Gabriel announced for PTO2020

The decision on one of the most important weapon systems for the Finnish Navy has become public today with the surprise announcement that Israeli Aircraft Industries’ Gabriel has been chosen for the PTO 2020-contract. The PTO 2020 will be the main ship-killing weapon of the Navy, being used on the Hamina-class FAC and the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020) as well as from truck-mounted batteries ashore. As such, it will replace the current MTO 85M (the RBS15 SFIII, a customised RBS15 MkII). This also effectively kills alls speculation that there would be a joint anti-shipping weapon operated by the Navy and by the Air Force, as there seems to be no air-launched version available for fast jets.

First a short discussion regarding the designations: IAI never mention Gabriel on their homepage, but they do market the Advanced Naval Attack Missile, and most sources agree that this is the Gabriel V. The odd one out is CSIS, which lists two versions of the Gabriel V, of which the ANAM is a shorter-legged and newer version of the original Gabriel V, which instead is designated Advanced Land Attack Missile. Also, the version of Gabriel bought is not publicly confirmed by the Finnish MoD, but there’s few possibilities. My working hypothesis is that while there might be slightly different versions the missile most commonly described by the Gabriel 5 / Advanced Naval Attack Missile designations is in fact the one bought by the Finnish Defence Forces.

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Probable Gabriel V launch from a Sa’ar 5-class corvette during Israeli SINKEX in 2016. Screenshot: IDF exercise video

Looking at the field, it was clear from the get-go that the big dividing line was between the IIR-seeker of the NSM compared to the traditional radar seekers of the rest of the field. Coupled with the stealthy body of the missile, this allows the NSM a completely passive approach. The phrase “they never knew what hit them” has never been truer. However, the world of physics also dictate that IIR-seekers perform worse in adverse weather conditions (snow, rain, fog, …) compared to radar ones, a serious drawback for any weapon designed to operate in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea. While Kongsberg always claimed that the NSM offers true all-weather capability, it has remained impossible to judge the true differences based on open sources. Also, the Finnish Defence Forces is known as being somewhat conservative when adopting new technology, preferring evolution over revolution. This became evident once again with the decision to opt for the tried and tested radar seeker, and notably stealth isn’t as important for a sea-skimming missile were detection ranges are extremely short.

The Gabriel has an interesting history. A month after the end of the Six Day War in 1967 the Israeli (ex-Royal Navy) Z-class destroyer was attacked without warning by three P-15 Termit anti-ship missiles from an Egyptian Project 183R Komar-class vessel sitting inside the harbour of Port Said. While tactical lessons of a WWII-vessel being hit by three missiles fired from inside a port basin might be discussed, it was clear for the IDF that a modern anti-ship missile was needed, and the Navy took over the failed Luz-program of surface-to-surface missile to produce what became the first version of the Gabriel. This proved to be an excellent weapon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, where the Israeli Navy was the sole service branch to completely sweep the floor with the enemy.

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The Gabriel missile was already once on its way out. Here the launcher of INS Mivtach, an ex-Israeli FAC currently a museum ship in Haifa which originally sported the Gabriel but changed to Harpoon from 1984 to its decommissioning in 1996. Source: Own picture

Development of the Gabriel continued, but by the mid-80’s the Harpoon was being introduced in Israeli service, and it looked like it spelled the end of the indigenous weapon. However, in a country famous for resurrections, death should never be taken for granted, and by the early years of the new millennium analysts where starting to question why Israel wasn’t upgrading their stocks to the new RGM-84L standard. Rumours started spreading about a new weapon being development.

The exact specifications of the Gabriel V are shrouded in secrecy, but it seems to be built according to generally the same form factors as the Harpoon. The first relatively confirmed sighting of the new weapon came two years ago, when a SINXEX involved the Israeli Navy firing a Harpoon followed by a new weapon. The stills are blurry to say the least, which seems to indicate a faster launch speed and/or worse camera than used to shoot the corresponding Harpoon launch. Another one of the few publicly available pictures/renders is found in this video, where an unspecified anti-ship missile is available as part of the IAI Skimmer-package for maritime helicopters. An air intake below the missile fuselage is found on the helicopter video but not visible upon launch in the SINKEX, but might be retractable or specific to the air-launched version.

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A twin launcher for the original Gabriel with the carachteristic twin X-array of fins. The first generations of the missiel bear nothing but the name in common with the missile now acquired by the Finnish Defence Forces. Source: Own picture

On their homepage, IAI offers a few choice insights into the weapon. It does sport and active radar seeker, and while Israel has no archipelago whatsoever, they are situated close to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes with the number of civilian and neutral vessels vastly outnumbering those of potential targets at any given time. This means that the missile should feel right at home in the Baltic Sea. The weapon also reportedly “copes with rapidly evolving tactical situation”, which can only mean that it sports a datalink.
It also “penetrates hard-kill defenses”, which likely is a cover phrase for end-phase maneuvering. From the video of the SINKEX the impact point low on the hull is visible, though it is impossible to tell whether the missile shown impacting the tanker is in fact the Harpoon or the Gabriel. On the cutaway it is evident that the weapon has a jet engine.

The size of the warhead is unclear. RBS15 sports an impressive 200 kg warhead, while Exocet sports a 165 kg one, the Harpoon ER has shifted down from a 220 kg to a 140 kg warhead, with NSM also having a 120 kg one. The question of what kind of destructive firepower is needed for the Navy to effectively stop the Baltic Fleet short in their tracks is an interesting one. In short, 200 kg of explosives going off won’t send a frigate or destroyer-sized target to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. A good example here is the attack on the Iranian 1,100 ton frigate Sahand. which was hit by five 220 kg warheads (including three Harpoons) and cluster bombs, and still floated for hours before fires reached the magazines of the ship. A common theme is that fires might however prove troublesome, as was seen with both the Swift, hit by an Iranian C-802 near Yemen, and the HMS Sheffield hit by a single Exocet in the Falklands war. In both cases the ensuing fires caused significantly more damage than the warheads themselves. In the case of the Sheffield, the warhead seems to have failed to detonate, but the impact put the main firefighting systems out of action, severely hampering the fire-fighting effort.

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Probable Gabriel V in the leftmost picture. Screenshot from IAI marketing video

If I had to take a guess, the warhead size of the Gabriel is likely closer to 120 than 200 kg. However, it can be argued that A) vessels need not be sunk to be effectively put out of action, and B) the majority of the vessels of the Baltic Fleet are relatively small compared to blue water ships such as destroyers. Also, modern warheads do pack a larger punch compared to similarly sized ones dating back to the 80’s. All in all, the choice to downsize from the current warhead size probably wasn’t a major factor in deciding the lethality of the Finnish Navy

One thing that has potentially been seen as an issue for the Gabriel has been the lack of shore-based systems. While the technical difficulties of creating a new launching system by mounting the tubes on a truck aren’t overwhelming, the certification process still will require some additional funding. Apparently this still fit within the given cost/capability brackets, especially as the MoD states that the deciding factors have been “performance vis-à-vis acquisition costs and schedule, lifecycle costs and security of supply, and compatibility with existing infrastructure and defence system”. Notably the maintenance will be done in Finland.

The Gabriel was decidedly something of an underdog, but it is clear that the Navy went into the project with an open mind and looking for the best option instead of just continuing in the tried and tested tracks of the next RBS15. Following the Polish and German export orders for the RBS15, diversifying the anti-ship missiles of the western countries around the Baltic Sea is also a good thing, as this makes it harder for the Baltic Fleet to optimise countermeasures.

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INS Haifa (S322) firing an early Gabriel. Source: Nir Maor via Wikimedia Commons

The weapon also has a secondary land-attack capability, although the damage of the comparatively light warhead deals to any kind of hard target isn’t too impressive and the missile comes with a relatively hefty price tag. It could potentially have a role in taking out soft high-value targets, such as the kind of long-range radar systems. This demonstrates another case of a Finnish defence program moving into what the US likes to call ‘cross-domain’. In other words, joint capabilities where the ground, naval, and air domains interact over the boundaries to support each other either through kinetic effect or by providing targeting data for each other. As such, it does provide another part of the Finnish deterrence picture, further strengthening the ability of the Finnish Defence Forces to hit targets at long-ranges (most sources seem to agree upon at least 150 km range).

Imagine the following scenario: an HX-fighter identifies an enemy brigade headquarter being temporarily set up in the terrain close to highway E18, outside of the range of the Army’s long-range multiple rocket launchers. The maritime threat level is however low, and the Navy dispatches two Hamina-class FAC’s which in a few hours travel from their hiding locations near Örö, to take up positions west of Suomenlinna within the air defence umbrella created by the Army’s ground-based SAM systems covering the capital. From there they fire a salvo of PTO 2020’s, which strike the target 150 km east, not necessarily putting it out of action but dealing severe damage to it. While the missiles are still in the air, the Haminas retreat back to the safety of the cluttered archipelago, stopping for a refill of missiles at one of the several smaller ports found along the Finnish coastline. The whole operation is over well within 24 hours from that the fighter first spotted the target. That is cross-domains fires and joint capabilities.

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RBS15 – on the road to the Next Generation

“Psychedelic” is the word I hear someone standing next to me use to describe the room. I agree. We are standing inside what is roughly a 13 m long cube, with all the surfaces being covered with soft blue spikes of different sizes. The room is completely void of echoes, and they say that if you stand here alone, you will eventually hear your heart beating. Loudly. The only objects standing out is a large frame mounted halfway up one wall, and a pattern of blank discs mounted opposite the frame, these being the flight motion simulator and the antenna wall respectively.  We are in the anechoic chamber at ELSI, and I almost expect GLaDOS to start talking to us.

ELSI, or the Electrical Warfare Simulator, is at the hearth of Saab’s anti-ship missile program. The seeker-head of the RBS15 missile is mounted on the flight motion simulator, which moves the seeker in 3-axises as it ‘flies’. On the other end of the room the antennas sends out signals corresponding to what the seeker would see at any given moment during its course. This includes not only target signatures, environmental effects, and countermeasures in the form of false targets and active jammers. All this, coupled with the seekers simulated position and real-world direction, are then used to create the model, which is fed to the antenna wall’s signal generator which creates artificial radar returns for the seeker head. As noted, it is very much a case of the actual hardware being in the loop during testing.

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RBS15, sporting a 200 kilogram warhead to dissuade enemy ships from getting within 200 kilometers of your waters. Source: Own picture

The story of ELSI goes back to the early 90’s, when the board decided upon the investment, partly to ensure that Saab would be able to expand their share of the export market in an age of shrinking defence budgets. 1994 the site was running its first tests, and four years later it was operating at the desired level, a host of teething problems having been fixed.

Finland is no stranger to the RBS15, having operated the first generation of the missile from ship and shorebased batteries under the local designation MTO-85 since the late eighties. As such, a Finnish delegation visited ELSI early on in 1999, with the latest Finnish threat pictures. The purpose was to run a comprehensive round of tests with the MTO-85 seeker, which then provided the basis for an upgrade program launched at Saab. The upgraded seeker was then run through the same set of tests the following year. The tests can’t have gone too bad, as two years later the upgraded RBS15 SFIII, a customised RBS15 MkII, was introduced in Finnish service as the MTO 85M.

Now the RBS15 is a hot topic again for Finland. The anti-ship missile is one of the candidates for the PTO2020-program, the current acquisition to replace the MTO 85M on the Hamina-class following their ongoing MLU and in the truckmounted batteries, as well as becoming the main surface-to-surface weapon for the new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020). And Saab is confident that the RBS15 will be a prime candidate this time as well.

Saab has two distinct versions on the table. Noting that the baseline version was nearing the end of its life, Saab embarked on an ambitious upgrade program. While the step from MkI to MkII was an upgrade, the Mk3 was a radical redesign resulting in what was basically a completely new missile. Following a four-year test program it was adopted by the German Navy, and shortly after that by the Poles. The Swedish Navy is still soldiering on with the MkII, and would have been happy to adopt the Mk3. However, the Swedish Air Force had other thoughts, and had a requirement for the weapon to be lighter to allow four missiles to be carried simultaneously by the upcoming 39E Gripen. The result was the RBS15 ‘Next Generation’ (still lacking an official designation, though Mk4 wouldn’t come as a surprise), which is an upgraded Mk3 with a lighter launch weight, longer range, and generally improved performance. The weapon is contracted for introduction into Swedish service for both the Navy and the Air Force during the next decade, and Saab doesn’t mince words: “It is the most capable and advanced anti-ship missile on the market”, as was explained to us during a briefing.

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The new launch tubes for the RBS15 Mk3 are seemingly of a more complex shape than the older ones, but under the surface ease of manufacture actually means they are cheaper. Source: Own picture

The new launchers are a chapter for themselves, with the original box-like launcher having been replaced by octagonal tubes. The reason behind this is cost-savings, as the original box held the missile tilted 45° to one side, meaning that the railings holding the missile inside the box have very demanding tolerances. The newer launch tube instead holds the missile level, which is somewhat more forgiving on the structures. But it in turn leads to new questions. “The Visby-class will fit the NG, but we have already cut square holes in the side for the MkII, so in that case we will use the old launcher,” a technical sales support engineer explained. “The missile itself doesn’t really care, it can handle both positions.”

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The humble MSU (Missile switching unit) is the only major piece of hardware except the launch container that is needed aboard a vessel to be able to fire RBS15. Source: Own picture

What then is so special about the RBS15? From a Finnish standpoint, the Baltic Sea as the design environment of choice is interesting. The often poor weather combined with a cluttered archipelago and lots of civilian traffic makes for a challenging battlefield, and Saab is one of very few companies designing their anti-ship missiles from the outset for littoral waters as opposed to the open sea. This is also where ELSI comes into play. allowing for advanced simulations of the performance of the seeker, something which plays a key role in evaluating parameters such as ECCM and target discrimination. The weapon is also capable of performing the land-attack role against ‘soft’ targets, though it is not optimised for the role in the same way as ‘true’ land-attack cruise missiles.

The ships we are firing against are not that keen on being hit.

The flight path of the missile is guided through a number of pre-set 3D waypoints, and the missile then navigates using both GPS and inertial navigation to make sure it hits all waypoints on time. Timing is key for features such as simultaneous time-on-target, a default feature for the RBS15, and as such the missile will throttle up and down in flight as needed to hit all waypoints on the exact time given. The exact height of the sea-skimming part of the trajectory also varies according to sea state, with larger waves naturally forcing the missile to fly at higher altitude. And in case the missile misses its target, it will swing around and do a reattack. If no target is found at all, it will eventually head off to a pre-set destruction point, which can be altered by the operator to make sure the missile doesn’t fly off and self-destruct over the nearest town.

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Saab’s technology demonstrator 39-7 displaying the capability to carry two RBS15 under each wing, giving a four-ship of Gripen E an almost unrivalled firepower against enemy shipping. A full salvo will be devastating against enemy warships, but also comes at a hefty price. Picture courtesy of Saab Ab

For PTO2020, Saab hasn’t offered a specific variant, but instead opened the shop and described the Mk3 available today and the NG available tomorrow. The systems will also be interoperable, with NG launchers able to fire Mk3 and Mk3 launchers able (after a software update) to launch NG missiles. Customisation, as has been the case with the earlier Finnish versions, is also an option, but Saab notes that less and less countries are willing to pay the premium of having a customised missile. From a Finnish perspective, the supply chain is interesting. Diehl in Germany handles final assembly, with Saab building many major subassemblies and handling much of the development work and testing in Linköping. However, a new location on the map is Saab’s brand new technology centre, the STC, in Tampere, which is heavily involved in the electronic warfare side of the technology for the RBS15 NG.

The first draft of the text and pictures has been provided to Saab for screening to ensure that no classified, export controlled, or company confidential information is included.

Vampire

And so it seems the Houthis have scored perhaps their most spectacular success to date.

Normal disclaimers apply, we do not currently know that the video is real, but as this is in line with the earlier demonstrated capability of the Yemeni rebels to launch successful attacks against shipping, I am prepared to tentatively accept the video as real until more evidence surfaces (it always does).

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The first shot of the vessel, showing its starboard side. Note long and thin mast, tilted rear part of the stack, and Crotale-launcher on rear superstructure, all of which are characteristic for the Al Madinah. Note also helicopter on deck.
The vessel in the video is a Al Madinah class frigate. Four of these 2,000 ton (2,600 fl) frigates were built by French yard CNIM in La Seyne for the Saudi Navy during the first half of the 80’s, having been entered service between 1985 and 1986, and undergoing a major refit in France between 1995 and 2000. The crew consists of a total of 179 persons. The vessel is largely defenceless against modern anti-ship missiles, the sole air defence being an 8-shot Crotale launcher (with reloads) and two 40 mm Bofors guns (mounted amidships with relatively poor firing arches).

Based on the video, the attack seems to have followed the same modus operandi as the attack on Swift. If this is the case, the missile is most likely an Iranian-supplied C-802/Noor fired from a truck-based TEL, with the vessel having been tracked by shorebased radars and potentially shadowed by smaller vessels (note that the opening clip shows the vessel from starboard, while in the later clips it is travelling in the opposite direction). As said, this is based on the assumption that the attack seems to be modelled after the one on Swift, the short clip here gives very little to go after.

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Still from the video, showing the moment of impact. Note that it is well to the rear and below deck-level.
The single missile seems to have impacted the very rear of the vessel. This has likely destroyed the stern-mounted 533 mm torpedo tubes, variable depth sonar, and the helicopter pad, but should not be a fatal strike if the watertight compartments are properly secured and the ensuing fire is brought under control. It is however entirely possible that this has caused damage to the hull which would cause the propeller shafts to become misaligned, significantly reducing or completely ending the ships ability to move under her own steam. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a picture of the Al Madinah showing the hull below the waterline, and thus we can only guess the location of the propellers and their supports.

The frigates sport a helipad capable of handling the Saudi Navy’s AS.365 Dauphin-2, and the vessel seems to have had a helicopter aboard during the attack.

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Iranian-made Noor/C-802 anti-ship missile being fired. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Erfan Kouchari
On the whole, while this is certainly one for the history books, successful anti-ship missile attacks are surprisingly rare considering their level of proliferation, in operational terms it won’t affect the Saudi-led war. The frigates have a very limited effect on what is for all practical purposes a land war, and while the damaged frigate is likely to need a significant overhaul (if the shaft line has been damaged it might be deemed uneconomical to return to service), the long term impact boils down to two questions:

How will this affect the Saudi naval expansion program? The long-winded modernisation program is centred around the so-called LCS-frigate, but also includes smaller 2,600 ton vessels. The need for modern warships with a solid self-defence capability might suddenly become more urgent in the minds of the Saudi leadership.

The other question is Iran. The missile was certainly not something made in the basement of a local warlord, but has been imported from abroad, most likely from Iran. An Iranian supplied weapon has now put a major Saudi surface vessel out of action, and quite likely caused losses amongst its crew. How will Riyadh react to this?

With the eyes of the world on Syria (and Trump), Yemen is steadily shaping up to be the tinderbox that might cause a major regional war.

*’Vampire’ is the brevity code for a hostile anti-ship missile.

Update 31 January 2017:

A Saudi press release on the incident has been published, which contradicts the version above by claiming the attack was made by three ‘suicide boats’, one of which impacted in the stern and leading to two dead sailors. The RSAF would then have chased of the other two (the frigate does feature Link 11 for communicating with aircraft).

I find this version somewhat hard to believe. To begin with, the opening video does seem to show a missile, and not another boat. Secondly, while the frigate lacked missile defenses, it has perfectly adequate weapons to fend off three boats,  including deck guns and small arms of the crew. This is especially true given the longer reaction time available in the case of a boat versus a missile closing in. Naturally, the ship might have been at low readiness and been caught by surprise, but some kind of reaction would seem logical. The only vessel besides the frigate on the video is also the camera platform, which apparently got away.

All in all, while I don’t completely rule out the Saudi version, I still believe a missile to be the more likely version.

One ‘intermediate’ version would be that the closing vessel(s) would have fired an anti-tank missile, which would have caused a fire and potentially a secondary explosions amongst the torpedoes.

Update 06 February 

A leaked video claiming to show the flight  deck at the moment of impact has appeared, showing a white vessel approaching and then detonating. The video seems to be real, it featuring an AS365/565 on the helicopter deck, painted in the colors used by the Royal Saudi Naval Aviation, and the camera angle is the expected one for a camera watching the flight deck.

There has also appeared pictures showing the frigate entering port. The vessel sports the pennant number 702, identifying it as the lead ship of the class, ‘Al Madinah’, with visible damage being very light, and consistent with an external explosion caused by a light craft VBIED. Most likely the vessel will be back in service within weeks, as opposed to months.

The Anti-Ship ATACMS and Finland

Some time ago the news broke that the upgrade program for the US MGM-140 ATACMS-missile will include not only a near-doubling of the range past 300 km, but also a seeker head allowing the targeting of moving targets at land and sea.

Much focus was placed on the last part, as it signifies an important shift in how the US Army sees its mission, with this being the first stated anti-shipping capacity of the force since disbanding the Coast Artillery Corps over half a century ago. In reality, hitting a moving target on land is probably a harder engineering problem than hitting one at sea, as the sea provides a level background made up of sea water which is nicely homogeneous when it comes to its temperature, refractive index, and differential scattering coefficient. Compare this to land, which is made up of a bewildering variety of rocks, swamps, concrete, forests, roads, cities, deserts, snow, and what not. In short: if you can identify, track, and target a moving target on land, doing so at sea is rarely an issue.

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An ATACMS being launched, clearly showing the massive size of the missile compared to the launch vehicle. Source: US Army
Exactly how the revised ATACMS will do its targeting is still unclear, but my best guess would be an IIR-seeker, allowing the missile to make (small) course adjustments on its way down towards the target.

For Finland, this provides an interesting opportunity, as Finland operate the M270 MLRS, the launching platform of the ATACMS (though not the missile itself). Wouldn’t this then provide an opportunity to get two capabilities for the price of one?

The answer, when actually on the battlefield, is ‘No’.

The M270, or 298 RSRAKH 06 as it is known locally, is a key part of the Finnish Army’s indirect firepower. Mounted on a chassis based on that of a M2 Bradley, it is highly mobile off-road and able to keep up with the advancing armour columns. Their mission according to Finnish doctrine is to support the manoeuvre elements of the army at the schwerpunkt. In this role, their tactical and (to a somewhat lesser extent) operational mobility shines, and the (arguably light) armoured nature makes it able to take some enemy fire and still keep on fighting.

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A Finnish 298 RSRAKH 06 ( M270A1 MLRS) moving into position in typical Finnish terrain. Source: Maavoimat
By contrast, a shore based anti-ship missile system usually downplays vehicle protection and tactical mobility for a higher payload and strategic mobility. Hence the vehicles used are often heavy trucks, keeping mobility higher and operating costs lower compared to tracked vehicles. As such, the M270 is far from an ideal launching platform, running around in a tracked and armoured chassis while sporting a maximum of two missiles.

The nature of the missile is also not without limits. As said, exactly how the seeker and guidance system will function is still unclear, but most likely the missile will have a relatively narrow engagement cone. This is partly offset by the faster travel time compared to a traditional sea-skimming missile, but it will still require a more exact location fix on the target. Granted sea-skimmers also benefit from an exact fix, but they can also be employed for more general modes of operation like launch on bearing. However, the biggest limiter is where to put the just 20+ launchers available to the army?

As noted above, they will be travelling with one of the two mechanised battlegroups. If they happen to be south of the Seinäjoki-Joensuu line (approximately 63°N) they are technically able to perform the anti-shipping mission in the Gulf of Finland. In practice the dual-tasking would be harder to pull off. The army would, quite rightly, insist on them carrying the load most suitable for the indirect fire support task and having the launchers subordinated to them. If the Navy would locate a suitable target, they would then have to call the battlegroup and ask for permission to use their rocket launchers. They would then have to hope that A) the launchers were available, B) in a suitable location to fire upon targets in the Gulf of Finland, C) that they were loaded with ATACMS, and D) that the battlegroup commander would not prefer to keep his high-value launchers hidden. If all of the conditions were met, the attack could be made. However, a typical high-value naval target would require a higher amount of missiles compared to a typical ATACMS target, such as a key bridge or other installation. This is due to the naval vessel seldom sailing alone, and sporting a very potent and concentrated anti-air cover (especially if it indeed isn’t sailing alone).

Is the anti-ship ATACMS a bad idea? Not necessarily. It does offer a new angle of attack (quite literally), as well as being hard to counter due to its speed. A more interesting question is which moving land targets that the US Army is planning on hitting with a one million euro a piece missile from a few hundred of kilometres out? Trying to take out individual vehicles will rarely make sense, though it could be the case with e.g. long-range SAM systems which are few and far between. In this, the enhanced ATACMS could be a part of the answer to the growing A2/AD-threat.

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3rd Field Artillery Regiment fire two rounds from their High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) in support of a fire coordination exercise for an element of 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd ID. Source: US Army/Sgt. Christopher Gaylord Date via Wikimedia Commons
If the missile is operated in an anti-shipping role, the more mobile HIMARS would probably be a better launch platform. This would then only carry a single missile per vehicle, but would be cheaper to operate and provide the kind of operational mobility needed for coastal defense systems. For Sweden, where the main threat picture include an amphibious assault in the south-eastern parts of the country, HIMARS coupled with ATACMS could be a solution. The Swedish Defense Forces currently lack both a multiple-rocket launcher system and a shore-based anti-ship missile system. Crucially, they also lack funds for a number of other things, and it is unlikely that they would get the funding to procure both systems. Here the HIMARS actually could make some sense, in providing anti-shipping capability with the ATACMS before the enemy has gotten ashore, and indirect fire support with rockets once the battle fore the beachhead has started.

The Attack on Swift

During the night of 1 October, the UAE operated vessel Swift was attacked outside the Yemeni coast. News of the attack quickly spread on social media, and the first indication was that the vessel had been attacked by an anti-ship missile launched from land, which struck the ship and caused a fire, with some reporting the vessel to have sunk.

The official reports downplayed the incident, referring to it as an “accident“, and claiming that the attack on a civilian MEDEVAC ship caused no casualties. Later this was reclassified as a terrorist attack, but that the naval and air units operating in the area had chased away the terrorists boats without own losses.

The vessel in question was the 98 m long wave-piercing catamaran Swift, built by Incat Tasmania in 2003. Together with a number of other vessels, she was built as a proof of concept for the US Joint High Speed Vessel-program, which eventually became the Spearhead-class. The vessel is based on the yard’s civilian fast ferries, and built to civilian standards. This is important to remember when assessing the damage done, as the damage control requirements differ between civilian and military vessels, especially with regards to external sources such as battle damage. The Swift was owned by Sealift Inc. and chartered to the US Military Sealift Command for a number of years with the pennant HSV-2 (High-speed vessel). After this the vessel spent some time back at the yard, presumably for a refit, before heading to UAE where the National Marine Dredging Company leased the vessel.

The vessel has since been a frequent visitor to Yemeni waters, where she has been making round trips between the Ethiopian port Assab and the Yemeni ports of Aden and Al-Mukalla, the later which have been a key battleground during the ongoing war. The exact nature of the operation is uncertain, as is the question whether or not she is operated as a naval vessel or simply chartered as a civilian transport. It is however crucial to note that regardless of whether the crew is consisting of civilian or naval sailors, the vessel is in essence a grey-painted fast ferry. According to coalition press releases, she has operated in the humanitarian role, bringing food and supplies to Yemen and evacuating wounded and sick people on the return trip. This is to the best of my knowledge neither confirmed nor disproved by independent observers.

Apparently the rebel forces/Houthis/Ansar Allah have kept their eyes on the vessel for quite some time, as evident by the opening shot of the Swift in daylight and the close shot of the missile striking the Swift. After nightfall they then tracked it by radar after nightfall, until firing what seems to have been a single C-802 anti-ship missile. The C-802 is a Chinese radar-seeking missile, the first of which where developed with some help from France in the mid-80’s. Production has since switched away from foreign components, including the original French TRI-60 engine (the same one used by e.g. Saab’s RBS-15/MTO-85), and to Chinese equivalents. The missile is roughly corresponding to the Exocet when it comes to behaviour, size, and performance. Crucially, the Iranians have developed their own version called the Noor.

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A Noor being fired from a truck mounted launcher during an Iranian exercise. Note the search radar. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Mohammad Sadegh Heydari

The Noor has seen action in the Middle East earlier as well, most famously during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when two or three missiles where fired at Israeli vessels outside of Beirut. The target was the corvette/light frigate INS Hanit, which was hit by a single missile. The other missile sank the small Egyptian/Kampuchean freighter MV Moonlight, while a third missile apparently exploded upon or shortly after launch. It seems highly likely that the missiles where operated by Iranian forces, and not Hezbollah themselves. The attack gives valuable clues to how the attack on Swift was conducted. The following is based largely on Commander Ville Vänskä’s Merisota and Christopher Carlson’s Attack on INS Hanit.

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Sa’ar 5-class vessel. Note the white ‘R2-D2’ dome in front of the bridge, housing the CIWS. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Israeli Navy Spokesperson

At the time of the attack, INS Hanit was stationed approximately 10 nautical miles of the Lebanese coast (~18.5 km), and her movements had been followed for quite some time by the Iranian/Hezbollah forces operating the missiles. The INS Hanit is equipped with an automatic CIWS system, but due to unconfirmed reasons it did not intercept the missile. One reason is that the missile struck straight from the rear, another that it seems that Israeli intelligence was not aware of the fact that the enemy had anti-ship missiles in the area. It also seems that the system was not operating in automatic mode, due to the INS Hanit conducting air operations at the time of the attack. In fact, it seems like the spotters had observed the vessel for a long time, and waited for air operations to take place before launching. The missiles received targeting data from an commercial off-the-shelf navigational radar mounted on the truck functioning as the TEL, as such not alerting the electronic warfare personnel on the INS Hanit to its sinister nature. The missiles where then launched in sequence, apparently with different flight profiles and seeker settings to maximise the probability of scoring a hit. It seems the missile that hit actually hit a robust steel crane situated on the flight deck behind the superstructure (not mounted in the picture above), which saved the vessel from far worse damage that would have been the case if the missile had been able to penetrate the aluminium hull or superstructure and detonat its 165 kg warhead inside. In the end, INS Hanit came away relatively lightly, suffering moderate damage but still being able to continue under own power and return to service in only 10-20 days after the attack. Four Israelis died as a result of the attack. The missile that hit was the second of the salvo, with the first said to have overflown the INS Hanit before locking onto the unfortunate MV Moonlight, which sank within minutes of being hit, but luckily without any loss of life.

The attack against Swift is likely to have followed the same pattern, with the spotters tracking it visually and with the help of a standard navigational radar. It seems that it was more or less ambushed near the straits of Bab el-Mandab, where the southern Red Sea is at its narrowest. As the vessel lacked any kind of self-defense systems, and most likely any specialised electronic countermeasures or early warning systems, detecting the missile visually in darkness must have been virtually impossible. Most likely the first indication that something was wrong was when the missile impacted in the starboard side of the bow.

The detonation caused a fire, which rapidly engulfed the bridge. Unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, the vessel was put out of action, and despite the preliminary report of no fatalities, it seems likely that the missile and fire would have caused considerable loss of life, especially if the vessel was serving in a MEDEVAC-role. It is a testimony to the seamanship of the crew that they were able to extinguish the fire and save the ship. However, this is also an indication that the warhead of a modern anti-ship missile isn’t necessarily large enough to sink even a moderately sized vessel. As noted earlier, the vessel is aluminium built to civilian specifications, and as such fires are notoriously difficult to put out. That the fire is a greater danger the warhead themselves is also evident in the case of the HMS Sheffield (D80), probably the most famous instance of a warship being hit by an anti-ship missile. The HMS Sheffield was sunk after a single Exocet hit it during the Falkland’s War, and while it seems the warhead failed to detonate, the engine caused a fire that eventually sank the ship. Modern warships are often built of aluminium due to the weight savings it brings, but in case of fire this causes additional problems compared to steel. Of note is that the Royal Navy as a rule require aluminium used to be in annealed condition (O-temper), giving it lower strength but the highest ductility possible, giving  a better ability to withstand battle damage compared to the more usual higher strengths grades used in the civilian sector.

The long-term effect of the attack remains to be seen, but as said, it seems that unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, only a single missile was fired. Quite possibly there are two missiles left on the TEL, and a battle-proven crew waiting for the opportunity to strike again.