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.
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.
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.