Gryphon Head
Naval Review

Swarming Tactics

Ken Hansen

Today's Navy Times (28 March) has an article that reports 'swarming tactics' were used by Iranian forces when they captured fifteen Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel on Friday. Their use of this tactic should come as no surprise, and yet that appears to have been exactly the case.

In his article, Andrew Scutro cited Cdr. Kevin Aandahl, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, who said the British force was "swarmed by six motor patrol boats from the IRGCN [Iranian Republican Guard Corps Naval]." Although full details of the action have yet to be made public, the Iranians conducted themselves very efficiently, taking advantage of the physical disposition of the boarded Indian merchant vessel that screened HMS Cornwall from her own boats.

The fact that the IRGCN has been practicing swarming tactics was identified in an article by Fariborz Haghshenass, entitled "Iran's Doctrine of Asymmetric Naval Warfare" that was published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy on their "Policy Watch" website, on 21 December 2006. In a typical, example of 'mirror imaging', the assumption was that these tactics would be used against enemy warships. There was no suggestion that the tactic could be used in this innovative way to achieve a very local albeit very temporary superiority, and that it could achieve practical but non-lethal results. The Iranian's new operating concept has now been employed tactically, and it is time to examine our vulnerability to further incidents of this type.

Built in 1985, Cornwall is a 'stretched' Type 22-class frigate and is one of the many examples of her type of warship that are so often described as 'general purpose' and are employed on a myriad of tasks. However, as this case illustrates, littoral operations in high traffic areas present opportunities for tactical surprise that are unlikely in more open waters. At 5,300 tonnes displacement and 148 metres in length, Cornwall is too large and un-manoeuvrable to react appropriately to sudden and unexpected developments. Moreover, they lack the all-round defensive weaponry that is essential to counter a swarming attack. Unable to react and lacking the necessary armament to deal with six-to-one odds, Cornwall did the appropriate thing and did not intervene. The real question now is: "What lessons can Canada draw from this event?"

Canadian naval vessels and their boats are frequently employed on tasks identical to that assigned to Cornwall. Indeed, the article records that American and Australian crews frequently operate in the same area and that it could have been their personnel that were captured by the Iranians. At 4,750 tonnes and 134 meters, our Halifax-class frigates are only marginally lighter and shorter than Cornwall and are no better armed with short-range weapons. Given much the same circumstances, it could just as easily been Canadian sailors taken captive.

The Consequences of Swarming Tactics

Ken Hansen:

Andrew Scutro's recent article from Navy Times indicates that the USN is conducting a thorough review of their boarding procedures after Iran's recent employment of swarming tactics off the Al Faw Penisula. It also reports the Royal Navy will also conduct "a full review" of the incident. A USN spokesperson from U.S. Central Command revealed that HMS Cornwall has been withdrawn from the area of operations and that there is no longer a ship on that station. In addition, the article gives excellent insight into what past experience of captured American service personnel in similar circumstances has taught U.S. observers about appropriate conduct.

An article written this week by Thomas Harding in the Telegraph states that the RN's leadership must answer serious questions about its operational concepts and tactical procedures used in boardings, as well as others about the types of ships it is using in this sort of operations.

Harding is critical of the RN for its use of frigates in littoral waters, and observes that the reason HMS Cornwall was separated from her boats was that her draft was too deep to allow her to come any closer to the scene of action. This detail makes the whole puzzling scenario much clearer. David Bercuson's article in today's Globe and Mail ("Iran's win-win tactic: kidnapping" 11 April 2007) repeats Harding's claim that HMS Cornwall was restricted by her draft and asserts that the Iranian Republican Guard had analyzed British helicopter and boarding operations to determine the optimum timing for their swarming attack. Bercuson warns that Canadian warships could also be vulnerable to swarming tactics and advises that the only way to avoid a similar outcome is to be prepared to use armed force - "no matter the cost."

Three Cheers for Diplomacy

Denis Stairs

Controversy has broken out in the media, particularly in the U.K. and the U.S., over the behaviour, while captive, of the British naval personnel who were recently seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and subsequently detained by Iran's governing authorities. Their effusive expressions of thanks to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the time of their release, and the apologies they offered for having intruded on what they then affected to recognize as "Iranian" waters, have generated in some quarters a measure of unease. Have we in the West, the question goes, somehow lost the hallowed tradition of the "stiff upper lip" - a tradition popularly associated most of all with the response under pressure of the reputedly stoical British?

Even in Canada, an outraged letter-writer in the National Post went so far as to assert that the 15 sailors "should be charged for treason by Britain." "Whatever happened," he asked, "to captured soldiers only giving their 'name, rank and serial number'? ... Folding like a deck of cards under pressure is not what soldiers are trained and paid to do."

There has also been some vigorous discussion of the U.K. government's decision to allow the sailors to market their stories to the British press - in effect, to sell their tales for hard cash.

This kind of commentary may be understandable, but it neglects the obvious possibility that the sailors were acting under orders, or at least in accordance with general guidelines imparted to them during the course of their training. Doug Saunders reported in the Globe and Mail on Friday, April 6, that British authorities had "noted that British military personnel are trained to submit to their captors in order to maintain their safety if there is no chance of escape." He went on to quote Sir Jock Stirrup, the British chief of defence staff, in asserting that the sailors "did exactly as they should have done, from start to finish in this entire episode, and we are extremely proud of them."

The critics also forget one obviously relevant point, which is that Britain is not at war with Iran. The Iranian government is certainly regarded - fairly or not - as something of a pariah in the West, and particularly in Washington. It is also the target of economic sanctions under U.N. Security Council resolutions, in the (probably futile) hope that these will encourage it to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Thus far, however, no war has been declared, and with one or two exceptions (as in the case of the ill-fated U.S. attempt to rescue American diplomats after they had been seized by militant Iranian students in 1979), overt military operations have been carefully avoided by both sides.

All that being so, the captured British sailors could hardly be regarded as prisoners of war, and presumably they did not themselves believe that they were. The public interest here (on all sides) lies not with escalating such otherwise marginal incidents, but with de-escalating them - a process that can hardly be served by inessential displays of pugnacity.

The incidents themselves are obviously irritating. As David Bercuson reminded us in the Globe and Mail on April 11, this particular example amounts to a re-play of a very similar episode in June 2004, when the Revolutionary Guard seized three Royal Navy patrol boats and detained eight sailors and six marines for several days. It's the kind of thing that can reap propaganda rewards for Iran among constituencies of interest to it in the Middle East and elsewhere. But it's hardly a casus bellum, and the most appropriate response is not immediate military retaliation, but preparatory operational measures designed to ensure that the problem will not recur in the future.

Presumably it is this thought (together with the desire to avoid needless casualties) that underlies the training that British officers insist their sailors have received.

Whether the sailors should be allowed to peddle their accounts of their experiences to the media is a more difficult and complicated matter. The fact that the issue has arisen at all, as Paul Schneidereit noted in an article in the Halifax-based Chronicle Herald on April 10, is not very surprising in the British context, where it has become a common Fleet Street routine.

There are all sorts of reasons for arguing that the practice is a disreputable one, for which the media themselves doubtless deserve rebuke. But given that the habit is already deeply imbedded in the culture of the less admirable components of the British press (in matters of this kind, they truly have no peer), it is not entirely clear that military personnel, within the limits set by security requirements, should be held to a higher standard than the one commonly maintained by their civilian counterparts.

In Canada, it is even conceivable that military lawyers would be inclined to advise their superiors that denying such marketing opportunities to uniformed men and women could be open on various Charter-based grounds to a successful challenge in the courts. Since the United Kingdom is not bound by a comparable constitutional device, it may be free of this sort of legal constraint, but even so, it is not clear that military personnel should be limited on a matter of this kind in ways that civilians are not.

Uniformed personnel in all ranks, moreover, have had a long history of writing their memoirs or providing other post facto money-making accounts of their career experiences, often with the help of well-paid ghost-writers. These frequently constitute invaluable additions to the public record, for which historians, educators, political analysts, accountability advocates and others have good reason to be immensely grateful. It is not obvious that any significant difference of principle is involved in the present case - subject, again, to the usual security requirements.

There may also underlie the British decision on this a more pragmatic consideration, which is that the marketing process will encourage wider publication and dissemination of the sailors' accounts of what they have experienced, and thereby help in some quarters to countervail the short-term Iranian propaganda advantage.

As interesting as these sorts of questions are, however, their significance pales before the more important underlying implication of much of the recent critical commentary. This is particularly true of some of the chatter that can be heard on the talk shows of right-wing American television channels, echoes of which can be found in language emanating from sources sympathetic to the Bush administration.

Perhaps the most astounding manifestation of a bull of this sort stampeding into a china shop came from John Bolton, the recent American Ambassador to the United Nations, who is reported to have observed on British television that Whitehall's response to the captive sailors incident - which was to resolve it by means Canadians would describe as "quiet diplomacy" - was "pathetic."

It might be tempting for Canadians to dismiss this sort of behaviour as another routine display of excess by an American "neo-con" in muscular heat. The careful exercise of military power in the right hands can sometimes produce a lot of good. But the power itself is a dangerous intoxicant, and there is no originality in the thought that it can lead political leaders who are convinced they are right to deploy it - or threaten to deploy it - in ways that are too crude by half. The effects in such cases are almost invariably counterproductive, and the paradox of power then plays itself out. The powerful are shown to be weak. The weak are shown to be strong. Peasants in the rice-paddies of Vietnam defeat the military establishments of two great empires in a row - the French and the American - with hardly a break between engagements.

Canada is not, of course, a serious player in this kind of game - although it sometimes talks of its own "soft power" in comparably misguided terms. But some of its commentators are given all the same to cheering on from the sidelines the more belligerent of the forces that reside among the citizens of its great power allies, thereby giving unintended encouragement to the making of great mistakes.

An example of the genre can be found in David Warren's column entitled "We are men of straw", which appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on April 7. In it, he took issue with British authorities for "negotiating with the revolutionary Iranians to get their 15 sailors back." He went on to observe that they were also negotiating with Hamas "in the hope of freeing a BBC journalist who went missing in Gaza nearly a month ago," that British police were "still negotiating with radical members of the Muslim community, in the hope of averting violence and finding more suspects and evidence in light of charges just brought against three alleged conspirators in the London bombings of July 7, 2005," and so on.

Warren concedes in reference to the captured sailors that they were probably "under orders not to offer resistance if the Iranians tried to detain them illegally - but instead, to negotiate." But he finds the negotiating disposition, taken as a whole, very troubling. An American military source has told him that "American or Australian personnel would be under contrary orders. Orders to engage in such circumstances." It breaks his heart "to see the Royal Navy reduced to such pathetic and squalid groveling; to see the speed with which first the female sailor and then several of the men were persuaded to pose for Iranian propaganda." The display is regarded as a far cry from the performance in the Falkland Islands campaign under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The problem, in Warren's view, is that Prime Minister Tony Blair, who "probably knows that negotiations with implacable enemies are, in the longer run - but usually in the shortest run, too - utterly counterproductive," "lacks the spine of Mrs. Thatcher." He was thus unwilling to "do what had to be done" because it "would have meant publicly risking the lives of 15 sailors, and all the media fallout that would come of it."

But it is not at all clear here what it was that "had to be done," apart from pressing for yet another escalation of economic sanctions against Iran. The implication seems to be that there should have been a much more vigorous verbal response in public, presumably supported by ostentatious displays of sabre-rattling.

Sadly, the dispute with Iran may yet come to this, and there can be no doubt that military planners in Washington and elsewhere have been examining their options. Presumably, however, it would be much more preferable to resolve the problem by non-martial means. This is particularly the case in the present context, in which there are at least a few troubling ambiguities.

One of them is that there appears to be disagreement between the Iranians and others over the precise location of the boundary line between Iranian and Iraqi waters. This is not the place in which to consider the respective merits of the competing claims, but Canadians should be among the first to understand that disputes over such matters can easily arise, and that rival players can, and will, bring conflicting criteria to bear in support of their interests. Until they agree, entitlements are defined through the eyes of the beholder.

Another such ambiguity derives from the role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The most recalcitrant adversaries of Iran assume that the Guard is ultimately an instrument of the government, even if it displays para-statal characteristics, and that it was therefore acting on central authority and not on its own initiative. Its para-statal cover, on this view, is a cover of convenience, which gives Tehran what the Americans (when up to comparable mischief) like to call "deniability." Other commentators, however, seem to be much less sure that governance in Iran is so rationally and coherently orchestrated as the "cover of convenience" interpretation would suggest. I can offer no informed opinion on this matter, except to observe that the evolution of events as we know them can be made to fit with either one of these two views of how the Iranian system actually operated in this particular instance.

However these and other ambiguities are assessed, it is difficult, in any case, to avoid the conclusion, once again, that the captive-sailors incident cannot sensibly be regarded as a casus bellum, and that initiating a warlike response would have been (a) unwarranted, and (b) counterproductive (in both the short and the long term).

However much we may disapprove of the Iranian government and its policies, moreover, one of the inconveniences that we must simply accept is that, for various reasons, it is a force to be reckoned with. It has a population of just under 70 million. It is located in a geopolitically significant position. It sits on a lot of oil. And there are important international actors who do not agree with the view that it can be (or should be) brought to heel by military means, including a few who think that the way it does its politics is in accord with the preferences of God, as well as being perfectly understandable in the light of its twentieth-century historical experience.

All of this is tiresome, no doubt, but it does suggest that responding to the challenges that Iran poses to western interests may require a more nuanced array of responses than the ones that appear to be preferred by the likes of John Bolton.

How many demonstrations of the limitations of muscularity (Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, Iraq, perhaps Afghanistan, and lots of others on a smaller scale) must we experience before the custodians of great military power (and the commentators who like to think well of them) begin to act less like quarreling school boys, and more like professionals?

British diplomacy, in this case, was certainly "professional."

It deserves cheers, not brickbats.

George Godwin:

Dear Naval Review

I have a very hard time understanding how and why HMS CORNWALL, with the Task Force Commander embarked, allowed her boats to be surrounded or cut off from herself. My understanding, from a former trainer of Canadian boarding parties, is that our protocol is that the frigate or mother ship always ensures a clear unobstructed route is maintained and the boarding party boats are never cut off. This would require CORNWALL to manoeuvre to intercept the Iranian boats or provide cover to her boarding party. Obviously, this was not done.

George Godwin
Cdr (retd)

Ken Hansen:

Retired British General Sir Michael Rose believes that the Iraq War has, among other things, "destroyed the trust between civilian society and its armed forces." Specific to the Royal Navy, Rose said "the Navy is no longer fit for modern warfare" and "the captured sailors and marines displayed a woeful lack of military fibre." An article by Sarah Sands of the Daily Mail comments again on the incongruity of boarding operations being conducted in such a way and in a vicinity that prevented HMS CORNWALL from intervening when Iranian forces used swarming tactics to capture the British boats and their crews.

The RN and USN adjust their tactics and equipment: can Canada do the same?

Ken Hansen

A recent report in the U.K. press describes the return of RN warships to the northern Arabian Gulf following the capture of 15 British sailors and marines in a 'swarming' attack by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval forces on 23 March. This time, boats from HMS Richmond F-239 (a 436-foot "Type 23" Duke-class frigate that replaced HMS Cornwall in July) are escorted on their boarding trips by two 34-foot American gunboats that are each armed with four 50-calibre heavy machine guns and four other medium-calibre machine guns. In addition, a suitably-armed helicopter from Richmond flies nearby the four-boat team. The "complete overhaul of procedures, training and equipment" conducted by the RN has resulted in the already obvious answers to the tactics employed by the enemy: at least match them in numbers of comparable types; surpass them in firepower; and exploit an asymmetric advantage if you have one.

The need for small boats was underscored when, on 24 April 2004, an Arab dhow exploded next to USS Firebolt's boarding team, killing three American sailors. (Firebolt (PC-10) is a 170-foot Cyclone-class patrol craft.) Only a few minutes later, two explosive-laden skiffs heading for the Al Basra oil terminal were blown up just short of their target. Just as is happening ashore, the use of suicide bombers can now be expected as a routine event in counterinsurgency/irregular warfare at sea.

Neither improvised explosive devices nor short-range attacks pressed home with suicidal determination are new in naval warfare. However, the local situation does not allow maritime forces to employ their mobility to avoid hazardous areas and threats. The $230M worth of crude oil that flows out of Iraqi oil facilities daily necessitates a continued naval presence. A resourceful, determined and innovative enemy is dictating the tactics and countermeasures that we must employ in order to be successful while avoiding losses.

Ships that are employed in these inshore waters should be small and manoeuvrable (and expendable, if need be), armed with close-range weapons capable of generating devastating stopping power in all four quadrants, and equipped with at least a couple of types of boats. One of these should be a remotely-controlled and armed robotic vehicle, akin to the Protector (built by BAE, Lockheed Martin, and Rafael), or an unmanned but unarmed vehicle of which there are now several types available. Air support should come from a 'mother ship' that will have to stand off in order to avoid unnecessary risk (and embarrassment).

The age of robotics is upon us. If Canadian naval vessels are to be deployed into coastal areas plagued by instability, the threats they will face will look a lot like those in the northern Arabian Gulf. The 'answers' about how to deal with these threats should provoke significant changes in force structure, operating concepts and equipment.

Strait of Hormuz Incident: The recent US - Iranian run-in at sea

Eric Lerhe

On reading reports and scanning the video of the recent U.S. Navy - Iranian Revolutionary Guard incident in the Straits of Hormuz I was struck by how restrained the American forces were and how rash the Iranian.

The Revolutionary Guards broadcast their hostile intent on the radio, manoeuvered to deploy possible mines and then closed to two hundred yards. At some point the defender must respond at these very short ranges or risk passing the point when he can successfully defend against multiple fast closing vessels.

If I was the local naval area commander ashore I would have fully supported these ships captains' right to respond in self defence at this point. Yet the USN ships calmly pressed on and held fire. They had not even fired warning shots.

At the end of the days, they did not because those captains blended their tactical appreciation of events with their responsibility to defend their ship; their knowledge of maritime law, naval warfare, and the rules of engagement; and their sense of the politico-strategic situation and held back.

In the Persian Gulf we regularly asked our own Captains to perform the same balancing act and they never failed us.

On the other hand, the Revolutionary Guard seaborne commanders do none of this nor do they appear to rely on a shore command structure that provides rational direction. The evidence that they do not is backed up their bizarre actions last year against the Royal Navy in the Northern Gulf.

As the posted article suggests, it may be in Iran's interest to provoke an American military response. This suggests these incidents will continue and that we will continue to have to rely on the skills of our captains.

PS. Helicopters provide a way of giving transiting warships maximum warning against small boat forays. In that light, the recent news that the Cyclone will be yet further delayed is now solidly bad news as it means we will have to send the odd ship of ours to this area without one of our few remaining Sea King.

A Stunning Revelation about its Theoretic Effectiveness.

Ken Hansen

An article by Thom Shanker in New York Times on 12 January contains essential new information about how U.S. Marine Lieutenant General. Paul K. Van Riper, acting as the 'enemy' force commander during the Millennium Challenge 2002 war game, inflicted a major defeat on 'friendly' forces in a Middle Eastern combat scenario. The devastating outcome of that war game has long been the subject of speculation in professional circles. All that was known up until now was that Van Riper's team resorted to 'unconventional tactics', and that he has claimed ever since that day that the outcome of the war game was 'dismissed' by the director and that the lessons were not acknowledged by the navy.

Shanker's article reveals that General (now retired) Van Riper's team employed swarming tactics against their opponents and were successful, at least theoretically, in swamping their defensive capabilities, partly by the use of large numbers of small, high-speed boats, at least some of which were rigged with explosives for suicide attacks. While the 'enemy' forces suffered heavy losses for their efforts, the returns far outweighed the losses, which Shanker claims "astounded" the game's sponsor - U.S. Joint Forces Command. The outcome was classified as a 'defeat' for the friendly force.

General Van Riper has repeatedly voiced warnings about how asymmetrical thinking can be used in conflict at sea. In fact, for any inferior force to defeat a symmetrically superior force an asymmetric approach is essential to achieving success. Technological innovation has often resulted from efforts to provide the attackers with a key advantage in overcoming the adversary's conventional superiority. Submarines, mines, aircraft and fast attack craft have all had their origins in this type of asymmetrical thinking. Japanese 'kamikaze' aircraft were successful in overwhelming USN defensive capabilities at several key points during the Second World War, but limitations in coordinating their efforts and failure to concentrate on the American's critical vulnerabilities (transports and support ships, not warships) did not deliver the hoped for results.

As the commander of a similar 'enemy' force during a war game at the Canadian Forces College in 1996, I also inflicted a major defeat on a 'western alliance' force in a North African combat scenario called Exercise Final Lance. The key to success in that event was preserving our only effective offensive capabilities (200 Scud missiles and their mobile launcher plus three Kilo-class submarines) until a critical moment in the deployment plan of the 'evil aggressors'. Once the first heavy echelons of the force were arriving, an all-out assault on the major port of disembarkation by all the missiles (some armed with chemical and biological agents) and a coincident attack by the submarines (which had been sent to the far corners of the Mediterranean Sea to skulk for three weeks) resulted in the prolonged closure of the main port and the sinking of four 40,000-tonne strategic sealift ships that were carrying practically all of the vehicles for a mechanized corps of some 35,000 troops. A couple of the few remaining airfields and small ports were subjected to harassing attacks by conventional and suicide attackers, which further constricted the Allied flow of forces and sustainment supplies into theatre. All of the attacking submarines were eventually sunk, but the damage had been done. The result was not an outright victory for the 'enemy', but logistical culmination had occurred and the only options for the western leaders were either a negotiated peace or a full withdrawal. They chose the face-saving option. As an aside, the force-on-force approach (good team versus bad team) was never run again on that course at the College.

The problem in forces that depend upon conventionally superior armed formations for their credibility is 'mirror imaging'. We tend to think that our enemy will think like we do, and employ the kinds of tactics that we know how to counter. This is almost never the case. While being the enemy force commander is often offered as a 'carrot' to someone who may not be in the first echelon of candidates or graduates, the real danger in doing so is exposing the weakness of conventional thinking and checklist approaches to problem solving. Intellectual agility and creative innovation seldom have much to do with tactical proficiency. In fact, it is often exactly the opposite.

The final consequences of failure.

Ken Hansen

A report in The Australian published on 8 December describes 'a purge' of the Royal Navy's senior leadership over the embarrassment caused by the 'fiasco' when 15 sailors and marines were captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on 23 March 2008. Defence writer Michael Smith described the event and its aftermath as "one of the biggest humiliations to befall the navy since the failure of Admiral Byng to relieve Minorca in 1756." Smith adds, "He was executed for his incompetence."

Despite PM Tony Blair's assurances that there would not be a witch hunt, Vice-Admiral Charles Style, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, Vice-Admiral Sir Adrian Johns, Second Sea Lord, the Commanding Officer of HMS Richmond, and a senior civilian public affairs official (both unnamed in the report) have all been quietly "removed from their jobs" and have "departed." It is unclear whether they have been released from the service, or merely reassigned to other posts.

John Arquilla and "The Coming Swarm"

Ken Hansen

Professor Arquilla, who teaches in the special operations program at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California, and who is the author of “Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military,” published an important article recently in the New York Times entitled “The Coming Swarm.” In it, he outlined the trend towards the use of swarming tactics by terrorists. Going back to the events of September 11th, he shows how many small teams are used to overwhelm local sentinel and patrol forces. The recent attacks in Mumbai and Lahore conform to this general plan of action.

Arquilla explains that the terrorists are not sophisticated in their tactical procedures or armed with high-tech weaponry. They only use sufficient firepower to overcome individual policemen, or small groups of them, and then proceed to extract a terrible human toll amongst unarmed civilians. It is in the design of their operating concept that they show a degree of sophistication.

Military and government targets enclosed by a prepared perimeter and guarded by heavily armed sentinel forces are of no interest to terrorists. Soft targets are their preferred point of aim. They know that with only a small degree of concentration of force and modest firepower they can overwhelm both the police guards and their immediate response patrolling units. On the off chance that a specially equipped and trained rapid reaction team is close enough to intervene in a timely fashion, they use multiple teams as a hedge against any operation failing completely. These attack teams can be used against the same target or against multiple targets in close proximity. While military and police special forces units may easily outmatch a single terrorist team, the others will be free to wreck havoc, at least for a little while. That small interval of time provides the other terror squads sufficient freedom of action for them to accomplish their blood-soaked aim.

Arquilla’s conclusions provide several simple and effective counters to swarming tactics. Simple though they may be, they represent serious challenges to the way Canada’s JTF2 is organized. First, far more units are needed than the one currently established. Unless they are organized for multiple and separate simultaneous tactical actions, they will be overwhelmed by the general tempo of the situation. Second, special force units need to be spread across the country. One central location is an administrative convenience, not a design for operational effectiveness. The time lag between the alarm and the response will provide the terror squads with all of the freedom of action they need to murder and destroy to the limit of their capacity. Third, he says special units should “not [be] ‘elite’ but rather ‘good enough’ to deal with terrorist teams. In dealing with swarms, economizing on force is essential.” The simple equipment and rudimentary skills of terrorists are not a threat to even standard readiness military forces. Resorting to unrealistic levels of technical superiority and training proficiency drive up costs and lower the number of units that can be generated.

Arquilla argues that the ideas behind employing overwhelming force through the rapid dispatch of technically and numerically superior anti-terrorist units are holdovers from Cold War military thinking. A dispassionate analysis of the threat produces a more realistic assessment. Surprise will be a central element of all successful terrorist attacks; it is their greatest advantage. When intelligence services fail to provide sufficient warning to ward off the attackers, cutting down on response times by special force units is the key to limiting damage. Within a country the size of Canada, this realization demands dispersal rather than concentration of those forces. The definite move towards swarming tactics in terror attacks means that small sub-units must be organized, equipped and procedurally prepared to deal with two and three-person tactical teams that will be proficient, but not expert, in their fighting skills. Arquilla concludes by saying, “the swarm will be heading our way, too. We need to get smaller, closer and quicker. The sooner the better.”

I echo his sentiments.

Kabul and Karachi – the results from swarming attacks are the same

Ken Hansen, CFPS Resident Research Fellow

[Thursday, Jun 30 2011] An Associated Press news story in the 30 June issue of Herald-Zeitung described the 28 June night attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Nine attackers, a four-man heavily armed attack team and five others equipped guns and suicide belts, entered the hotel compound from a secluded area behind the kitchen. They then moved through heavy vegetation along a hillside to the front of the ballroom. Wearing a ‘security uniform’, they were able to approach the checkpoint, where they killed two guards. One attacker was killed in an exchange of gunfire. Some television reports claim that remaining police guards fled the scene at this point.

The targets of the attackers were the participants in a two-day conference on transferring the responsibility for national security to Afghan forces before the end of 2014. While some of the gunmen went to the roof of the hotel, presumably to hold rapid-reaction security forces at bay, the others went through the hotel knocking on doors and trying to find their intended targets.

While the attackers were not successful in killing their targets of choice, by Wednesday morning Afghan intelligence officials reported that 11 civilians were dead, including an appeals judge from Logar province, five hotel workers and three policemen. The Interior Ministry reported 18 people were wounded in the attack, including 13 civilians and five policemen. It appears that all nine attackers were killed.

An attack against the Mehran Naval Air Station at Karachi, Pakistan, was carried out in a similar fashion on the night of 22 May by a group of six attackers. A report in AlJazeera said that the attack lasted for 16 hours before ending on Monday afternoon. In that case, 10 ‘security officials’ were killed and 15 ‘others’ injured. In addition, two of the Pakistani navy’s nine P3C ‘Orion’ maritime patrol aircraft were destroyed. Four of the attackers were killed and two escaped.

A BBC news report indicates that the Mehran attackers wore either dark commando-style clothing or naval uniforms and that they cut through the perimeter wire fencing where they could not be detected by security cameras. The BBC report said the attackers first targets were the naval patrol aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers, which they destroyed with rocket-propelled grenades. Afterwards, “they opened indiscriminate fire, killing several naval personnel as they carried their raid into the heart of the base.” Other eyewitnesses said “the attackers were dressed as naval officials and were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like soldiers.”

Terror attacks have now ‘morphed’ into a much more dangerous form that allows the aggressors to penetrate with relative ease standard security defences typical to most government installations. Gate guards and perimeter patrols are no match for heavily armed and concentrated attackers. Using uniforms creates a moment of doubt in the defender’s minds as the attackers close and overwhelm the sentries. This not only increases the chance of successful entry but also of delaying the raising of an alarm. In both attacks, a prime target was specified, but in only one case was it found and successfully attacked. Apparently, the Intercontinental Hotel’s guests were advised to remain behind locked doors after retiring for the evening as a standard precaution. In effect, these were ‘inner security zones’ that were erected around each of the ‘targets’ and which were effective in providing protection for long enough to allow rapid reaction forces to arrive on the scene. At the Mehran base, the same individualized protection either could not be provided for the aircraft or the naval personnel. A general slaughter followed the attackers’ first efforts in both cases.

What does it all mean? Determined attackers are now sufficiently well organized and trained to penetrate all but the most hardened of static defences. This places even more emphasis on intelligence gathering as the principal means of detecting and stopping attacks before they develop. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, when counter-terror intelligence operations have many obstacles to overcome, attacks like these will continue. Their recent successes will embolden the terrorists to attempt even more significant attacks. In places like Canada and the USA, intelligence operations will have far better chances of success, so long as sufficient resources are dedicated to them. The key to deterrence is preventing the attacks, not in retribution against offenders. The arrest and trial of the ‘Toronto 13’ was a landmark success. Despite this, more needs to be done to prepare for the event of a successful terror swarm attack.

Perimeter defences must be re-examined for their defensive value. However, even if they are reasonably robust and secure, there is no guarantee that they cannot be breached by a moderately effective attack team that will almost certainly use disguises, decoys or diversions. Our own security people need to be well trained and able to raise an alarm swiftly. They may have only moments to do so. Their main purpose is really to buy time and warn others of the danger. Internal security zones are required and training instituted that informs people of where to go and what do in the event of such an attack. Rapid reaction forces will need to be maintained locally that are effective enough to deal with a six to ten person attack team.

Whether at home or abroad, Canadian defence and security forces need to be prepared for swarming attacks. Those potentially in target areas should also be warned and adequately trained. A very dangerous operating concept is now being used that has changed the security calculus.

Broadsides is a work in progress, and we very much welcome your feedback and suggestions for improving the forum. Please email comments to

Dal Logo