U.S.S. Mason; 3rd Missile Attack; Asymmetric Warfare with Iran

The Mason has been subject to missile attack for the third time (Reuters): U.S. warship targeted in failed missile attack from Yemen: official. The conclusion of Houthi Missile Attacks on U.S. Destroyer…  is that the attacks are an Iranian weapons system test, intended to test the viability of the Chinese C-802 missile with specific Iranian tactics.

The conclusion requires the assumption of rational purpose, which is not necessarily true. But unlike suicide attacks or sprays of bullets, the C-802 in Yemen is part of a distributed command-and-control system, the most complex kind. Keeping the missiles operational requires a constant supply of consumables, such as batteries, and calibration with specialized equipment. This entails a supply line that reaches back to Iran, and ultimately China. Yemen has no industrial base. There are no Radio Shacks in Yemen (back in the 80’s, the U.S. military was known to resort to weekend runs to Radio Shack for temporary patch-ups of support gear.)

This further supports the assertions of the Houthis that, if they were not totally ignorant, neither are they the prime movers in the attempt to damage a $1BN warship. But Iran has staked their military strategy on asymmetric warfare, in the ability to deny the Persian Gulf to the U.S. Navy. For Iran, the launches are the crucial test of a highly rational actor.

Apart from the qualitative horrors of war,  the goal of asymmetric warfare is to do more dollar damage to the adversary than received in return. The unit cost of the C-802 is not quotable. But as a figure we can plug into a calculation, $400K per unit is reasonable. It’s about an order of magnitude more than the cost of some Chinese antiaircraft missiles. If the Iranians can score one hit on the Mason with 2000 missiles, they break even.

But even among highly rational actors such as Iran, there are fine gradations. Has the test been structured simply to sink a ship? The answer lies in the degree of sophistication of Iran’s military-industrial complex, about which open sources are not very informative. It cannot be determined by the alleged specifications of their weapons systems, or their ingenuity at keeping their F-14 Tomcats flying. It is a different ball of wax.

In an open loop deployment of a weapons system, the system is tested in the lab and on the range.  But the reports from the battlefield are crude by comparison: Hit, or miss?  But in operation, the most sophisticated weapons engage in an electronic dialog of lies with the adversary. To analyze the dialog requires both sides of the conversation.  This is why the U.S. flies the RC-135 “Rivet Joint” in the Baltic Sea, and why it infuriates the Russians so much. The distance from Russian airspace distracts from the real issue, which is the information acquired in a stimulated two-way dialog with Russian weapons systems.

I  don’t want  to make an estimate that unintentionally damages the security interests of the U.S.  But it is possible to speculate further while remaining within the bounds of knowledge public to the world’s militaries. The sophistication of the effort of Iran’s military-industrial complex currently deployed to Iran has one of these characterizations:

  • A simple test by the IRG of their effectiveness in power projection; an open loop weapons test.
  • A crude attempt at data collection, such as CEPs (circular error probabilities).
  • Some basic ECM capture — the “dialog of lies” between weapons systems.
  • Complete characterization and capture of the events, allowing Iranian weaponeers to efficiently optimize control system parameters and radar parameters. This is closed loop.

The goal is an affordable kill ratio, which  could be very low, by western standards a complete failure. The problem for the U.S. is summarized by the saying, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

This is an intelligence  question of the highest importance. It would be tempting to write more, but I don’t want to inadvertently be of assistance to an adversary.

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