All posts by Brett Davis

LTJG Brett Davis is an Officer and occasional gentleman. He has an MA in International Relations from Northeastern University. His comments are his own.

Learning Curve: Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millennium Challenge 2002

By Brett Davis

Tension between U.S. and Iranian military assets in the Arabian Gulf are nothing new. Confrontations between Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman are a regular occurrence for forward-deployed ships. Iran knows it cannot match the U.S. in a conventional confrontation, and focuses on an asymmetrical style of warfare to increase damage and costs of confrontation to the U.S.

In 2002, a joint war game exercise, known as Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02), took place to gauge readiness in the event of a conflict with a hostile Middle Eastern nation. The results were disastrous for the U.S., with over a dozen ships destroyed and thousands killed or wounded as a result of asymmetric and unconventional naval warfare. 14 years later, Iranian asymmetrical warfare can still have a devastating effect on U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East. Unconventional warfare has been the Achilles Heel of the U.S. military for decades, and more gaming and training are needed to enhance U.S. capabilities in an asymmetric environment.

Just a relaxing day sailing the Persian Gulf.
Just a relaxing day sailing the Persian Gulf.

A Combination of Threats

Following their lackluster performance during Operation Praying Mantis, in which the U.S. Navy laid waste to several conventional naval vessels, Iran began to focus on asymmetrical warfare. Tactics include Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC), covert civilian craft, naval mines, and submarines.

The IRGCN utilizes swarming tactics as its method of choice. IRGCN bases are situated in various locations along Iran’s Gulf coast, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Northern Arabian Gulf. This is a key tenet in swarming attacks: packs of small attack craft covertly leave their bases at various times, all heading for the same target, i.e. a Carrier strike group operating in the Gulf. While this dispersed tactic may result in a weaker attack that is easier to repel, it is also much more difficult to detect, as the swarms don’t operate in a large formation. Also, craft equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles can fire their payloads at a greater distance, ensuring survivability and destruction of their target.

Iran currently has the fourth-largest inventory of naval mines, as well as various platforms for deployment. Mines are a successful tool in the Gulf: USS Tripoli and USS Princeton struck Iraqi mines in the Northern Gulf during the Gulf War, and USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian-laid mine during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. Iranian mines also dispatched large numbers of civilian merchant vessels in the same time period.

Iranian mines are largely cheap and unsophisticated. However, some Chinese and Russian variants, including the EM-52 multiple influence mine, are much more sophisticated and can be used in waters up to 600 feet – plenty deep to make the Central Gulf a dangerous place.

A majority of bottom-dwelling mines are designed for shallower waters. In some places, depths in the Strait of Hormuz are between 150-300 feet and are prime locations for these types of mines.

While the mines may not be sophisticated, deployment tactics are much harder to detect. IRGCN small craft are capable of laying mines, as are dhows, fishing boats and submarines. These platforms can carry up to 6 mines each and can be resupplied at sea. Mine laying platforms disguised as civilian craft would not raise suspicion on the part of Coalition forces while submarines can be quite difficult to detect by surface or air assets.

Iran operates several different types of submarines, all of the diesel variety. The Kilo-class are Soviet surplus that are nearing the end of their service life, but still require respect, especially in an asymmetrical warfare environment. Kilos can carry several dozen mines, laying them covertly beneath the waves and avoiding the overt detection by surface assets that endanger the mission of mine laying dhows and small boats. Kilos would also require an increase in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms in theater for sub identification and prosecution, such as submarines and air and surface assets. They would also increase the standoff distance of high-value assets such as carriers and troop landing ships. These platforms would most likely not venture too close to a known hostile submarine operating area with few defensive weapons.

Iran’s mini-subs are another part of the undersea warfare threat worth considering. There are at least three separate classes of mini-sub in the Iranian inventory, all diesel operated. Their small size makes them difficult to detect, and their ability to operate in shallow waters makes them a perfect tool to target vessels in the littorals, such as amphibious assault ships and patrol craft, and any convoy of warships or shipping making its way through the Strait of Hormuz. They can also participate in mine laying operations  in shallower seas as a support asset.

Millennium Challenge 2002

MC02 was framed as a Red vs. Blue game depicting the invasion of a smaller Middle Eastern nation by a much larger and more capable adversary. It was the largest war game ever devised; 13,000 troops, aircraft and warships spread throughout the world, at a cost of $250 million. While it looked much like the upcoming invasion of Iraq, the tactics employed by Red closely resembled the nonlinear and asymmetric tactics of the IRGCN.

The Red forces, led by Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Riper, utilized several unorthodox measures and tactics to exploit the weaknesses of the Blue forces. When electronic warfare aircraft fried Red team communications sensors, van Riper used coded messages voiced from the minarets of Mosques at prayer times. This signaled the armada of civilian boats and light aircraft underway in the Persian Gulf to take action, conducting swarm and suicide attacks on U.S. warships and firing Silkworm missiles at high-value assets, claiming two amphibious assault ships and an aircraft carrier. At the conclusion of the attacks, 16 ships were sunk and thousands of servicemen were dead or wounded. Instead of digesting the results and using them to refine tactics and strategies in the face of a nonlinear threat, MC02’s controllers simply reset the problem – ensuring a Blue victory and “gaming” the most expensive and important war game in modern history.

Was anything learned from the surprise ending of MC02? It appears not. Iran’s tactics are nothing new; they have been using asymmetric warfare since the Iran-Iraq war. Iran’s weak Navy isn’t a new development either; most ships are decades old with few modern capabilities. What Iran does have, however, is a military strategy with a basis in unconventional warfare. Asymmetric tactics, like those described above, coupled with a decentralized command and control structure and semi-autonomous unit commanders make Iran survivable in the event of a first strike.

Unfortunately, the U.S. thinks of nations with weak conventional militaries as no match for the technological and modern behemoth that is the U.S. military. This was evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents with little resources utilized out-of-the box thinking and nonlinear tactics to inflict heavy damage on U.S. forces, culminating in eventual retreats. U.S. strategy rests on technological and conventional dominance as well as engaging in non-traditional conflicts using traditional strategy and doctrine.

While Iran’s bluster regarding its eventual destruction of the U.S. fleet shouldn’t be entertained, the threat posed by Iran should be. Nonlinear and suicide attacks from the sea, increasingly capable long-range anti-ship missiles able to reach any vessel in the Gulf, and unconventional communications and command tactics are nothing to brush off. More exercises like MC02 are needed to adequately gauge the readiness of the U.S.’s land, sea and air forces to any asymmetric conflict with Iran. Where there are tactical and strategic gaps, a shift in training is required to prepare our forces for this type of conflict. A Blue defeat in a war game isn’t an embarrassment; it’s a chance to lean forward and become a well-rounded fighting force able to meet any challenge.

The chances of a major conventional conflict with another nation are extremely rare. Unconventional land and sea combat has been the norm for decades, and the U.S. needs more gaming and training in order to cope with the nonlinear threat.

Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Tomahawks No More? Not So Fast

 

Editor’s Note: To allay some confusion, this article is about the end of the Tomahawk program, not the elimination of existing stocks.

imagesTomahawks are on the chopping block. The most recent Defense budget, announced this month, outlined plans to shrink the number of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) for use by U.S. Navy ships and submarines. And the cuts are drastic – $128 Million in Fiscal Year 2015, reducing the number to just 100 next year and zero in 2016. Phasing out weapons systems in favor of new systems capable of meeting current and future threats is a normal course of action. Cutting a highly successful program when there is no replacement on the horizon is shortsighted and threatens to eliminate the Navy’s offshore strike capabilities.

TLAMs have a long and decorated service history. They were first deployed onboard Iowa-Class Battleships, as well as integrated into the Navy’s Vertical Launch System (VLS), installed on Destroyers and Cruisers. They were also installed on some submarines. During the Persian Gulf War, Navy surface combatants struck targets within Kuwait and Iraq throughout the conflict. Superior performance during the Gulf War made TLAM  a preferred stand-off weapon throughout the 1990s, and was utilized during Operations Allied Force and Deliberate Force in the former Yugoslavia. In the War on Terror, TLAMs have been used to strike al-Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan, as well as during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most recently, over 120 TLAMs were fired by US and UK assets at targets in Libyan territory in 2011.

TLAMs provide the capability to strike deep into hostile territory, eliminating communications, air defense, and command and control from a safe distance, assuring successful secondary strikes by air and ground forces. Further developments have made TLAMs even more versatile – they can be prepped and ready for launch on short notice, and upgraded models can receive in-flight targeting updates and loiter in-air until ready to strike. TLAMs have been revamped and re-introduced multiple times throughout their history, and the latest block is a mainstay of offensive naval force.

Despite its success, replacement is inevitable. The platform is over 30 years old, and it is only a matter of time before a new system, upgraded with the latest technology and engineered to meet today’s threats, replaces the reliable TLAM. However, the new defense budget is instead stripping the U.S. arsenal of a proven strike capability and leaving it gapped for upwards of ten years.

The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) is a much-needed weapon to replace the aging Harpoon anti-ship missile and maintain superiority in surface warfare and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). It has also, for some reason, been mentioned as a replacement for the TLAM. This isn’t a viable replacement. LRASM has a range less than half of that of TLAMs, and isn’t designed for deep strike into hostile territory. Even as a stopgap measure, LRASM isn’t an optimal strike weapon and in any case won’t be operationally ready until 2024. As a result, the U.S. will be without a primary strike weapon for the foreseeable future.

Operating with a tight budget, lawmakers are looking for any way to trim defense spending. Eliminating a weapon that is a proven success and vital for offshore strike demonstrates a complete disregard for warfare requirements and unnecessarily places warfighters in harm’s way, without a vital support weapon.

Tomahawk won’t be around forever; but it’s a vital weapon that has pulled its weight for 30 years. The U.S. already has outdated weapons systems and requires upgrades to keep pace with a rising Chinese military. Cutting more weapons systems and eliminating strike options in the name of fiscal restraint is the definition of shortsighted.

LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

The Tiger’s Reach: China’s Blue Water Ambitions

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) will deploy ballistic missile submarines on deterrence patrols in the Pacific Ocean later this year, placing them within striking distance of Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States. This report isn’t too alarming – U.S. Navy ballistic subs regularly deploy on deterrence patrols, and during the Cold War Soviet boomers regularly parked off America’s coasts with little fanfare. The significance of these deployments have less to do with China’s second-strike capability than with extending its reach beyond their regional coastline and moving towards a true blue-water navy.

Sailors of the world, unite.
Sailors of the world, unite.

The PLAN’s operations have typically focused their own neighborhood. China’s naval force, until recently, comprised of craft better suited to Anti-Access/Area Defense (A2/AD) in the surrounding seas and their claimed territory. Quiet diesel submarines, along with hundreds of missile boats and patrol craft, make up a bulk of the Chinese fleet. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the DF-21D anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) round out China’s robust A2/AD doctrine. Focusing on such a strategy has its advantages – China certainly has an edge over some form of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia that might threaten China’s interests, including in Taiwan.

While China’s salami-slicing and regional territorial disputes with its neighbors are rightfully garnering attention in the region and throughout the world, they aren’t the only moves up its sleeve. Since the mid-1990s, China has tested its ability to conduct blue water operations, gaining the experience and training they sorely lack. Beginning with multinational exercises with European navies,  the PLAN moved on to Chinese destroyer deployments in the Gulf of Aden in support of anti-Piracy missions there. Protecting Chinese shipping interests in the Middle East is just the beginning of PLAN blue water deployments.

PLAN ships have already deployed within Southeast Asia, including an exercise this month in the vicinity of the Malacca Strait, apparently searching for alternatives to the strait in the event of regional crises which threaten strategic interests. With East African piracy winding down and West African piracy ramping up, Chinese intervention in West Africa is just down the road. Nigeria produces 5-6% of the world’s oil, and China is keen on protecting their economic and shipping interests in West Africa, just as they were in the Gulf of Aden. This doesn’t mean another international coalition to battle piracy; rather, international cooperation and aid to West African nations. While the U.S. has been slow out of the gate on this front, China is already delivering naval patrol vessels to the Nigerian navy. It appears China is more eager to gain influence and protect interests in the region than the U.S., meaning maritime patrols and port visits to the area are not out of the question, especially if China longs for an influential and worldwide deployable naval force.

West Africa, the Pacific deep, and the Straits of Malacca are not the end for PLAN deployments. Chinese forces may soon make an appearance in the Arabian or Red Sea to project power and match wits with the U.S. Navy. While deployment experience and combat training are far behind the U.S., these moves are a step towards gaining legitimacy and experience in worldwide operations. U.S. Naval intelligence projects a Chinese blue water navy by 2020; they are well on their way.

LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Sub-Par: Designing a Better (and Cheaper) SEAL Delivery System

U.S. Navy Special Warfare operators hold a unique role in the Special Operations community: conducting missions covertly, from the sea, and back out again, without notice. And with America’s land wars winding down, Navy SEALs can once again focus on littoral operations in hostile and dangerous locales. To aid in this end, Northrop Grumman’s Electric Boat division is developing a new submersible to insert SEALs quickly and quietly, all while staying dry and ready for the mission ahead.

If this sounds like a familiar concept, that’s because it’s been done before. Recognizing the need for a dry submersible superior to the current SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), the U.S. Government and Northrop Grumman developed the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) in the late 90’s. However, in true government fashion, poor design and massive cost overruns doomed the program, which ended fittingly with a fire onboard the only ASDS in 2008. The new incarnation hopes to avoid previous pitfalls and help to usher in a new era of cheaper, commercially developed craft for future U.S. Navy operations.

The Special Warfare community voiced concern regarding wet-submersible insertion (i.e., SEAL Delivery Vehicle) in the early 1980s. Exposed to extreme sea and air temperatures during SDV or free swim insertion, teams wasted precious time refocusing and recovering once landing ashore. As a result, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Northrop Grumman teamed up to develop a dry mini-sub which could be launched from submarines, allowing team members to conserve energy, stay dry, and maintain 100% physical readiness upon hitting the beach to execute tasking. The Navy ordered six ASDSs, with the first becoming operational in 2003.

Too good to be true? You bet. In the same vein as current projects, the ASDS suffered from poor design, ranging from noisy propellers to weak lithium batteries. Repairs and redesign of ASDS-1 ballooned the budget from a total cost of $527 million to almost $2 billion, effectively cancelling the program. ASDS-1 continued in service before catching fire in November 2008, causing SOCOM to permanently jettison the program shortly thereafter.

As involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, SEALs will find themselves focused once again on the maritime and littoral environments. Electric Boat and SOCOM have joined forces to develop a new dry submersible, known as of now as User Operational Evaluation System (UOES) 3. Still in the planning stages, UOES 3 will be in the testing stages through 2015, most likely entering service shortly after. With the failure of ASDS undoubtedly fresh on the minds of researchers, these shortcomings should play a large role in the design of UOES 3.

The Navy is keen on tightening its belt in these frugal financial times, and finding detours around expensive new projects is a great way to save a buck. Electric Boat is planning just that – even partnering with a civilian firm, using commercial concepts to keep costs low. Along with UOES 3, the Navy’s newest Special Operations transport and Mobile Landing Platform are also joint military-civilian ventures, and it may only be a matter of time until UOES 3 is launched from one of these vessels.

Naval Special Warfare needs a dry submersible to keep operators safe and focused on the mission at hand. ASDS was doomed by poor engineering and skyrocketing repair costs; hopefully the fusion of civilian and military engineers can provide the vessel required by operators at a price required by American taxpayers.

LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, runs the blog ClearedHot, and is trying to figure out how Twitter actually works.  He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Northeastern University and these views are entirely his own.