I decided to write about modern Missile Boat naval battles because it is not a common topic, you are more likely to read or watch topics involving wars like World War 2, or the Vietnam War, etc. than topics like this. Part of the reason its not so common is probably because modern naval engagements don’t last very long, usually only days, hence you can’t generate a lot of material about them unless you collect them up like what I’m doing now. As to why the topic of Missile Boats, its because these boats are smaller and cheaper than other naval platforms out there like Submarines, Frigates, etc. and thus acquiring them would be a cost-effective way of modernizing our navy.
But first, what is a “Missile Boat”? Wikipedia defines it as, “a small warship armed with anti-ship missiles”. That’s a pretty general term as it doesn’t really specify what “small” means. For me, though, it means ships which are under 1,000-tons as we do need to draw a line somewhere. This will also mean covering missile-armed crafts usually described as “Corvettes”, though, but I will be referring to them as Missile Boats also. The term “Fast Attack Craft” can also be used, but it is a more general term in that it can also be used to describe ships armed with other weapons like Torpedoes or guns-only, while there is no mistaking what a Missile Boat is supposed to be armed with.
The Soviet Union pioneered the use of Missile Boats when it pressed into service the Komar-class Missile Boats armed with SS-N-2 Styx missiles (Soviet designation is P-15 Termit) in 1956. For more information about the boats, ships, weapons, battles, etc., please refer to the “References” section at the bottom of the page.
I initially wanted to use a thesis by the US Naval Postgraduate School titled, “An Analysis of the Historical Effectiveness of Anti Ship Cruise Missiles in Littoral Warfare” as my main source for the battles, but upon double checking I found that some details or information contradict with what’s available now (an there are even some downright errors). The thesis was written 20 years ago in 1994, and it seems some of the information published since then are already outdated or obsolete. Hence I decided to just discard it and use sources that I can at least cross reference with other sources.
There a number of modern battles involving Missile Boats, but I decided to narrow them down by using the following criteria:
– Naval Battles that involved at least one Missile Boat
– Only actual kills were counted, those that were only damaged and not sunk/killed off or scrapped afterwards were ignored.
– Only kills on armed combatants were considered, kills on unarmed transport or cargo vessels were ignored
– Only kills involving missiles were considered, like missiles-only or gun-and-missile combination were considered. Guns-only kills by Missile Boats were ignored.
* Sinking of the INS Eliat, October 21, 1967, off Port Said in Egypt:
– Background:Egyptian missile boats attack the Israeli Z-class Destroyer-gunboat INS Eliat while it was on patrol in the world’s first ever use of Surface-to-Surface Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM).
– Battle Accounts:
+ An Egyptian Komar-class Missile Boat while positioned within the Port Said Harbour launches 2 Styx missiles at the 1,700-ton Eliat. The Eliat detects the missiles and takes evasive actions while at the same time trying to shoot them down, but failed to do so and got hit twice causing massive damages.
+ Some time later another Egyptian Komar boat launches 2 Styx missiles at the badly damaged Destroyer, 1 of which hit and finally sunk the ship.
* Operation Trident, December 4-5, 1971, off the Arabian Sea in Pakistan:
– Background:Indian Vidyut-class (Indian version of the Osa I-class) Missile Boats sneaks up on the Pakistani Naval Headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan under the cover of night to launch an attack.
– Battle Accounts:
+ A Vidyut-class Missile boat fires a missile at a 2,300-ton Pakistani Battle-class Destroyer-gunboat which tried to shoot it down but failed. The missile hit the Destroyer, severely damaging it. Another Styx missile was fired by the Vidyut boat which struck and sank the ship.
+ A 2nd Vidyut boat fired another Styx missile at a 1,700-ton C-class Destroyer-gunboat, severely damaging it enough to be eventually scrapped later.
+ Another Vidyut-class boat sinks a 360-ton Adjutant-class Minesweeper with 1 Styx missile
* Battle of Latakia, October 7, 1973, off the coast of Syria:
– Background: Israeli Sa’ar-class Missile Boats (4 Sa’ar 3-class and 1 Sa’ar 4-class) attack the port of Latakia in Syria as part of the Yom Kippur War.
– Battle Accounts
+ The Sa’ar boats encounter a Syrian 500-ton T43-class Minesweeper to which they fired 4 Gabriel Mk1 missiles, 3 of which hit and sunk the boat.
+ The Sa’ar boats next encounter 2 Syrian Komar-class and 1 Osa I-class Missile Boats. The Syrian boats with their longer-ranged AShMs launched their missiles first, but all 8 of them missed when the Sa’ar boats used Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) and Chaff.
+ The Sa’ar boats then fire 4 Gabriel Mk1 missiles when they got into range sinking 1 60-ton Komar and 1 170-ton Osa I boat (the last Komar got stuck in shallow water and was finished off with cannons).
* Battle of Baltim, October 8-9, 1973, off the coast of Egypt:
– Background: 6 Israeli Sa’ar-class Missile Boats (2 Sa’ar 4-class, 2 Sa’ar 3-class, 1 Sa’ar 2-class and 1 Sa’ar 1-class) attack Port Said in Egypt as part of the Yom Kippur War.
– Battle Accounts
+ The Sa’ar boats were met by 4 Egyptian Osa I-class boats. The Egyptians with their longer-ranged Styx missiles fire first in 2 barrages, but all of their 16 missiles missed as the Israelis again used ECM and Chaff to confuse the missiles.
+ The Osa boats retreat after launching all their missiles, but the Sa’ar boats give chase. One Sa’ar boat fired a Gabriel Mk1 missile and damaged an Osa boat which ended up dead in the water, and another Sa’ar boat finished it off with 76mm cannon fire.
+ A second Osa boat was hit and damaged by another Gabriel missile and which again had to be sunk by 76mm gun fire.
+ The last 2 remaining Osa boats split up and one boat was able to get away, but the other one was hit by a missile from the pursuing Sa’ar boats causing it to stop in the water and was finished off by 76mm cannon fire from two Sa’ar boats.
* Operation Morvarid, November 28-29, 1980 on the Iraqi side of the Persian Gulf:
– Background: 2 Iranian Kaman class (Iranian Combattante II class) Missile Boats block and shell the ports of Al Faw and Umm Qasr in Iraq as part of the Iran-Iraq War.
– Battle Accounts:
+ 5 Iraqi Osa II-class boats attack the 2 Combattante boats, with 2 of the Osa boats sunk by the Combattante’s Harpoon AShMs.
+ Another 3 Osa II-class boats attack one of the 230-ton Combattante-class Missile Boat, sinking it with 2 Styx AShMs.
+ Three 3 Osa II-class boats were sunk by responding Iranian F-4s armed with Maverick missiles.
+ 4 Iraqi MiG-23BNs attacked an Iranian Combattante II-class Missile Boat, but were unsuccessful and 2 were shot down with SA-7 missiles from the boat.
* Action in the Gulf of Sidra, March 1986, off the Coast of Libya
– Background: Libyan boats attack a US Carrier Naval Fleet conducting military operations in international waters in the Gulf of Sidra.
– Battle Accounts:
+ An American A-6E Intruder damaged a 230-ton Libyan Combatante II-class Missile Boat with a Harpoon missile. It was finished off by other Intruders using Rockeye Cluster Bombs
+ A 560-ton Nanuchka-class Corvette was sunk by 2 A-6E Intruders using Rockeye Cluster Bombs
* Operation Praying Mantis, April 18, 1988, in the Persian Gulf
– Background: US Carrier Naval fleet attack military installations in Iran in retaliation of Iran’s mining of the Persian Gulf which led to the damage of an American naval ship.
– Battle Accounts:
+ A 230-ton Iranian Combatante II-class Missile Boat fired a Harpoon missile at an American Belknap-class Cruiser which activated its ECM and released Chaff, causing the missile to miss. The American ships fired back 5 SM-1 missiles (using its Anti-Ship mode) at the Iranian Boat, 1 from the Belknap Cruiser and 4 from an OHP-class Frigate, all of which hit the Iranian Boat.
+ The Iranian Boat was heavily damaged and a Knox-class Frigate tried to finish it off with a Harpoon missile but missed. The 3 American ships then had to close in to finish off the Iranian boat with their cannons
* Battle of Bubiyan, January 29-February 2, 1991, in the Persian Gulf
– Background: Coalition forces attack Iraqi Naval boats and ships around the island of Bubiyan in Iraq as part of the First Gulf War
– Battle Accounts:
+ 3 UK Lynx Helicopters destroy 3 200-ton TNC 45 Fast Attack Crafts using Sea Skua missiles
Below are some of the more important summaries of the battles listed above:
* A total of 13 kills were made by Missile Boats on ships or other Missile Boats (1 Israeli Destroyer-gunboat, 2 Pakistani Destroyer-gunboats, 2 Pakistani/Syrian Minesweepers, 1 Syrian Komar-class Missile Boat, 6 Syrian/Egyptian/Iraqi Osa-class Missile Boat, 1 Iranian Combattante-class Missile Boat)
* A total of 9 Missile Boats were sunk by aircraft or ships, of which 8 were sunk by aircraft (3 Iraqi Osa-class Missile Boats, 1 Libyan Combattante II-class Missile Boat, 1 Libyan Nanuchka-class Missile Boat, 3 Iraqi TNC 45-class Missile Boats) and only 1 was sunk by larger ships (1 Iranian Combattante II-class Missile Boat)
* Combining the 12 Missile Boat kills and the 9 Missile Boats sunk yielded a total of 21 kills or sinking, and out of these 21, at least 10 required multiple missile hits or needed to be finished off by some other weapon. I say “at least” because some accounts are not specific on how many missiles actually hit the boats or ships, hence the number could even be higher.
Below are my opinions on what some of the lessons learned from these modern naval battles:
* The More Sophisticated Boats Win – In boat versus boat/ship battles, the more sophisticated boat or ship wins. The missile-armed Egyptian and Indian boats routed the guns-only armed ships like the INS Eliat and the Pakistani ships in Operation Trident, while the ECM and Decoy equipped boats or ships won their encounters in the Latakia and Baltim battles, and also during Operation Praying Mantis. The more sophisticated vessel had that extra edge enabling it to succeed in battle.
* Numbers Matter – In all of the DIRECT encounters where one side had numerical advantage, they almost always won, except during Operation Morvarid when the numerically superior Iraqi Osa II boats lost 1 more ship than the Iranians.
* Large-caliber Cannons Are Still Needed – Prior to this I didn’t really think that cannons are really that important anymore in a modern naval battle, but after reading the battles above I feel there is still very much a case for the use of large-caliber cannons on a ship. Missiles miss, and you can only carry a limited number of them most of the time (unless you’re a Tarantul/Molniya-class Missile Boat with 16 Uran-E AShMs).
Once your missiles are expended, having a cannon will still give you enough firepower to fight off other boats if the battle isn’t over yet, or finish off damaged ships. If the Osa-class boats had large-caliber cannons during their battles against the Sa’ars, they might have fared a little bit better. Cannons can also double as effective Anti-Aircraft/Missile weapons, especially if armed with Proximity Fuses, improving a boat’s offensive and defensive capabilities at the same time.
* Softkill Systems Are Just as Important – There are 3 clear accounts above of “Softkill” (i.e. weapons used to deceive or confuse an enemy missile or aircraft, such as ECM and decoys) saving the ships from missile hits, and these were during the Latakia and Baltim battles, and also during Operation Praying Mantis. In the case of the Latakia-Baltim battles, it gave the Israelis that crucial advantage in battle that allowed them to rout their enemies.
* More Robust Hardkill Systems Needed – All Osa-class boats have gun-based “Hardkill” (i.e. weapons to shoot down attacking missiles or aircraft) system using radar-directed twin 30mm guns in the AK-230, one of the first Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), and the Osa II-class boats even have additional Strela-2M Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), but none of these seemed to have helped them much in defending against missiles or aircraft.
A lot of missile boats were sunk by aircraft, indicating the vulnerability of these ships from them. American planes during the Gulf of Sidra Action did not even bother using missiles to sink Missile Boats, they just used Cluster Bomb Units indicating how close they were able to approach the boats. A more robust hardkill system than just MANPADS or Very Short Range Air Defense (VSHORAD) systems seem to be needed, systems that have longer range and heavier warheads to fend off missiles or aircraft effectively.
* Sturdy Boats – The battles outlined how sturdy boats are as at least almost half of them needed multiple hits or needed to be finished off by another weapon. The Gabriel Mk1 has a 100kg warhead which is supposed to be already considerable, and yet against the 60-ton Komars and 170-ton Osas it only manages to damage them most of the time and with the damaged boats needing to be finished off with cannon rounds.
When it comes to large ships weighing in the thousands of tons, even the Styx with its mighty 454kg warhead needed multiple hits to sink 1,700-ton plus sized ships. This means that if we want missiles that can actually sink boats under 1,000-tons and not just do some damage, large AShMs in the class of the Harpoon AShMs with at least 200kg warheads would be needed. But even with these types of missiles, multiple hits will be required to sink ships in the several-thousand-ton range.
I initially thought that the Iranian “Asssymetric Naval Warfare Doctrine” of using “Swarm Boats” was a good model for the Philippines to adopt or follow, but after going thru the results above, now I am not so sure. The Iranian’s Peykaap II and Chinacat C-14-class boats are very similar to the Komar and Osa-class boats, but as we have seen, did not do very well in the above battles. The Iranian boats of course are smaller and more stealthier, but they still have the same weaknesses in terms of the limited weapons and equipment they can carry.
In the Latakia and Baltim battles, the Komars and Osas executed textbook, almost PERFECT hit and run tactics that “Swarm Boats” are expected to use also: They speed up to the enemy at full speed and launched their longer-ranged missiles first. When they ran out of missiles, they promptly disengaged and ran back to their harbor, and this was where their weaknesses were exposed. Their limited weapons load meant they were left with only their AK-230s which not only were not able to protect them from missiles, but also had limited range and power against surface targets.
With their missiles expended, they needed a safe harbor or refuge they could run to protect them from the counter-attacking boats, but it they didn’t reach it quick enough hence almost all of them were destroyed. Another issue is their vulnerability to aircraft and missiles due to their lack of sophisticated ECM and decoys, and lack of sufficient anti-air weapons, making them relatively easy targets.
A couple of exercises have confirmed the viability and effectiveness of the use of “Swarm Boat” tactics, like the “Millenium Challenge” War Game Exercise in 2002, for example, when an opposing force led by Gen. Paul Van Riper used fast boats (among other weapons) to inflict massive damage on the US Naval Fleet. However, such a tactic does need one important aspect for it to be effective, and that is the use of suicide as a weapon. So unless the PhN is willing to do the same on a massive scale like what the Iranians are used to (suicide attacks were a common weapon by the Iranians in their war against Iraq), then “Swarm Boat” tactics might not be for us.
It might still be possible to find ways to take the suicide aspect out of the Swarm Boat concept and still make it effective, but that remains to be seen, and there is also the issue of cost. If it will take more weapons, resources and cost for the concept to be effective without suicide, then it would not be a viable alternative, might as well get the more expensive ships.
‘Ideal Missile Boat’
Based on the above lessons, the ideal Missile Boat should have as follows:
– Large-caliber cannon for anti-air/surface targets to complement its missile weapons, ideally at least 76mm in caliber;
– Should have a good Softkill system involving both ECM and decoys;
– Should have at the very least short-range Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), let’s say with a range of at least 12km;
– Should have as many Anti-Ship and Anti-Air Missiles it can carry.
You can also probably add Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability also to cover all the bases, so this means a relatively heavy ship, one at least a couple of hundred tons in weight as I don’t think anything lighter would be able to satisfactorily fit and carry all of the weapons and equipment required. Because it will be relatively heavy and more sophisticated, unfortunately it will be relatively expensive also.
Missile Boats have since evolved to adopt most of the lessons learned from the above battles, like having more weapons and better defensive capabilities, but the one closest to the above-mentioned criteria would be the Hamina-class Missile Boat. It has a 57mm main gun, good short-range Umkhonto SAMs, Mk3 RBS-15 AshMs, decoys, ECM, ASW capability all packaged in a 250-ton vessel that can still go over 30kts. Each Hamina-class boat is estimated to cost USD 100 million, quite expensive for a boat with a range of only 900km. In fairness, most of that cost goes not only to all the equipment and weapons it carries, but also because of its “stealth” construction and features such as Carbon Fiber, Balsa, Kevlar, Radar-Absorbent materials, etc.
A cheaper alternative would be a Molniya-class Missile Boat but with ASW capability and better SAMs, but since it is made in Russia we won’t likely be able to get them. However, it is one design we can follow or aspire for, especially with its capability to carry 16 AShMs, giving it excellent “Combat Persistence” for such a small boat.
So how do all of these apply to the Philippines? Well for starters it means that the Philippines cannot compromise capability for cost if it wants their ships to survive in modern combat involving missiles, especially in this day and age of even more formidable Supersonic AShMs. Smaller and lighter ships are still okay, as long as they have a large-caliber cannon, can carry Harpoon-sized AShMs and have adequate Soft and Hard Kill defensive systems.
The stress on proper defensive systems is particularly crucial in the bidding requirements for the new Frigates that the Philippine Navy (PhN) is acquiring wherein they required the ships to have air defense missiles equivalent only to VSHORAD systems. I think the MINIMUM should be short range SAMs in the league of the Barak 1 or the Umkhonto-IR. Additional weapons for “defense-in-depth” (i.e., layered defense) would be better to protect these USD 200 million ships, like perhaps a true anti-air CIWS like the Phalanx.
Lastly I think the Philippines will need more missile-armed ships as sending 1 or 2 at a time in battle simply won’t do, they need to commit more ships in every battle, like perhaps at least 5 at time. Assuming at least 5 held in reserve, that means at least 10 missile-armed ships to acquire and maintain, not an easy task for a budget-challenged navy. A good compromise maybe would be to have a combination of missile-armed Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) which can do the long range and long duration patrols on one hand, and smaller and cheaper Missile Boats as force multipliers during combat on the other hand.
* List of Naval Battles in the late 20th Century, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_naval_battles#Later_20th_century
* HMS Zealous (R39, later known as the INS Eliat), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Zealous_(R39)
* Operation Trident (1971), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Trident_(Indo-Pakistani_War)
* For the Battle of Latakia and Baltim, “The Boats of Cherbrourg” by Abraham Rabinovich, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CJC77SA
* Operation Morvarid, http://www.iinavy.org/morvarid.html
* Action in the Gulf of Sidra (1986), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_in_the_Gulf_of_Sidra_(1986)
* Operation Praying Mantis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Praying_Mantis
* Battle of Bubiyan, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Bubiyan
BOATS AND SHIPS:
* Komar-class missile boat, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komar_class_missile_boat
* Sa’ar 3-class missile boat, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%27ar_3-class_missile_boat
* Sa’ar 4-class missile boat, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%27ar_4-class_missile_boat
* Nanuchka-class corvette, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanuchka_class_corvette
* Warships-Cost, http://combatfleetoftheworld.blogspot.com/p/warships-cost.html
* La Combattante IIa-class fast attack craft, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Combattante_IIa-class_fast_attack_craft
* Hamina-class missile boat, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamina-class_missile_boat
* Tarantul/Molniya-class corvette, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantul-class_corvette
* Peykaap II and Chinacat C-14 boats at Combat Fleets 16th Ed.: Iranian Frigates and Patrol Craft, http://www.usni.org/combat-fleets-2012-iranian-frigates-and-patrol-craft-0
* P-15 Termit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-15_Termit
* Gabriel (missile), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_missile
* Barak 1 (missile), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barak_1_(missile)
* Umkhonto (missile), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umkhonto_missile