Photo: Lorne Campbell Design
When the four-man crew of the Bradstone Challenger crossed the finish line at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes on August 12 2005, spirits were high. They had just smashed the world record for circumnavigating the British Isles, completing the journey in 27 hours and 10 minutes. Their powerboat, a 51ft Bladerunner, had averaged 55 knots (63mph), at one point reaching 72 knots (83mph). It was an impressive achievement, beating the old record by more than three hours and 40 minutes, and the record still stands today.What nobody knew was that the sound of the finish cannon at Cowes marked the beginning of a race for ownership of the Bradstone Challenger. Seven years on, after a series of clandestine transactions worthy of a Bond film, the British boat is berthed in Bandar Abbas, on the southern coast of Iran, where the West fears it has been fitted out with a deadly array of weapons systems. The naval port is home to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy (IRGN), who hope the Bradstone Challenger’s record-beating speed will prove decisive in any military engagement with American and Royal Navy warships in the Persian Gulf.
Tensions are currently running dangerously high in the region. On Friday, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described Israel’s existence as an “insult to humanity”, just as Israel’s defence leaders openly debated whether to launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Israel does attack, all eyes will be on Iran’s response. Options include using its arsenal of Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, authorising Hizbollah to fire rockets at Tel Aviv from its bases in South Lebanon, and blocking the Strait of Hormuz with mines.
It’s the last option that most concerns the West. 30-five per cent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments pass through the narrow Strait. A blockade would lead to soaring oil prices and inevitably drag America’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, into any conflict. And a naval exchange might just represent Iran’s best chance of landing a blow on the West.
It would certainly explain why the Iranians have been busy acquiring Western speedboats. (In the past, they have bought fast patrol boats from Italy, too.) Acknowledging the David-and-Goliath discrepancy between its own armed forces and the West’s, Iran has developed various “asymmetric” approaches to warfare. On land, it has supported Hizbollah’s hit-and-run guerilla strikes against Israel. At sea, it has been perfecting the art of “swarm attacks”, in which up to 100 armed speedboats approach an enemy warship from all directions. Surprise, confusion and speed are key to their success. And unleashed in the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 20 miles across at its narrowest point, the consequences could be devastating.
“There is no doubt the asymmetric maritime threat is currently concentrating the minds of coalition naval forces operating in the Gulf,” says Dr Lee Willett, senior research fellow in maritime studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “Swarm attacks are one of a number of asymmetric threats, which include the role of three Russian-made Kilo class submarines, the enduring risk from mines, and the presence of land-based cruise missiles. When combined, these threats present the US and its allies with a significant potential challenge, but it’s one they remain very focused on countering.”
Most of the speedboats in any swarm attack would be destroyed by US helicopter gunships, unmanned aerial vehicles and ship-mounted Phalanx close-in weapons systems (a radar-guided gattling gun that fires up to 4,500 rounds a minute), but it would only need one suicide boat to get through for such an attack to be successful. If the target were an aircraft carrier, the images of a stricken, $4.5 billion flagship would reverberate around the world like September 11.
“It’s the nightmare scenario,” a US naval officer confided in me when I was researching my new spy thriller, Dirty Little Secret, which features an Iranian swarm attack on the USS Harry S. Truman. “It’s the sort of thing that has captains in the Gulf breaking out in cold sweat in the middle of the night.”
In a show of strength, the Pentagon sent the USS John C Stennis, an aircraft carrier, to join the USS Dwight Eisenhower carrier in the Gulf, four months ahead of schedule. The USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock, has also arrived to support counter‑mine operations. Carriers, however, are increasingly perceived as vulnerable in modern theatres of war, despite the protection of a formidable accompanying strike group – an “onion” layer of guided missile cruisers and anti-submarine destroyers or frigates, and an air wing of 80 aircraft.
Iran, for one, has long believed that large warships are at risk in the unique confines of the Strait after its own experience in April 1998, when the Americans launched Operation Praying Mantis, the US navy’s largest surface engagement since the Second World War.
Iran lost a frigate, suffered damage to another and lost one gunboat, but it also saw how attacks on commercial tankers by its own small, fast-moving Boghammer craft could be successful. The bombing of the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, in which a small boat packed with explosives killed 17 sailors, confirmed their thinking.
Since then, Iran has made no secret of its tactics. In 2008, a small swarm of speedboats buzzed the USS Hopper in what President Bush called a “provocative act”. And in recent months, its navy has been holding exercises featuring an array of heavily armed small craft, including unmanned high-speed Ya Mahdi vessels, Bavar 2 flying boats, Seraj-1 high-speed patrol boats and Zolfaghar fast attack craft.
The Bradstone Challenger has not been seen since it was purchased in 2009, but analysts suspect that the Iranians are keeping it under wraps for a reason. Its unique monohull design creates a stable firing platform from which to launch weapons at speed. At a gleeful press conference in August 2010, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi of the IRGN told reporters: “The Bladerunner is a British ship that holds the world speed record. We got a copy [on which] we made some changes so it can launch missiles and torpedoes.” Fadavi added that Iran would soon be reverse-engineering many Bradstone Challengers. “In case of a conflict, we will be everywhere and nowhere to face the enemies.”
But does Iran really possess the technology to copy the boat’s twin 1,000hp Caterpillar engines and Arneson surface drive propellers? Dr Theodore Karasik, research director at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, thinks so. “The Iranian defence industry prides itself in acquiring Western technology using false fronts and then cloning its own versions. Why haven’t we seen the Bradstone Challenger yet? It’s quite possible they are holding back some of their more potent capabilities for a surprise purpose.”
The speedboat would never have made it as far as Iran if the United States Department of Commerce had got its way. After passing through several private owners in the Mediterranean, the record-breaking boat was put up for sale by a broker as “the ultimate toy for someone looking for something a little bit special”. In January 2009, a third party in South Africa arranged for it to be shipped out of Durban on the Iran Mutafeh, a cargo ship registered to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL).
Both were on a UN-sanctions related watch list. After docking, the Iran Mutafeh changed its name to the Diplomat, hoisted a Hong Kong flag and re-registered with a company called Starry Shine, a known front for the IRISL. At this point alarm bells rang at the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security. An export stop order was faxed to Durban, citing the speedboat’s US-made components, but the ship had already set sail for Iran.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” says Jeremy Watts, director of Ice Marine, the Surrey-based company that built Bradstone Challenger. “All that hard work and passion that we put into an amazing boat, only to see it in the hands of the enemy.”
Meanwhile, the American Navy remains bullish. Lt Greg Raelson, a spokesman for the US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, told the Telegraph: “The US Navy is a flexible, multi-capable force committed to regional security and stability, always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation and the safe flow of maritime traffic in waterways critical to global commerce.”
Or, as a senior US defence official warned Iran last month: “Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the Gulf.”
‘Dirty Little Secret’ by Jon Stock (Harper Collins) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £13.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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