Iran Mounts an Asymmetric Threat Using Go-Fast Unmanned Boats

The Houthis Operate as Iran’s Proxy

by Stephen Bryen

This story first appeared in Asia Times under the title Iran Using Fast Attack Boats in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s Fast Attack boats were used in capturing two oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz.

Taking lessons from narco-terrorists and al-Qaeda, Iran has relaunched an effort to intimidate western shipping in the Persian Gulf.  Using the Houthi insurgency as a cover, a new generation of go-fast unmanned bomb boats threatens the shipping lanes and could be used even against warships.  In the latest near-encounter, the British warship HMS Duncan (D37), on Saturday night, July 13 was proceeding through the Red Sea after passing through the Suez Canal where it almost crossed paths with a Houthi bomb boat called Blowfish.  The Blowfish is a fiber glass-constructed boat that is 32 feet long (9.8 meters), runs at 35 knots (40 mph) and is powered by two 200 hp outboard motors. 

The Blowfish was spotted by Saudi navy ships.  It was never seen by the Duncan.

This was the second recent challenge to British warships.  The first was a week before the HMS Duncan incident where the British warship HMS Montrose (F236) warded off an intimidation operation run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy against the British oil-tanker Heritage. 

 Iran launched five manned fast attack boats in a swarm trying to take control of the tanker, but the operation failed with the intervention of the Montrose, a Type 23 Duke-class Frigate.  That Frigate is well equipped with missiles and torpedoes and also has more guns than a typical US Frigate, including two 30mm DSM30M MK2 Bushmaster Gatling canons on automated mounts. 

The Montrose was first equipped with this rapid fire cannon system in 2009 in order to significantly improve the frigate’s ability to deal with fast-boat swarming type attacks.  The Iranians thought better of sticking around with the Montrose on the scene, and departed the area.

The Blowfish is more of a challenge although it has a relatively short operational range of about four miles, probably limited more by the need to visually control it from the shoreline than limitations on fuel capacity.  It is a fiber glass, Kevlar and carbon-fiber boat with two large outboard engines, very similar (if not identical) to the go-fasts narco-terrorists have been using to run drugs, mainly cocaine from the cartels in Colombia up to Mexico (where the drugs are smuggled overland to the United States or by ship to Europe).  Go-fasts can reach speeds of 80 knots (150 km/h, 90 mph) in calm waters, over 50 knots (90 km/h) in choppy water.

Most narco-terrorist go fasts are manned ( two to four man crew), typically travel mostly at night, and are hard to detect.

The Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps produces go-fast boats in Iran.  The technology is simple and this relatively low-tech vessel is stuffed with explosives, usually C-4 in the form of a shaped charge in order to penetrate the hulls of larger commercial and military ships.  In October, 2000 a manned-version of the same kind of fiberglass boat stuffed with 400 to 700 lbs. of C-4 explosives struck the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Aden Harbor, killing 17 sailors and injuring another 39.  The Cole attack was an al-Qaeda operation and allegedly the boats were purchased from foreign suppliers.  Prior to the successful attack on the Cole, al Qaeda launched a suicide boat attack in early January, 2000 on the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), but the attacking boat sank, apparently in rough water. 

Al-Qaeda was more successful in a suicide boat attack on the oil tanker MV Limburg, causing damage and fire on the oil tanker and a serious leak of oil.  One crew member was killed and twelve others hurt in the explosion and fire.

The Houthis have also been busy with unmanned boat attacks.  On January 30, 2017 a Houthi unmanned bomb boat attacked the Saudi Arabian Navy al-Madinah (702) frigate most likely using an Ya Mahdi unmanned boat.  The attack took place near the Yemen coast along a Houthi-controlled area near the Bab-el-Mandeb straits.  Two Saudi sailors died in the attack and the ship sustained significant damage.  The Ya Mahdi go-fast is a knock-off of a British type 51 Bladerunner speed boat.  At least one Bladerunner was illegally sold to Iran in a sophisticated smuggling operation. The Bladerunner was a 16-ton “yacht” powered by two 1,000 hp Caterpillar engines that could reach a speed of 60 knots (69 mph).  On top of the successful smuggling operation even though the smuggling was well-detected by Western intelligence, the continued supply of engines and other equipment for Ya Mahdi construction has never been satisfactorily explained.

Bladerunner style boats in IRGC (Iran) Navy

Whether relatively sophisticated fast boats like the Ya Mahdi, or simpler but equally effective craft like the unmanned go-fasts that shadowed the HMS Duncan, these go-fasts present a serious challenge because they are hard to spot in the water.  One of the techniques used by narco-terrorists that no doubt has found its way to their Iranian counterparts is the design of hulls that are relatively streamlined and narrow, reducing any visible wake from the vessels.  Because they are primarily fiberglass and running close to the surface, picking them up on radar is also difficult.  The best way to detect them is with modern electro-optical sensors, but even E/O sensors have spotty performance against go-fasts, as the US Coast Guard and US Navy have known for some time as they continue try and track these vessels down in the Pacific and Caribbean in the US War on Drugs.

It might be reasonably asked if the US Coast Guard can be of help in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf since they have long experience in going after go-fasts.
The frustration surrounding this new type of asymmetric warfare was not lost on President Trump.  Reportedly he said, “So these boats, they get in, they come in really fast, they come in really close… and they might have explosives on them and we don’t even know. Can you believe this? And we don’t do anything?”