The Russia – Ukraine crisis has brought out an interesting aspect of the strategy of containing a larger force by a fleet of cheap and small boats. The plan is not new, and the U.S., which is helping Ukraine develop the strategy, has been at the receiving end as Iran uses a similar ‘Swarm Boat’ approach against it.
A Mosquito fleet consists of small, multi-role, high-speed combat crafts which are equipped with modern but small-sized naval weapons. Such vessels are cheap and are costly to the better-equipped enemy.
Advantages of a Mosquito fleet
Smaller vessels can be concealed easily, have high speeds and manoeuvrability, and sneak near enemy ships without much radar cross-section.
The P.T. squadrons used during World War II are the best examples. P.T., also known as motor torpedo boats, were tiny and lightweight and were meant to engage enemy warships, sampans, barges and tankers. The P.T.s were the fastest boats of WW2, giving them an advantage against big ships. Some of them were equipped with torpedoes, machine guns and later on, rockets. The idea behind the P.T. fleet was that these boats could dart in, destroy the enemy ships and quickly return to the base. Due to their size and weight, P.T.’s were also good for reconnaissance and could slip close to enemy areas.
However, the same role is played by Fast Attack Crafts (FAC): small, agile, fast warships armed with torpedoes, guns, or anti-ship missiles. FACs lack seakeeping and all-around defence capabilities because of which they are usually operated close to land. Although they have a poor defence against aerial threats and have low seagoing qualities, if they are equipped with the same weapons as their larger counterpart, these small boats can pose a serious threat even to the largest capital ships.
Quick deployment and monitoring of the situations over large maritime areas of the exclusive economic zones is another advantage of these vessels. At the same time, they can also conduct patrols, mine-sweeping tasks and anti-amphibious operations.
When the anti-ship missiles were developed, the Fast Attack Crafts were reborn as “missile boats” in the Soviet Union. They were originally torpedo boats, but later, the torpedo tubes were replaced with missile launchers. The Komar Class missile boat is a notable example that was equipped with two P-15 Termit anti-ship missiles and proved its effectiveness in 1967 by becoming the first to sink a destroyer (Israeli Elyiat). In India, the Soviet Osa I class called Vidyut Class sunk two Pakistan Navy destroyers, a minesweeper and various other vessels during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. One missile even stuck Pakistani naval fuel reserves in Karachi port’s fuel storage tanks, clearing the way for the decisive victory for India. Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) also effectively used small boats against the Sri Lankan Navy.
How can a Mosquito fleet of FACs be effective in battle?
A number of these boats move in as close as possible without being detected and make use of their high-speeds to enter into firing range, launch their missiles or torpedoes and turn back to safety while allowing the weapon to travel towards the intended targets.
These boats can be effective when used in shallow waters where cover and concealment is provided by coastal topography or probably in restricted waters like in the strait of Hormuz and Malacca. The effectiveness of the fleet can significantly increase if combined with other assets from land or airborne surveillance for detection and tracking.
A Mosquito fleet is valuable and can be operated in complex maritime geography like Indonesia and the Philippines, which have a number of gulfs, bays, coves and estuaries scattered across the archipelagic landscape. Such an operating environment serves easier force dispersion and concealment when deployed against a large adversary fleet.
Iran and North Korea, on the other hand, operate one of the largest numbers of FACs. Iran has been developing its swarm boats for being used in the littoral waters of the Persian Gulf, while North Korea operates more than 300 of these vessels.
The Iranian Swarm Boats
Reports suggest that the Iranians acquired asymmetric naval equipment and hundreds of armed speed boats to deter and intimidate opponents by posing a significant threat to them. Swarm attacks utilizing manned or unmanned speed boats can act as a backbone for deterring opposing surface assets. Iran has frequently displayed its capabilities in this area with speed boat parades.
Explaining the Iranian swarm boat strategy, Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd.), the author of ‘S71 INS Chakra – The Pioneer and her men’ and veteran submariner of the Indian Navy, said, “In Jan 2003, I visited Iran as part of the delegation of Admiral Madhvendra Singh then CNS. During our visit to the naval base at Bandar Abbas, we were shown small 7-8 m very high-speed boats with a cofferdam in the stem. On my asking about these boats’ task, I was told that they would be used as attacking boats with the cofferdam armed with high explosives. They would be used in wolf pack tactic to swamp the defences of the U.S. Naval ship’s close-in defences and collide with the target ship to blow it up and open up its hull to the sea. Imagine such a boat with virtually nil radar cross-section approaching your ship at a speed of 40+ knots. Even if the ship’s close-in defense (CIWS) were to knock off a few, one or two boats would get through and, if not sink, disable the warship at a minimal cost. As a student of naval history and warfare, I genuinely found this to be an effective strategy against a much larger force.”
Iranian speed boats often harass U.S. Naval ships near the Iranian waters. In 2015, Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia (SSGN-729) and accompanying ships were harassed by the Swarm Boats of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Thirteen high-speed boats of the IRGC armed with missiles approached the vessel.
“The boats approached the U.S. formation at high-speed, closing in as close as 150 yards. After following all the appropriate and established procedures involving ships horn, blast bridge-to-bridge radio transmissions and other ways of communicating, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maui (WPB-1304) fired approximately 30 warning shots from a 50-calibre machine gun. After the second round of warning shots, the 13 fast attack craft from the IRGCN broke contact,” said the then Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby.
An Office of Naval Intelligence report in 2009 mentioned that “Modern small boats are capable of high speed, have very shallow drafts, can be difficult to detect because of their small size, and may not be positively identified even when detected, leaving them well suited for conducting hit-and-run style attacks.”
The IRGCN has continued to invest in its fast attack crafts’ platforms and weapons and is recognised as the foremost practitioner of small boat swarm tactics, which combine concealment, coordinated manoeuvre, speed, and low radar signatures.
Ukraine’s Mosquito Fleet
Ukraine cannot count on the NATO fleet to protect it if the Russian Black Sea fleet attacks. The country lacks modern ships of its own. Hence it has approved the strategy of creating a Mosquito Fleet.
In September 2020, Captain First Rank Andriy Ryzhenko, the then Deputy Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Navy for European Integration, and until the spring of 2020 – Advisor to the Minister of Defense explained the Mosquito Fleet strategy in a local news source. “There should be three types of boats. The first is those that provide patrolling, protection and escort of ships. At least 6-8 of these boats should protect ports, Zmeiny Island and the Dzharylgach area. The second type is fast amphibious attack boats capable of responding to the possibility of landing troops, operating on sandbars and delivering 15-20 infantrymen to the required area. They need 16 pieces. The third type is missile boats that can prevent a possible landing of troops. They need about eight units, each with up to 8 missiles,” said Ryzhenko.
The United States is helping Ukraine get the first two types of Mosquito’s with Island and Mark VI Class Patrol boats. For the third type, Ukraine has an agreement with the British for missile boats.
Defense against Mosquito fleet
Larger navies are averse to losing their expensive warships to cheaper Mosquito boats. The U.S. and Russia employ defensive tactics by using cheaper, smaller and older ships against them. In 1988, the U.S. repelled the Iranian small boat attack with armed helicopters. In 2014, the U.S. Navy’s amphibious ship USS Ponce, permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf, was fitted with a new, large laser gun that shoots these boats with 30KW lasers.
The U.S. Coastguard has based six old Coast Guard 110′ Island-class patrol boats in the region, and they have been used to ward off the Iranian Swarm boats.
U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship has an integrated package of weapons systems and sensors. Weapons include missiles, guns, drones and inflatable boats to deal with the Swarm Boats. U.S. Navy is creating a Surface Warfare Mission Package (SUW), an integrated system of weapons. Navy developers say that SUW is designed to tackle small crafts with speeds up to 35 knots or more. The SUW’s Missile Module consists of 30-and-57mm guns, 24 ship-fired Longbow Hellfire Missiles, 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats, helicopters and vertical-take-off-and-landing ship-based drones. Hellfire can be guided with the millimetre-wave radar, inertial guidance or semi-active laser targeting to fire on targets like ships, helicopters, fixed-wing or rotor drones attacking the LCS. The module is to enable each platform to function as a “node” on a larger network.
Russia is not new to the Mosquito Fleet threat. The Soviet Union was faced with Finland’s Mosquito Fleet. The Black Sea is dominated by the Russian Naval Fleet. The fleets smaller ships like Corvettes of Project 21630 (Buyan) and Project 12411 (Tarantul) and large patrol ship Project 22160 can fire long-range anti-ship missiles. The small boat fleet, six conventional submarines and air based assets are enough to bottle up the Ukrainian fleet in the harbour. Against NATO, these smaller ships form Russia’s own Mosquito Fleet.
Is the Mosquito fleet effective for Ukraine?
Mosquito Fleet works under the premise that the smart one will defeat or deter the strong. The concept has been tested and failed in the modern era. Take for example Operation Morvarid (Pers. “Pearl”) in which most of the Iraqi fleet was destroyed by Iranian aircraft at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980. The Iraqi fleet consisted of missile and torpedo boats, operating in its coastal waters, and protected by fighter aircraft on alert in the nearby airfields. Familiar? This is how Ukraine sees the successful defense of its shores.
During the attack, Iran concentrated on the larger aviation forces of Iraq than the smaller defenders, disabled the airfield, get a short-term opportunity to operate indefinitely over Iraq’s waters. Then in heroic posture, Iraq sinks one Iranian corvette with its missile boats, which causes Iranian planes to appear and destroy 80% of the Iraqi Navy, including all naval forces involved in the operation.
Another example is Operation Prairie Fire against Libya. On March 24, 1986, American aircraft began to strike the Libyan forces at sea. On the night of March 25, an AWACS aircraft discovered the Libyan IRAS PR. 1234 “Ein Zakit” which had crept to the Americans in radio silence mode, imitating a fishing vessel. That day the Americans attacked this ship. First, the ship received a hit from the Harpoon anti-ship missiles fired from the carrier-based attack aircraft, then, the burning ship was finished off with bombs and sank.
Even the Russian had a brush with a small boat fleet against Georgia during the battle on the coast of Abkhazia in 2008. A Russian fleet consisting of two large landing ships, an escort, a company of sailors (onboard), and a small anti-submarine ship headed to Georgia. Five high-speed Georgian boats left the port of Poti to meet them. Their mission was to attack and sink Russian ships. Attack tactics were well known – high-speed small boats equipped with powerful anti-ship missiles. They were detected and fired upon with a volley from the Russian flagship with MLRS A-215 “Grad”. This does not deter the Georgians and they add speed and try to reach the “dead zone”, where rockets are useless. The Russian small ship, at a distance of 25 kilometres opens fire and destroys one ship. The Georgian boats approach even faster. At a distance of 15 kilometres, the second Georgian ship is destroyed by the Russian small ship. The rest of the Georgian boats turn back at high speed with the Russian small ship on watch.
Like Iraq, Libya and Georgia (and unlike Finland in past) Ukraine cannot expect NATO intervention at the beginning of the war and Russian stand off missiles and naval air wing would have decimated most of the Ukrainian naval shore infrastructure and even the larger naval ships. Ukraine has a smaller Mosquito fleet compared to the Iranian Swarms. Iran seems to have learned the lesson from Iraq’s smaller small boat fleet and created a swarm strategy. There appear to be no modern examples of the success of Mosquito Fleets in modern times.