Two thousand years ago, a Roman legion led by Marcus Licinius Crassus was marching toward Persian lands. Iran, ruled by the Partian Empire, was in no position to defeat this massive attack. Ten thousand soldiers under Iranian general Sourena faced an army of 43,000 well-trained, well-equipped and experienced Roman legionnaires.
When the two armies clashed in what is now northwestern Iran, Sourena charged a thousand horsemen into the center of the Roman formation—then ordered them to fall back. The legion chased the retreating riders … right into an Iranian ambush. Nine thousand archers unleashed devastating volleys at the Romans.
It was Iran’s first experience with “asymmetric warfare”—that is, fighting between very different combatants, each deploying unique weapons, tactics and concepts in the hope of exploiting the other’s weaknesses.
Quite a lot has changed in 2,000 years, Iranian military leaders still plan to confront bigger and more powerful foreign forces. Leaving aside the fake fighter jets and other propaganda efforts, Tehran’s commanders know they cannot directly match the U.S. land, air and sea arsenal.
Taking a lesson from history, they plot asymmetric tactics to hit the Americans where they’re most vulnerable. Iran is prepared to send swarms of cheap, disposable craft to confuse and overwhelm the Pentagon’s much more monolithic naval forces.
The theory is that big, high-tech U.S. forces are best at fighting big, high-tech enemies using multi-million-dollar missiles. Send in dozens of small craft all at the same time, and the Americans might not be able to destroy them fast enough—and might even run out of missiles.
Tehran’s speedboats—armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades—are its most famous swarm weapons. The U.S. Navy is trying to catch up to the speedboat threat by adding large numbers of cheap guided rockets and missiles to its naval helicopters and warships.
But in true asymmetric fashion, Iran is complicating America’s response by adding swarms of light airplanes, too. Unlike U.S. Navy with its giant P-8 patrol jets and F-35 stealth fighters costing hundreds of millions of dollars apiece, Islamic Revolution Guard Corps Navy aviation is dominated by inexpensive European-style sport aircraft priced to move at around $100,000 a copy.
We got the first glimpse of the latest swarm aircraft during a recent visit by Pres. Hasan Rouhani to IRGCN headquarters at the port of Bandar Abbas. Officers showed Rouhani a Super Petrel amphibious light airplane.
The Super Petrel is manufactured by French-Brazilian company Edra Aeronautica. Weighing just 600 kilograms, the flying boat can carry up to 280 kilograms over a distance of 900 kilometers at a cruising speed of 180 kilometers per hour.
The amphibious plane requires an 80-meter runway or 120 meters of calm water in order to take off, meaning it can launch from almost anywhere.
The Super Petrel that officials showed Rouhani bore the serial number 3301, the first two digits a code for the type of aircraft and latter two the production number. That suggests this is the first Super Petrel in Iranian military service.
Next in line during the president’s visit was a Heli-Sport CH7 Kompress Charlie, a lightweight, single-seat Italian sport helicopter.
The CH7 boasts a cruising speed of 180 kilometers per hour and a useful flying radius of 480 kilometers. The manufacturer claims the small helicopter can carry an outboard load of up to 100 kilograms. With its fiberglass fuselage, the CH7 is fairly hard to detect on radar.
The CH7 present at Rouhani’s visit was serial 2344, indicating that at least 44 of these aircraft are in IRGCN service—although it’s possible that officials have altered the serial in order to mask the true number of copters.
IRGCN is prone to copying foreign technology and based its speedboat design on the Italian RIB-33 model. Neither Heli-Sport nor Edra Aeronautica has announced any deal with Tehran, so it’s possible the craft at Bandar Abbas are illicit copies.
Prior to acquiring Super Petrels and Kompress Charlies, IRGCN had already deployed at least a dozen unarmed flying boats, probably for testing and tactical development. The new aircraft could be the first of Iran’s aerial swarmers to be armed for combat.
Light sport aircraft have the potential to carry various weapons already in the IRGCN arsenal, including anti tank missiles, 50-millimeter and 70-millimeter rockets and small Kowsar anti-ship missiles. A licensed copy of the Chinese C-701, Kowsar weighs just 100 kilograms and can hit ships 25 kilometers away.
Combining air and sea swarms could help Iranian commanders overwhelm U.S. warships. Which is not to say the Americans are defenseless.
While optimized for battling other heavy, high-tech forces with big, expensive missiles, U.S. warships do have fast-firing self-defense guns—and the Pentagon has also begun testing a prototype ship-based laser that could quickly zap numerous attackers.
In any event, Super Petrels and Kompress Charlies probably needs better navigation gear and more lethal weaponry in order to even stand a chance of finding and damaging American ships.
And if the Iranian swarms become more lavishly equipped and thus more expensive and fewer in number, they could risk becoming more like the U.S. combatants—thus “symmetrical” rather than asymmetrical. If Iran sends small numbers of speedboats, flying amphibians or helicopters into a stand-up fight with the Americans, it’s bound to lose.