There is a reason American military officers express grim concern over the tactics used by Iranian sailors last weekend: a classified, $250 million war game in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful warships.
In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers have acknowledged that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted 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 their 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.”
If the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved to the public how terrorists could transform hijacked airliners into hostage-filled cruise missiles, then the “Millennium Challenge 2002” war game with General Van Riper was a warning to the armed services as to how an adversary could apply similar, asymmetrical thinking to conflict at sea.
General Van Riper said he complained at the time that important lessons of his simulated victory were not adequately acknowledged across the military. But other senior officers say the war game and subsequent analysis and exercises helped to focus attention on the threat posed by Iran’s small, fast boats, and helped to prepare commanders for last weekend’s encounter.
“It’s clear, strategically, where the Iranian military has gone,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday. “For the years that this strategic shift toward their small, fast boats has taken place, we’ve been very focused on that.”
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. That core tactic of swarming played out in real life last weekend, though on a much more limited scale and without any shots fired.
According to Pentagon and Navy officials, five small patrol boats belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps charged a three-ship Navy convoy, maneuvering around and between an American destroyer, cruiser and frigate during a tense half-hour encounter. The location was where the narrow Strait of Hormuz meets the open waters of the Persian Gulf — the same choke point chosen by General Van Riper for his attack.
In the encounter last Sunday, the commander of one American warship trained an M240 machine gun — which fires upward of 10 armor-piercing slugs per second — on an Iranian boat that pulled within 200 yards of the American vessel. But the Iranians turned away before the commander gave the order to fire.
That was not the case in the simulation, sponsored by the military’s Joint Forces Command. 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.
General Van Riper’s attack was much more complex and sophisticated than anything that could have involved the Iranian boats last weekend. The broad outline of the 2002 war game was reported at the time, but in interviews since last weekend’s episode, General Van Riper and other officers have provided new details about the simulation.
In the war game, scores of adversary speedboats and larger naval vessels had been shadowing and hectoring the Blue Team fleet for days. The Blue Team defenses also faced cruise missiles fired simultaneously from land and from warplanes, as well as the swarm of speedboats firing heavy machine guns and rockets — and pulling alongside to detonate explosives on board.
When the Red Team sank much of the Blue navy despite the Blue navy’s firing of guns and missiles, it illustrated a cheap way to beat a very expensive fleet. After the Blue force was sunk, the game was ordered to begin again, with the Blue Team eventually declared the victor.
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.
Although Washington and Tehran continue to duel over details of the encounter, American officials say the Iranians may have been seeking to provoke a violent confrontation as President Bush was about to visit the region. Or, the officials say, they might have been hoping to test the American reaction. Yet there is no certainty that the encounter was ordered by the government in Tehran.
Pentagon officials on Friday said there were two encounters with small Iranian boats in the region last month. In one, a Navy warship fired warning shots and in the other a warning whistle was sounded. Both encounters ended without injury after the Iranian vessels turned away.
Regardless, American sailors have not forgotten how a small boat that hid among refueling and garbage vessels off a port in Yemen detonated alongside the American destroyer Cole in October 2000, killing 17 Americans and crippling the warship