Tag Archives: Iran-Iraq War

History and Piracy, and other asymetric threats

HMS Mary Rose in a battle with seven Algerine ...

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One of the more unusual units I studied at University was an eccentric module entitled ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash: Outlaws at sea 1650 to 1800’. Although the title hints at a bit of a laugh, and possibly sounds like something starring Johnny Depp (or the talentless wonder that is Orlando Bloom), the lessons seem all the more startling when we consider how Piracy and other ‘low-intensity’ or asymetric sea threats are occupying the thoughts of naval strategists.

Two examples spring to mind initially. Firstly we have the stereotypical Pirates of the Carribean – Blackbeard et al. They roamed a large tranche of the West Indies, principally hunting Spanish treasure ships. Initially this was sanctioned by HM Government as privateering, but I digress. The big lesson is, that no matter how cunning Pirates are, they will need to land every now and then to take on supplies, off-load their wares, exchange crew members and maintain their ships. And they can only do this if there is a regime – or a vacuum – that allows them to do so. In the Carribean this was Port Royal in Jamaica, a veritable Vipers Nest of cutthroats. Port Royal was only neutralised when it was swallowed up by an Earthquake. Once Port Royal was gone and the Pirates were denied a base, piracy dwindled.

The second  example is that of the Barbary Corsairs. North African seamen sailing out of modern Day Morrocco, Algeria and Tunisia, they paid nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul.  Long before times of Bin Laden, Khomeini and Infatadas, the Barbary Corsairs sailed actively against Christian shipping, and on a number of occasions even landed in the South West of England and the South of Ireland and carted off whole villages into enslavement. The Barbrary Corsairs would not have been able to operate if the Sultan in Constantinople had taken them under a tighter rein, nor if the North African states had not actively encouraged them. Eventually raids by the Royal Navy culminating in the early 19th Century seriously dented the Corsairs. The privations of the Corsairs on US shipping also led to the formation of the US Navy around the same time.

The overall lesson, in my opinion? That it is all very well to float around in troubled waters chasing after miscreants, but that is only treating the symtoms and not the cause. But to treat the cause of piracy – ie, the states and ports that sustain it – ultimately you need to land and fight. Which is not something that Governments are willing to do, especially after the Iraq debacle. The irony being that dealing with piracy in somewhere like Somalia is more achievable than anything was in Iraq, but because of poor decision making back then, we are hamstrung now.

So, limited to treating the symptoms rather than the cause, what do we learn from the past?

With both the Carribean pirates and the Barbary Corsairs, the wooden walls of the Royal Navy were hardly suited to dealing with the fast, nimble ‘now you see them, now you don’t’ tactics of the Pirates. A vast, floating 74-gun ship of the line was no match for smaller, faster craft. In essence, large battleships honed towards pouring tons of metal at French and Spanish ships were hardly ideal for tackling smaller less conventional targets.

One useful example of how authorities changed tactics – and procurement – to deal with a problem is in how the Customs and Excise men tackled smugglers in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Smuggling cheated the Exchequer out of fortunes, and more often than not was linked to other organised crime – not unliked drug dealing and smuggling nowadays. The smuggles operated small, fast craft in a clandestine manner, after dark and out of sheltered coves, inlets and harbours. Faced with such a problem, the revenue men fought the smugglers at their own game, employing fast cutter style craft, and working in what was virtually a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ approach, the idea that to deal with such a clever foe, you have to beat them at their own game.

It strikes me that military forces – including navies – are not particularly good at getting into the minds of enemies and threats that do not fit exactly into their staff college exercises. In the same manner, it took years for conventional forces to work out how to deal with terrorism, and how to keep the peace. But surely, if we have to deal with the threats that face us rather than the ones that we would like to face,  then threats HAVE to be dealt with, in the way that enables it to be resolved as effectively, as cheaply and as succesfully as possible.

So, if we are faced with fighting pirates in small boats in the Gulf of Aden, or swarm attacks and suicide boats, why are we lumbering on focussing solely on our big ships? It reminds me of the example of the Iran-Iraq War, when during the 1980’s rush to expand the US Navy, no-one thought to develop a Minewarfare capability. Any coincidence that Minewarfare ships are small and unglamorous? The US Navy eventually did a good job of dealing with the Iranian Navy in the late 1980’s by setting up Mobile Sea Bases – anchored platforms – to launch helicopters and small, fast but heavily armed boats to patrol the Gulf. Might it be better for us to work in this manner, from semi-permanent bases or floating motherships such as the Bay Class, than sending Frigates and Destroyers – the modern equivalents of the 74-gun ship of the line? All an escort vessel can do is launch a couple of RIBS – and something more flexible and substantial than that is needed.

Something tells me some of our regulars here might have a few things to ponder…!



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USS Samuel B. Roberts

USS Samuel B Roberts

USS Samuel B Roberts

The Sherman was shortly followed by the Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts. The Roberts is quite a famous ship, having hit a mine during the US Navy‘s involvement in the Iran-Iraq War – a conflict that I wrote about recently during a book review.

It says a lot about the construction of the Perry class that the Roberts not only survived the mine strike, but was then lifted home on a ship transporter, and after 13 months of repairs was back in service in time to take part in the Gulf War in 1990!

Theres obviously a lot to be said for finding that point where affordability and capability co-align. If a Ticonderoga or an Arleigh Burke had hit a mine, a major unit would have been out of action. By the same token, is there any sense in sending a £1bn+ vessel to conduct routine patrols where the mk1 eyeball is the most used piece of technology? It takes me back to the old days of Mike Burleson and New Warshull numbers DO matter!

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America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain

Isn’t it funny how the same parts of the world seem to feature in military history, again and again. No doubt spurred on by rising tensions between Iran and the US, this fine book by Lee Alan Zatarain has been published in the UK by Casemate.

The book starts with a gripping account of the Exocet strike on the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate. She was struck by two Exocets, but despite intense fires and the loss of dozens of crew she somehow survived. It’s a gripping story of an ops room that was not quite on the ball on the one hand, but then some heroic efforts to save the ship on the other. In fact several officers were reprimanded for not defending the ship, but also decorated for then saving it. There are interesting parallels here with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands.

The Tanker War in the Gulf of the late 198o’s was an off-shoot of the bloody Iran-Iraq War, between a despotic Saddam Hussein on the one side and an Islamic Revolutionary Ayatollah Khomenei on the other. Both sides depended on oil to fund their war efforts, but at the same time sought to deny the other side their supply. Both belligerents targeted neutral commercial shipping, particularly oil tankers, using anti-ship missiles, mines and terrorist tactics.

The US Navy was drawn into the Gulf to protect shipping, after a number of neutral owned tankers were re-flagged under the stars and stripes. US Frigates and Destroyers began escorting convoys of tankers through the Straits of Hormuz and up to the oil terminals in the Gulf, as far as Kuwait. In one slightly embarrasing incident, a large tanker hit a mine, but the smaller and lighter warships cowered behind her, seeking protection in her wake.

The Iranians began using small fast craft to terrorize commecial shipping in the Gulf, and also laid hundreds if not thousands of mines in the Gulf. To counter against these classic low intensity tactics, the US transferred a unit of Army Special Forces Helicopters, with advanced equipment that enabled them to operate at night. The US Navy also leased two large barges, and moored them in the Gulf as Mobile Sea Bases. These heavily armoured bastions provided a home to Navy SEALs and their fast attack craft.

Another disaster befell the US Navy when the USS Samuel Roberts found herself stuck in an uncharted Iranian minefield. After striking a mine the crew managed to back their way out of the area while keeping the ship afloat; an extraordinary achievement for the Captain and crew. In fact one US Laboratory modelled the mine strike on the Roberts, and each time the ship sank within minutes. That the Roberts survived was no doubt due to some very able officers and men, and a first-class leadership culture.

The Roberts incident contrasts starkly with the situation that allowed the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruiser USS Vincennes to shoot down an Iran Air Airbus after wrongly identifying it as a Iranian Air Force Phantom. How the most technically advanced ship in the US Navy managed to make such a fateful decision is startling. However videos shot on the Vincennes at the time show sailors in shorts and t-shirt milling around on the bridge, and whooping with delight at the missile strikes. Earlier that day she had been in action against some Iranian surface vessels, and it is believed that her gung-ho Captain had let his offensive spirit kick into over-drive. Whats more, before reaching the Gulf he had re-arranged his command team, a move which made it more difficult for air warfare to be properly managed.

The Vincennes incident in particular is very well investigated and summarised by Zatarain. And this is a book that naval history enthusiasts and indeed naval officers should enjoy, particulary in this world where we face a multitude of low-intensity asymetric wars on the one hand, and a resurgent Iran on the other. It poses interesting questions about naval units were handled in trying circumstances, only a couple of years after the lessons of the Falklands War.

Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain is published by Casemate


Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized