WASHINGTON - There is a reason American military officers express grim concern over the tactics used by Iranian sailors last weekend: a classified, $250 million war game in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful warships.
In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers acknowledge that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted in August 2002.
In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships - an aircraft carrier, cruisers, and amphibious vessels - when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.
"The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack," said Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the war game as commander of a Red Team force simulating an unnamed Persian Gulf military. "The whole thing was over in five, maybe 10 minutes."
In a new disclosure yesterday, the Navy said one of its ships fired warning shots at a small Iranian boat in the Strait of Hormuz on Dec. 19 during one of two serious encounters that month, the Associated Press reported. The USS Whidbey Island opened fire in response to a small Iranian boat that was rapidly approaching it.
No shots were fired in Sunday's confrontation with five Iranian boats.
If the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved to the public how terrorists could transform hijacked airliners into hostage-filled cruise missiles, then the "Millennium Challenge 2002" war game with Van Riper was a warning to the armed services as to how an adversary could apply similar, asymmetrical thinking to conflict at sea.
According to Pentagon and Navy officials, five small patrol boats belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps charged a three-ship Navy convoy Sunday, maneuvering around and between an American destroyer, cruiser, and frigate for a half hour. The location was where the narrow Strait of Hormuz meets the open waters of the Persian Gulf - the same choke point chosen by Van Riper for his attack.
In the incident Sunday, the commander of one US warship trained a machine gun - which fires upward of 10 armor-piercing slugs per second - on an Iranian boat that pulled within 200 yards of the American vessel. But the Iranians turned away before the commander gave the order to fire.