The victory of the force modeled after a Persian Gulf state — a composite of Iran and Iraq — astounded sponsors of what was then the largest joint war-fighting exercise ever held, involving 13,500 military members and civilians battling in nine live exercise ranges in the United States, and double that many computer simulations to replicate a number of different battles.
In a telephone interview, General Van Riper recalled that his idea of a swarming attack grew from Marine Corps studies of the natural world, where insects and animals — from tiny ant colonies to wolf packs — move in groups to overwhelm larger prey.

“It is not a matter of size or of individual capability, but whether you have the numbers and come from multiple directions in a short period of time,” he said.
One of the few television shows ever to truly shake me up showed video of African Army Ants on the hunt. The ants are large. The swarm covers ground faster than I expected, and the swarm does not tire and slow down. The swarm is terrifying.

Whatever is in their way, and cannot outrun them, the ants swarm it and kill it, without exception. This includes sleeping animals and sleeping humans. The ants go into every orifice of an animal or a human, eventually anesthetizing the subject via multiple applications of venom, all the while taking tiny pieces from the subject with their mandibles. The dead animals and dead humans are found with ants coming out of their mouths, eye sockets, ears, and anus. Each ant carries bits of animal matter or human matter in their mandibles. A brief, non-gross description of Army Ants on the move.

Back to the Iranians: at the intelligence level: Spook86, a twenty year veteran of military intelligence, writing at In From the Cold
if you assume that the Iranians were trying to provoke the U.S. (and their aggressive maneuvering certainly suggests that scenario), then it is quite possible that multiple military elements, including coastal surveillance radars, other naval vessels, anti-ship missile batteries, aircraft, SIGINT asset and command headquarters were involved, to varying degrees. As part of a larger, pre-planned operation, it would be quite easy for another Iranian unit to make a threatening radio call, as the fast boats moved into position.

Tehran also knows that it's difficult for the U.S. to refute claims of a benign event, because a more detailed discussion would mean reveal intelligence sources and methods. Iran would certainly like to know more about our SIGINT capabilities in the Persian Gulf region, and their account of the incident is an (indirect) attempt to prod us into greater disclosures about Sunday's incident.

By releasing a vastly different version of events, Tehran can depict the U.S. Navy as a potential aggressor, challenging the administration to release more details on radio and emitter traffic during the event. Learning what we collected--and when we collected it--would be an intelligence windfall for Iran. So far, the U.S. has (rightly) refused to take the bait.

As we noted in a previous post, the decision of U.S. commanders to hold their fire was based on a variety of factors, including intelligence data. Information available in the ship's combat information centers (CICs) may have provided key insights into the Iranians' intentions, giving commanders the data they needed to make the right decision.

Put another way: the commanders of our vessels knew what Iranian assets were active, and had some idea of what they were saying to each other. Based on that knowledge, they (apparently) viewed the small boats as a localized threat, assessing that other Iranian naval, air and missile units were not prepared to join the fray. Under those conditions--and with that level of intel detail--it would be easier to hold fire, and avoid triggering a much more serious incident.

Obviously, no intelligence system is perfect and even a modern CIC will have information gaps. But the fidelity of detail available on Sunday morning was sufficient for our naval commanders to correctly judge the situation and make the right tactical decision. And, you'll have to forgive the Navy (and the intel community) if they don't want to discuss the sources and methods that provided that data.
At the political level, President Bush' visit to the region presented opportunities for Iran. The speedboats' buzzing was an attempt to capitalize on these opportunities. Iran was going to win no matter how the speedboat incident resolved itself.

If no shots were fired, the incident would serve to "rattle the cage" just before Pres. Bush' trip to the mid-east. The timing worked 1) for propaganda purposes against an Iranian populace who is always a threat to rise against the Mullahs, and 2) as a shot across the bow to any Mid-East nations who might dare co-operate with President Bush, and against Iran. As discussed by Spook86, Iran is further able to pressure the U.S. to reveal intelligence methodology during attempts to defend their (non)action in the media.

If shots had been fired, Iran would beat the "U.S. Imperialist" drum throughout Bush' visit to the region. In this scenario, it's possible other nations would've publicly called for U.S. concessions during President Bush visit. It makes sense to me that Iran was really, really hoping their boats would be shot to smithereens.

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