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Iran Sends Small Boats, Big Message

Yesterday, Iranian naval vessels seized a British racing yacht and its crew in the Gulf after they allegedly strayed into Iranian waters; all very reminiscent of the March 2007 seizure of 15 British naval personnel who also entered Iranian waters. Iran’s assertive use of its naval forces to patrol its waters and the larger Gulf continues a familiar pattern of strategic messaging that Iran wants to be taken seriously as a regional power, according to a new Office of Naval Intelligence report.

The Islamic Republic uses its naval forces, including a growing fleet of lethal small boats, in pursuit of its naval doctrine of “access denial.” Based on lessons learned from past encounters with the U.S. Navy in the Gulf during the 1980s (when Iran lost two corvettes) and U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s naval strategy has embraced the familiar asymmetric warrior’s approach: don’t take the massive U.S. military on in stand up fight. Instead, exploit U.S. military vulnerabilities on the lower end of the conflict spectrum.

Iranian naval doctrine suggests they will employ “asymmetric and highly irregular tactics that exploit the constricted geographic character of the Gulf,” said strategist Frank Hoffman, now with the Office of the Navy Secretary, in a September conference at the Naval War College. “This doctrine applies a hybrid combination of conventional and irregular tactics and weapons to posit a significant anti-access threat to both military and commercial shipping,” using “swarming” tactics employing a combination of heavily armed fast attack craft and low signature boats along with shore launched anti-ship missiles.

Iran has two navies to pursue what Hoffman calls “hybrid threats” at sea: the traditional naval branch made up of leftovers from the Shah’s fleet and the more troublesome naval wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Iran’s traditional navy is still tainted by its association with the Shah, while the IRGC Navy, or IRGCN, is politically favored and its innovative use of small boats during the 1980s Tanker War and the Iran-Iraq war, “guerrilla war at sea,” established it as the pre-eminent threat in the narrow Gulf waters.

According to the ONI report, Iranian naval forces are undergoing a reorganization and strategic reorientation that splits operational areas between the two naval forces. The IRCN will now have responsibility for all operations in the Gulf while the traditional Iranian naval forces will operate outside the Strait of Hormuz. New bases have been constructed along Iran’s lengthy coastline to facilitate IRGCN operations in the Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz, barely two sea lanes wide, through which flows nearly 30 percent of the world’s oil supply.

The realignment plays to the two forces relative strengths, ONI says: “Because Iran's naval doctrine is based upon access denial, the realignment of [Iranian navy] assets further into the Gulf of Oman and the concentration of IRGCN fast boats, suicide boats, and coastal defense cruise missiles in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf better allow Iranian naval assets to contribute to and extend Iran's layered defense strategy.”

ONI says Iran has embraced what it calls a “mosaic defense": “This strategy essentially decentralizes the command structure, making Iranian forces more resilient in the face of initial strikes against their command and control architecture.”

The ONI report says that the IRGCN has used its elevated status within Iran to go on a buying spree. In the 1990s, it bought 10 Chinese built Houdong class missile boats armed with the C-802 anti-ship missile; the same missile Hezbollah used to seriously damage an Israeli corvette during the 2006 Lebanon war. Over the last decade it took delivery of 9 Chinese built C-14 missile craft and 10 MK-13 patrol boats armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. The IRGCN has also built its own missile boats, including the Peykaap I and II, small, fast boats armed with torpedoes and the Iranian built “Kowsar” anti-ship missile.

The IRGCN’s ever growing fleet of small, fast boats, most of which are less than 10 years old, provides Iran with considerable flexibility as the boats are heavily armed with effective anti-ship missiles and are well designed to operate in coastal waters and the Strait of Hormuz. “Iran's lengthy coastline, numerous islands, and many inlets and inland waterways would provide ample hiding places for most of the IRGCN's small boats,” the ONI report reads.

Hoffman also points to Iran’s large sea mine arsenal, estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 mines. “Its inventory includes as many as 1,000 Chinese EM11 influence mines and the EM52 rocket-propelled mine. In addition to advanced mines from China, Iran bought 1,800 mines from Russia in 2000. The antique World War I-era contact mines used in the 1980s by Iran are a thing of the past,” he says.

Guards Corps small boat tactics should be familiar to anybody who has read accounts of U.S. PT boats or German E-Boat tactics during World War II. They will operate near shores using geography to mask their presence, use hit and run attacks, will operate in groups and attack ships with limited mobility such as in congested sea lanes, straits or entering or leaving port. Iran’s small boat doctrine envisions hundreds of craft “swarming” on targeted vessels, ONI says.

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