by Stephen Bryen
HSV-2 Swift is a very fast and relatively large catamaran ship originally built by Incat in Australia. Acquired by the US Navy in 2003, the Navy’s Sealift Command operated the vessel for ten years. Then it went out of service in 2013, replaced by another Incat-built catamaran. In an unusual move, in fact a strange one, the Sealift Command leased the Swift to a UAE organization called the National Marine Dredging Company. Before daylight on the first of October, the Swift was hit by a missile which caused a huge fire on the ship. We still lack an accounting of the dead and the survivors but at least three of them have told their story, surviving the incident. Importantly in addition to the missile attack, a fast boat with machine guns was trying to kill the survivors. It fired at them for the better part of half an hour after the missile attack. The crew itself was international, including sailors from Ukraine, Poland and India.
We do not know whether the fast attack craft firing on the Swift survivors was Yemeni or Iranian. Given this was a very well organized operation, including video cameras to record the event, a good guess is they were Iranian or supplied by the Iranians. This is backed up by reports that “spotter” boats were in the area directing the missile strikes. These could only have been Iranian: Houthi tribesmen are simply not capable or trained to carry out sophisticated surveillance and target identification.
The Swift was hit in an attack claimed by the Yemeni Houthis (Ansar Allah), who fired the first C-802 missile. [There is no claim on the second missile attack on the USS Mason. Clearly this would have to be either Houthis or Iranian.]
The C-802 is a major threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf, in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea and elsewhere. The C-802 is an evolved C-801, both produced in China. The C-802 has a very small radar cross section, is hard to jam, and has decent range. China has supplied these missiles to Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, supplied them to operators including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
On 14 July 2006 the Israel ship, the INS Hanit, off the Lebanon coast, was struck by a C-802 missile. The Israelis said, afterwards, that the defense systems on the Hanit, a Saar V class fast boat, were turned off. One sailor was killed and three disappeared, presumed dead from the C-802 attack. The ships was badly damaged but managed to return on its own power to Israel. Whether the story of the sensors being turned off is true or not, the fact is that the C-802 was proven to be effective.
Unlike the Hanit, which is made out of steel, the HSV-2 Swift is made out of aluminum. When the missile hit the Swift, it burned rapidly, a characteristic of aluminum-hulled ships.
The US is building Littoral Combat ships in two models. One is made of steel, built in Wisconsin, and is based on a high speed hull developed by Fincantieri in Italy (the Destriero high speed “yacht”). The other is a trimaran design based on designs that came from Australia. The first of the US LCS trimarans, the Independence, was manufactured by Austal in Mobile, Alabama. A report in 2010 by the Pentagon’s director of Operational Test and Evaluation found that neither design was expected to “be survivable in a hostile combat environment.”
There is video of the Swift being hit by the C-802 missile. Keep in mind that the Swift, while capable of carrying out both military and civilian missions, does not have any self defense systems. The video shows the missile being launched, the missile striking the ship, and the ship burning out of control. From the video it one can see that the distance involved from missile launch to target is less than one mile. As the video rolls, one sees flowing sea water around the camera, suggesting that the missile may have been launched from a land base near the shore or from a small craft. It is clear that the entire attack on the Swift was planned as a response to a Saudi coalition attack in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, where thousands of people had gathered for a funeral for Sheikh Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the rebel-appointed interior minister. Coalition aircraft hit the funeral four times, killing over 140 people and wounding over 500 on October 1st. News reports say that bomb fragments at the site of the massacre show the coalition aircraft used US MK-82 bombs (A Houthi spokesperson on Iran TV, speaking in English, claimed the bombs are GBU-12 Paveway 2, which is a laser guided bomb based on the MK-82.). These bombs may have been equipped with laser guidance kits.
The Houthi rebels responded by launching a large Scud-type missile aimed at Saudi Arabia’s Taif air base, firing missiles at the USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer, located in the Bab al-Mandab strait and the attack on the Swift, which was covered by video cameras.
Was the presence of the USS Mason by coincidence, or was it providing cover for the Swift as it delivered supplies and picked up “passengers” from Yemen? In any case, either the Mason was outside of the range of the C-802, or the C-802s were set up to fall short of the target. There was fear on board the Mason that the USS Ponce, a command and control ship that also serves as a staging base for special forces, was in danger and had been targeted. (The Ponce is essentially a sitting duck in the Persian Gulf and must be defended by other ships. The author believes the risk of deploying the Ponce in a war zone as confined as the Gulf is a major strategic mistake.)
The Mason fired a number of air defense missiles after a second attack by Chinese missiles. Indeed, one of the questions about current-day US and allied ship defenses is whether they are actually able to destroy incoming sea-skimming missiles especially the C-802. The problem will grow worse when the sub-sonic C-802 missiles (powered by a ramjet) are replaced with supersonic sea skimming missiles, such as those China is developing.)
In a further response, the U.S. military launched cruise missile strikes on Thursday, October 13th aimed at knocking out three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by Iran-aligned Houthi forces. It is not known whether these coastal radar sites are what was used against the Swift, Mason and Ponce because there are coastal radar sites in Yemen that were installed as anti-piracy sensors in 2007.
The Iranians announced the deployment to Yemen of the Alvand, a warship listed as a frigate but actually sized as a corvette. Manufactured in the UK in 1971 was a Mark V class warship (Vosper produced), it carries C-802 missiles, has a large gun (4.5 inch) and light torpedoes. Iran also deployed a supply ship, the Bushehr to support the Alvand. In effect the Iranians have now put themselves between Yemen and US warships.
Everything is speculation, but it appears that the Houthis were looking for an opportunity to knock off the Swift. The funeral incident gave them the needed excuse. The Mason was warned to stay away, and it did. Whether the Ponce was ever a serious target remains an open question, but the fact such an attack would spawn an immediate war with the United States suggests the Ponce was not a real target.
The Swift is wrecked. According to news reports, the National Maritime Dredging Company had insurance and that the insurance covered this sort of an incident (somewhat incredible because insurance companies generally don’t cover acts of war). Thus, the US Navy will get paid back for the loss of the ship.
Are there lessons learned? For sure one of them is that aluminum-hulled ships are susceptible to fire and should not be used in combat-like situations. Unless the aluminum trimaran Littoral combat ships can kill incoming missiles before they hit, they are vulnerable to damage or destruction. Experts think the primary threat is from swarming boat attacks where the boats have missiles and some of them may be stuffed with explosives. A look at the defense systems currently on board the LCS (both models) is a cause for serious concern for their survivability.
Another lesson is that Iran (with China’s assistance) is proliferating anti-ship missiles and putting them in the hands of terrorist organizations.
A key lesson that is not yet properly understood by US policy-makers is that Iran’s supply of these weapons makes Iran responsible for and clearly complicit in their use. As the recent attacks confirm, it is likely that Iran actually manned the missile launchers and the spotters, and perhaps even supplied the fast boats with machine guns to shoot up the defenseless Swift crew abandoning ship (a tectic familiarly used by al-Qaeda, Palestinian terrorists and ISIS too).
The US response a few days later launching cruise missiles against radar sites in Yemen may have been more symbolic than real, since it is possible the US knocked out anti-piracy radars and not radars connected with the C-802. The C-802 has mobile launchers that are hard to target with cruise missiles; moreover it is not clear if the targeting was done by Iranian boats. But in any case the administration deserves some credit for finally taking action other than passive behavior in the Gulf.
Finally the lesson is that to neutralize these kinds of attacks you cannot sit around and wait for the attack to happen. You have to knock out the enemy’s delivery systems, both at sea and on land. This means preemptive attacks are the only strategy that can give results.
The current US posture of waiting for something to happen is very dangerous to say the least. Instead of the missiles “falling short,” the USS Mason could have been sent to the bottom.