Congress Wants the Navy to Prove it Can Fight Off Enemy Drone, Boat Swarms

FILE-- In this July 2, 2012 file photo, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat moves in the Persian Gulf while an oil tanker is seen in background. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
FILE-- In this July 2, 2012 file photo, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat moves in the Persian Gulf while an oil tanker is seen in background. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

As tensions with Iran escalate, a presidential candidate in Congress is pressing Navy leaders to show they’re ready to combat swarms of small boats or drones -- a tactic Revolutionary Guards have used in the Persian Gulf.

Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who served as a Marine officer, introduced language into the 2020 national defense bill that would require the Navy to study its ability to fight swarms.

“The [House Armed Services] committee is concerned that the Navy may be assuming too much risk with respect to the development of swarm technologies by adversaries,” the amendment states.

The measure still requires approval from the full House and the Senate, but it could mean the Navy secretary will have to show Congress by 2021 how large and small surface ships can fight off swarms of fast boats, submersibles or small aircraft.

That means looking at how the Navy analyzes swarm threats it faces from foreign adversaries within 10 nautical miles of coastlines, ports or other vessels. The service would also have to provide a description of how it fights the threat now and accounting of weapons it might need in the future to combat the threats, according to Moulton’s amendment.

Swarming is not a problem the Navy has ignored, said Bryan McGrath, a naval consultant who served as commanding officer of a guided-missile destroyer when he was in the Navy. But having Congress put some emphasis on combating the threat is a good thing, he added, since it can better help the service spot vulnerabilities.

“It won't take … a million Chinese engineers working 23-hour days to do this stuff,” McGrath said. “… They’re low-tech threats that can be fielded by an earnest terrorist group and there are much higher-end threats that could and are being fielded by great-power competitors like China and Russia.”

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Last year, two Saudi ships were attacked in the Red Sea strait -- one of the world’s most important tanker routes -- by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels using a remote-controlled boat. After the attacks, NBC reported that Saudi Arabia temporarily halted all oil shipments there.

“It wasn’t a swarm,” McGrath said, “but just imagine that same attack with five or six of those things.”

In 2016, four Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats got within 300 yards of the guided-missile destroyer Nitze near the Strait of Hormuz, in what a defense official told Reuters were “unsafe and unprofessional” moves. That’s near the same location where the Iranians just last week shot down a U.S. drone, which Defense Department officials say was an unprovoked attack in international airspace.

The Navy has been practicing ways to combat boat swarms and is developing weapons to take out unmanned aerial vehicles, too. Last year, the Bulgarian navy teamed with the guided-missile destroyer Carney for a swarming exercise in the Black Sea. The Naval Postgraduate School has also been working to develop lasers to be used on destroyers if swarms of drones circle the air above the ship.

“Now that the potential enemy has threats like inexpensive [UAVs], they can send swarms at our ships,” Joseph Blau, a physics professor at the school, said in a Navy news release. “If you’re sending million-dollar missiles at them, you’re basically losing the cost war. Instead, you can shoot a laser that only costs a few dollars per shot.”

Moulton, who announced his presidential bid in April, is trying to stake out a position as a forward-leaning defense candidate who’s interested in the technological side of warfare, McGrath said.

“I'm happy Mr. Moulton is doing this,” McGrath said. “The Navy is going to be able to go through their current program and their current [research and development] and point to a multiplicity of programs that are aimed directly at surface and air swarming vehicles.

“Whether Representative Moulton believes those investments are sufficient or properly channeled or are dealing with the right threats remains to be seen.”

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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