June 6 (Bloomberg) — Iran is increasing its fleet of small attack boats capable of challenging warships and disrupting oil traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, the sea route for two-fifths of the world’s daily supply of crude oil, the U.S. Navy says.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps already has more than 1,000 of the speedboats “and continues to add boats armed with anti- ship cruise missiles,” said Robert Althage, spokesman for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.
“Iran still states that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will employ swarming tactics in a conflict,” Althage said in an e-mail. Naval intelligence, in its latest report on threats, said an attack against U.S. forces and commercial tankers “could include over 100 boats in coordinated groups of 20 to 30 approaching simultaneously from multiple axes.”
The U.S. has two carrier groups in the Persian Gulf. The commander of these forces, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, said the attack boats have “a significant military capability.” His fear is that Iran’s central leadership might not have enough control over this Revolutionary Guard force to ensure against unauthorized attacks.
“I’m fairly comfortable that the regular Iranian navy and air force has a pretty good command-and-control system — the key word is `control,”’ he said. “I don’t have the same sense with the Revolutionary Guard.”
“Is there a rigorous, disciplined chain of command where people pay attention?” Cosgriff said. “In some instances, the answer would be yes. In other instances I’ve had some concern that people may be prone to miscalculation.”
“Somebody who gets fired up based on firebrand rhetoric is what I am speaking about,” he said.
Mines, Torpedoes, Missiles
The boats — up to 70 feet long and capable of speeds up to 57 miles per hour — are armed with torpedoes and rocket- propelled grenades as well as cruise missiles and also are used to lay mines. The U.S. estimates Iran has 5,000 sea mines.
Cosgriff and other U.S. naval officers say they can defend against this threat. Still, attacks on tankers and a few sunken ships could disrupt traffic through the chokepoint of the world’s most important oil transit route.
Iran launched a much smaller fleet of these attack boats against U.S. ships and U.S.-flagged tankers in the Persian Gulf in late 1987 through mid-1988 after the Reagan administration sided with Iraq in its war with the Islamic Republic.
The ships were able to lay mines, attack ships and disrupt oil traffic. They damaged at least one tanker traveling under the U.S. flag as well as the frigate USS Samuel Roberts.
Cosgriff said the U.S. now has four minesweepers deployed to the Gulf and the British Navy has two. The coalition “routinely” practices minesweeping and “we are actually quite good at it,” he said.
Defense Against `Swarming’
Cosgriff, in a telephone interview yesterday from the United Arab Emirates, said the U.S. Navy has “devised various tactics and other ways of coping with” the swarming tactics of the small attack boats.
In addition, “there are some limitations” to launching an attack by these boats, he said. “You just don’t get 1,000 or 500 or even 20 of anything under way and tightly orchestrated over a large body of water to create a specific effect at a specific time and specific place. They have their own challenges.”
Officers of the aircraft carrier USS Stennis in the Persian Gulf offered similar assurances in onboard interviews June 1.
“We spend a lot of time making sure we have eyes out for that sort of thing,” said Commander Chris Rentfrow, director of the Stennis’s self-defense nerve center.
The Stennis arrived in the Gulf 12 days after Vice President Dick Cheney spoke on the warship, highlighting the capability of the two carrier groups to protect sea lanes and send a warning that the U.S. won’t tolerate Iran developing a nuclear capability.
The Stennis was joined by the Nimitz and the Marine Corps’s Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault group in sailing through the Strait of Hormuz to conduct joint training exercises — nine ships with 17,000 personnel in the largest daylight transit since 2003.
The maneuvers mark the second time in two months that two of the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers are in the Gulf for joint exercises. The Stennis exercised in March with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before that, the last time more than one carrier deployed in the Gulf was March 2003 for the Iraq invasion.
The current exercise will continue through tomorrow.
The centerpiece of the Stennis’s defenses is a Raytheon Co. Shipboard Shelf-Defense System installed last year that synthesizes data from the carrier’s radar and anti-submarine sonar as well as Aegis air defense information gathered by the flattop’s escort vessels into a single picture displayed on consoles.
Stennis operators can track up to 200 vessels or aircraft simultaneously, Rentfrow said in an interview. Two large digital maps showed the carrier was in the middle of the northern Persian Gulf about 37 miles from Busher, Iran. There was no significant Iranian naval or air presence.
The system can “absolutely” deal with Iran’s small boats, Rentfrow said. “We practice a lot with these ships in terms of how to defend the zone around the carrier,” he said.
One method is an old-fashioned .50 caliber machine gun on the vessel’s stern, manned by a gunner in a grimy red t-shirt peering through binoculars into a hot, hazy Gulf horizon.
Senior officers of the Stennis, in interviews June 1 and May 31 onboard the ship, said the strike groups aren’t exercising specifically to counter Iran but were practicing generic tactics to counter submarines, aircraft and missile attacks.
This week the Stennis and Bonhomme Richard groups also planned an exercise practicing earthquake relief.
Stennis Strike Group Commander Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, in response to a question, said the deployment of the two carrier groups isn’t intended to send a message to Iran. “I don’t see it that way, but I’m the tactical guy,” he said. “My focus has been on exercising maritime skills” and providing air support for ground troops in Iraq