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.

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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.