US Air Force photo/Ilka Cole
About 35 local boat captains simulated swarming attack maneuvers in fishing boats rigged with machine guns while fighter jets, attack helicopters, and the A-10 "Warthog" simulated attacks from above in Florida's Choctawhatchee Bay.
The Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base organized the simulation, called Combat Hammer, to address one of the more pressing threats to the US Navy: attacks from swarming fast-attack craft.
In the Persian Gulf, Iran has repeatedly used small, agile attack craft to harass US Navy ships in encounters that could lead to a broader conflict in a moment's notice.
US Navy ships have gone as far as to fire warning shots at approaching vessels, but that was before Iranian-backed Houthi militants used a suicide boat laden with explosives to kill two aboard a Saudi navy vessel off the coast of Yemen.
The Navy was already aware of the threat posed to its large, multimillion-dollar ships by small, cheap boats — but the January Houthi attack showed the threat to be even more acute.
The Air Force's Combat Hammer exercise sought in part to answer the question of how the Navy would deal with a large mass of erratic attack craft — and that involved A-10 Warthogs firing inert 30-millimeter rounds at unmanned ships.
The exercise also included attack helicopters, multirole fighter jets, and Canadian F-18s dropping simulated guided munitions.
US Air Force / Ilka Cole
"We evaluate precision-guided munitions against realistic targets with realistic enemy defenses," Lt. Col. Sean Neitzke, the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron commander, said in an Air Force statement. "There are plenty of places in the world where low-tech adversaries can mount .50-caliber machine guns and rocket launchers on small boats for use against us. They could also use other types of shoulder-launched weapons, all of which could be a threat to American assets."
The situation described by Neitzke bears eerily similarities to the situation with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.
Patrick Megahan, an expert on Iran's military with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider that even without the Air Force the US Navy had plenty of ways to counter the threat posed by Iranian-style swarm attacks.
"US Army Apache attack helicopters also frequently drill aboard US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf for countering exactly this threat," Megahan said of the swarming boats.
"This doesn't include the Navy's own Hellfire-equipped Seahawk helicopters or the Marine Corps' very capable attack helicopter squadrons that maintain an almost constant presence in the waters off the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. In fact, two fully load American attack helicopters would likely wreak havoc on an Iranian small-boat swarm."