Home » Budget Industry » Navy: Saudi Frigate Attacked by Unmanned Bomb Boat, Likely Iranian

Navy: Saudi Frigate Attacked by Unmanned Bomb Boat, Likely Iranian

The bomb-laden craft that attacked a Saudi frigate last month was unmanned and likely Iranian, the U.S. Navy has determined.

Previously described as a Houthi suicide boat, the U.S. Navy has now determined the craft was unmanned and guided into the Royal Saudi Navy Al Madinah (702) remotely on Jan. 30.

“Our assessment is that it was an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind,” Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, U.S. 5h Fleet Commander said in a report in Defense News on Sunday.

USNI News confirmed the details with Navy officials on Monday.

Video of the attack obtained by USNI News earlier this month showed a small boat approaching the rear port quarter of the frigate at high speeds in a straight line before detonating at the waterline below the flight deck – apparently unchallenged by the ship’s company.

The explosion killed two Saudi sailors.

The unmanned boat was likely provided to the Houthi rebels by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces. The U.S. and other countries have intercepted arms shipments from Iran thought to be bound for the Houthi rebels. Houthi’s have used guided anti-ship cruise missile that are also used by Iran.

The IRGC, responsible for the costal defense of Iran in the Persian Gulf, has developed a variety of small attack craft based on commercial boats.

Those developments have included at least one unmanned surface craft – the Ya Mahdi.
Alleged to be based on a high-speed British hull, the unmanned fast boat has been in the Iranian inventory since 2010, according to reports.

Unmanned Iranian Ya Mahdi surface craft

Unmanned Iranian Ya Mahdi surface craft

According to a 2015 U.S. Army assessment on threats from unmanned craft, “utilizing suicide drones is an asymmetric strategy which both allows Iran to compete on an uneven playing field and poses a risk by allowing operators to pick and choose targets of opportunity.”
The asymmetric advantage the Iranians have provided the Houthi’s have been instrumental in extending the conflict, Afshon Ostovar, a professor at the Naval Post Graduate School who studies the IRGC, told USNI News earlier this month.

“The Houthis have managed to hold back the Saudi coalition forces since their early successes, which might be in part attributable to Iran’s continued support. The current stalemate is probably at least in part due to Iran’s enduring support to the Houthis,” he said.

The best-known small boat suicide attack was on guided missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) which killed 14 sailors in 2000.

However, the unmanned attack boat makes it easier to put high dollar assets at risk, Donegan told Defense News.

“There are many others that don’t want to martyr themselves in making attacks like that and that’s pretty much where the Houthis are,” he said.
“So it makes that kind of weaponry, which would normally take someone suicidal to use, now able to be used by someone who’s not going to martyr themselves.”


  • Gunny Highway

    I said it looked like it was unmanned 20 days ago and all the commentaries were about a suicide boat, then they just came out with that statement last Sunday?…With all dues respect and your permission to speak freely; Gee!

    • Curtis Conway

      Hey, it was a suicide boat. The boat gave its life.

  • Duane

    This makes it easy to modify the ROE – if a high speed boat approaches your command on an intercept course and does not respond to radio’d commands to bear away, then shoot it out of the water within some designated minimum approach range.

    Shoot first, ask questions later.

    • scottled

      See you at your court martial, then. This is why Cole didn’t shoot first. Maybe we have learned some lessons in the meantime, but which chief and officer is going to bet their career on that option?

      • RobM1981

        Agreed, and it was only 1/30, but I’m betting that “there’s a new Sheriff in town” now and the ROE’s are more aligned with what Duane is proposing.

        We’ll find out, for sure.

      • Again, this was not an ROE fail. The Saudi vessel was attacked by 3 boats, destroyed 2, and this one got in.
        This was a tactics and competency fail. Failed to crew point defense weapons on the stern, failed to maintain situational awareness during an engagement with multiple vessels.
        I’m guessing they reduced speed and turned away from vessels advancing from their front, in order to provide the gun crew the opportunity to engage and destroy the other 2 vessels, and then were unable to recover speed and maneuverability in time to evade the last craft.

        • Duane

          The three boats should have been destroyed … this ain’t Meatloaf, and “two out of three IS bad”.

          Yes, competency in shooting is a factor here, but the ROE need to provide a safe margin within which the shooting begins long before ANY attackers can get close enough to HIT YOUR VESSEL WITH THEIR BOAT. It’s one thing if attackers start shooting at you from a mile away … but when they actually close to near enough to ram, they should never be allowed to close like that.

          If a boat, even one of a three-boat swarm, gets close enough to hit your vessel, then you obviously didn’t start shooting near soon enough. It is ROE that determines your safe zone.

          • Matt

            You have it right. Three boats isn’t even much of a swarm. Broad daylight. Pathetic.

        • Rob C.

          It worse that the report HERE didn’t mentioned that there were OTHER drone Boats in this the Frigate was actively firing on them. It’s stupid. You can’t judge a situation without knowing everything.
          Modern ships aren’t as well armed as WWII era ships, or even 1950s era ones.
          Front gun, 2 minor local machine guns. Usually weapons are focused on the front of the ship because of the Helio Pad in the back.
          Machine gun won’t have stopped that speeding bullet of water that was shown in that picture. Something harder hitting like perhaps a RAM launcher could have.
          It was moving way to fast.

          • yeah, with a fast moving boat like that, your only options for stopping it are A) impart enough kinetic energy to literally destroy the structural integrity of the vessel so that it comes apart under speed or B) kill the operator(s) so that they are unable to steer the vessel (always possible it could continue on course, so not the best option) or C) destroy the control systems and/or engine so that the vessel either immediately looses propulsion, or becomes un-steerable.
            That requires either a high caliber, explosive round which can penetrate the hull and cause catastrophic damage, or very high volume of smaller caliber kinetic rounds.
            Phalanx style point defense weapons would provide sufficient volume of fire to destroy control systems, engine and crew, IF they were equipped in such a way that they could be activated by the crew in time – the systems could not be armed a majority of the time in order to prevent accidental firing on non-hostile small craft in ports etc…
            RAM could hit, but is designed for anti-air, in which very small amounts of damage are sufficient to stop an aircraft. Most anti-air munitions are all but useless against any kind of ground based target. They put out very small, lightweight shrapnel. RAM would have to get really lucky to impart enough damage to reliably destroy control systems, and it could never impart sufficient kinetic energy for total destruction. It might have better luck hitting crew, but again, this is not a realm for hoping on lucky hits.

      • Jim Gallagher

        Cole didn’t shoot because she was in a “safe” port, docked, 48 minutes into refueling. ROE has changed since then, and will continue to change in response to threats. A court martial will always consider the threat. If you’re the watch officer you’re betting your fellow crewmen and ship. If you put your career above that, go find another one, please.

      • Duane

        The CO makes the decision to fire, as always … and if the ROE are clear along the lines of what I wrote, then the CO is fully protected.

        The key is to make the ROE protective and sensible.

  • Matt

    It seems remarkable a boat could make it all the way into this ship in broad daylight and in a combat zone.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Never underestimate the ineptitude of the Saudi military!

    • The Washington Post story stated the Saudi vessel was attacked by 3 boats, of which they successfully evaded 2 and this one got through.
      I suspect the crew was distracted by the other 2 vessels, which probably came in at roughly the same time from either beam in the forward quadrant, and as a result failed to react to what they perceived as a lower threat in a stern chase.
      As well, the main gun on these frigates is unable to fire to the rear, and they may not adequately train and staff their point defense weapons.

      • Ctrot

        I’ve yet to read about other boats involved, source?

        • Niki Ptt

          I’ve read the same. Press release from the Saudi Navy.
          But the last ship came from the stern, in a dead angle for the 40mm Bofors on the side.

          • ElmCityAle

            Does that version have a 40mm or a 20mm on each side? Either way, it’s an old-world manually crewed and aimed system. Clearly, they need to upgrade to a remote stabilized mount like the mk 38 mod 2 (or the new mod 3), perhaps with the Israeli-style addition of two Spike-ER missiles.

  • Keith B. Rosenberg

    I suspect that the chances are higher that people will shoot first and ask questions after.

    • Curtis Conway

      WHICH is how we used to do it, before recent administrations. Better Safe Than Sorry!

  • Marcd30319

    So, when you use remote-control suicide boats, who gets those 72 virgins waiting in the hereafter?

    Herein reveal the hypocrisy of the radical Islamic movement which is all about power and control, not religion. Otherwise why pass up the glory and reward of paradise? By skipping this opportunity, the jihadists are putting their chips on the here and now, not the hereafter. And therein lie their hypocrisy and mendacity.

    And speaking of hypocrisy and mendacity, where is the outrage from the far left and out easy-living fifth columnists in the west who condemn our use of drones to strike at terrorists but say nothing out this? Selective, as always.

    • Curtis Conway

      I bet they are awfully sexy boats.

      • Marcd30319

        I hear their rudders swing both ways.

        • Ctrot


          • Riley Lee Hamilton

            you people are right iwngers. we can tell because oyu are easily amused.

          • Ctrot

            Come back when you learn to spell and compose a sentence coherently.

    • chris chuba

      The Houthis are native Yemenis, not suicidal fanatics. The suicidal fanatics are in the areas controlled by the Saudis, the Al Qaeda/ISIS Muslims.

      • Riley Lee Hamilton

        one day, the american swill realize their allies are the terrorists.

        one day.. doubiut it. but perhaps one day

    • David

      Your the first person besides myself who realizes that Muslim radicals are totally about power and control .

      These people rape and pillage and could care less about the Koran .

  • John B. Morgen

    The Navy should mount many 20mm or 25mm guns as possible for all naval ships, maybe even 35mm or 40mm guns as well. We are returning to an era where more manned gunnery posts were the normal since the days of World War II.

    • Bill

      Aren’t there a lot of TOW missiles and launchers that are available? Should stop a small boat.

      • TOW is too slow for a fast boat.
        Manned guns systems would work, but I think people forget how hard it is to stop a small boat by blowing smaller holes in it. .50, 20mm & 25mm are for the most part non-explosive projectiles and you have to poke a lot of holes in a little vessel like that, especially when spraying (manned mount), to hit something critical.
        The ships primary systems, 37mm, 50mm or 5″ would be much more effective, but again, against a fast moving target, very hard.
        And you can’t exactly light-up every small vessel within 1km. We live in the real world, and some restraint is required.
        Much as I may not like expensive solutions, Phalanx style systems optimized for point defense are much more suitable, provided the weapons release is tied to effective RoE and leadership.

        • Bill

          Thanks, but if the boat is coming right toward you – as it must to crash into you – I would think a TOW would be simple to steer into it. Of course, I’ve never fired a TOW at anything. Also, there is the German anti-tank missile the Iraqis and Kurds love to use against suicide trucks? Similar to a suicide boat attack I would think.

          • old guy

            How about a hundred of them. Only one has to make it.

        • Gen. Buck Turgidson

          The watch on the cole showed restraint as the raft with the hajis paddled up,,their unloaded M14s weren’t a threat,,

          • Look, it’s not all or nothing. Clearly, the Cole was a case where too much restraint was shown. Remember that happened before 9-11. You can thank the Clinton administration and the moral deficit of the Peace dividend.
            But lighting up everyone in the world who looks at us the wrong way won’t solve anything either, and will in fact make it worse. Yes, the Cole should have had an armed watch (un-loaded weapons is not an armed watch) and should have challenged and fired.
            That is an ROE and leadership fail.
            But it’s not the same as saying we can simply easily waste any small vessel that comes within 1,000m in heavily trafficked, congested waterways.
            There needs to be some display of intent first. Otherwise, we are no better than the blood-thirsty bastards on the other side.

        • ElmCityAle

          There are plenty of existing missile systems that could have worked, from fairly big (ESSM), to RAM, to the US Griffen (as mounted on Cyclone patrol craft) or the Israeli Spike.

      • John B. Morgen

        Any Tow, HOT or Milan ATGW missiles would do.

    • Ctrot

      I’m certain my father could have stopped this attack with the 20mm Oerlikon he manned in the US Navy in WWII, and for a fraction of the cost of what the “modern” solution would be.

      • John B. Morgen

        I agree, but I would preferred a 40mm gun.

    • chris chuba

      You think that Saudis would operate them correctly or do you suggest that we man the boats for the Saudis as well?

      Jamming the radio signal would probably work better unless they are using wires like our TOW missiles do.

      • John B. Morgen

        I suspect the Saudis were not expecting be attacked by explosive boats. The Saudis must add additional small armaments, and maybe radio jammers. As for us manning the small armaments, the Saudis could handle that issue on their own.

    • Niki Ptt

      These Saudi frigates, built a looooong time ago in France, still sports two 40mm Bofors on the sides.

      • John B. Morgen

        The Saudi frigates can still be updated with additional armaments.

    • ElmCityAle

      No point in going backwards to a romanticized version of history. The way forward is smaller manning with much better stabilized, remote gun and missile systems like the mk 38 mod 2.

      • John B. Morgen

        You cannot afford to be picky, and it [NOT] romanticizing about old style weaponry if it works because sometimes “push button” weapons will not simply do. Right now, the enemy is using low tech tactics, and it is up to the United States Navy and our allies must wake up from delusional way of thinking, in order to adopt the most prudent counter-measures, regardless if those counter-measures involves old style weapons or concepts.

        • ElmCityAle

          There is almost zero point to old fashioned manned cannon systems. With precious little time between warning, engagement, and possible impact, the defense systems need to be the best possible: missiles for longer ranges and stabilized gun systems (that cover all possible approaches) for shorter ranges.

          • John B. Morgen

            These suicide boats are [NOT] jet fighters, which means our allies have ample time to respond to the threat. However, an other weapons counter-measure is to deploy helicopter gun ships, armed with Hell-fire missiles.

  • phil

    This is so laughable. “Iran is giving Yemen weapons of MASS DESTRUCTION”.US< UK, Israhell and other nations have sold the Saudis billions in Bombs and armaments in the last couple years. Poorest nation in the middle east getting picked on by the richest….sound familiar?

  • madskills

    They try this with a US ship and we lob a couple hundred rounds into RG headquarters.

  • old guy

    The Navy refuses to acknowledge the tryouts for “SWARM” warfare. It has been a long time since the Barberry pirates chased us with 100+ armed Dhows (to the shores of Tripoli). We are just starting to look at counter-measures for numerous attack craft. The Iranians started with the Russian Komar and Osa boats and have graduated to RIBs.

  • Nemo

    Does the author of this article have some aversion to geography? Would it have been too much to mention where this latest attack took place, or where the attack on the USS Cole occurred, or even from where the Houthi guerrillas originate?

  • Riley Lee Hamilton

    remember iran haters

    You helped saddam hussein gas iranians and kurds

    don’t expect flowers after killing all these people for hte past 30 years.

    the REAL terrorists are sunni arabs. not iranians and shia arabs

    0 iraniain suicide bombers

    3492384570239485673459687349506834million arab suicide bombers, including AT LEAST TWO yesterda

    Keep the iran hate coming. it just shows you were brainwashed by countries like saudi arabia and israel. two countries living in the year 5000 bc, fighting over sand and hate.

  • kye154

    The profile of this boat really looks like one of the Chinese Houdong class, sold to Iran, back in the 1990’s, which has 2 MTU 16V396 TB94 diesels, (courtesy of the U.S.) in it,. Although it may be a “suspected” Iranian boat, but with the collaboration of the Chinese and American manufacturers, its really hard to tell who’s boat it really belongs to. The angle of attack should have damaged the props and the rudder on the Saudi frigate, Unfortunately, this article was way too focused on the attack boat, and said virtually nothing about the Frigate. So, if the frigate was able to return to port, and release its video, then the unmanned boat just made a big bang, and didn’t do too much damage.

  • kye154

    One thing that bothers me about the video. You see the attack boat making a wake, as it is speeding along, but the frigate hardly has any wake at all, like just enough speed to keep its heading, but for all practical purposes, dead in the water.. No wonder why the Saudi frigate made such a juicy target. But then again, you have to wonder if this was a staged attack by the Saudis, or if the Saudi Capt was stupid enough to sit there, close to being dead in the water, and wait for the attack craft to hit him.