RogerBW's Blog

Fourth Harpoon PBEM AAR: Gulf Escort Deja Vu Again 10 December 2014

Having had some interest after I posted the second AAR, I thought I'd run a game for new players to get the hang of the way I do things before I set up another complex scenario. But the new players didn't apply, so I ran this one with two old hands instead. Total real time was two weeks, including a break over Thanksgiving as one of the players is American.

The situation was as before: a single Halifax-class frigate escorting a tanker past two Thondor-class missile boats (since I last ran this scenario, I've found that that's the Iranian name for the Chinese-built Houdong). The tanker starts within the blue circle and is aiming for the pale green one; the PTGs start in the red arcs. (As usual, images are links to larger versions, but beware of this first one – it's huge.)

The boats started at different spots, which made for an interesting early situation:

When the CH-124A was searching (not all that effectively, with a detection range against very small targets of only eleven miles regardless of altitude), the Thondors' ESM receivers were able to pick it up and get effective cross bearings.

That didn't help them track down anything else, though, and the helicopter (still searching) moved off to the south faster than they could follow.

One of the attackers fired up surface-search radar, too far away to locate either of the targets, but the helicopter was able to pick it up. This game of blind-man's buff with occasional torch beams continued for the next hour or so. (Note successive ESM contacts from the helicopter, making for something like a cross-bearing from a single platform.)

The Canadians planned to move low and fake a landing to mislead the Iranians as to the location of their ship, but before this could be put into practice the helo was able finally to establish radar contact with one of the missile boats.

The helicopter moved round to approach the boat from behind for a visual identification, and picked up the second boat to the north. Tanker and escort slowed down and moved near the coast, hoping to take advantage of the radar shadow of the land. Most crucially, they slowed down.

However, the helicopter wasn't able to cover both targets at once, and concentrated on the northern boat. The southern one was able to break contact, shut off its radar, and move further off to the south.

Both boats moved in close to the coast (doubtless causing a diplomatic incident with Qatar) and took their shots from further inshore than the bigger ships could get. The frigate fired starboard Harpoons at the northern boat, since it was still being tracked by the helicopter.

The C-802s were whittled down by Sea Sparrow, Bofors and Phalanx fire; one hit the tanker, doing minor damage, and one made it through to strike the frigate, with one more showering fragments across the deck having been shot at the last moment by the Phalanx. Unfortunately, one of those fragments was the magic bullet: it hit the portside Harpoon launcher, still unfired, and destroyed the missiles there. Even that would have been survivable, but the Harpoons themselves threw burning débris into the portside VLS, detonating the remaining Sea Sparrow missiles, and that was enough to sink the ship.

Meanwhile the Harpoons had been fired at a point in front of the northern boat, set to turn away from shore and light up their seekers once they got there. This worked: they tracked the PTG, and three out of four hit, blowing it out of the water.

The Iranians knew that the Canadian radars were off the air, but the surviving PTG was running without using his own radar, to try to hide from return fire, and had no other information. He withdrew from the battle; the helo had no weapons that would have been effective against him.

So in the end that was a tactical victory for the Canadians; the frigate was lost, but the tanker was damaged a fraction less than 10%, and could proceed on course. The Iranians could have closed in and taken some hours to sink the tanker with gunfire (or even forced the crew to open the seacocks and take to the lifeboats), but they couldn't be completely sure that the frigate wasn't still out there hunting for them.

Thanks to Todd (Blue) and Tomasz (Red) for playing. The moment-by-moment maps as shown to each player are available here. Things I've learned from running this game:

  • Well, wow. One missile really can destroy a ship that on paper should normally be able to take the hit and keep fighting. And I'm starting to think that engaging small missiles inside the three-second range where they can throw fragments if shot down may be a worse idea than simply letting them hit. (This is a bit of a game rules effect: any weapon that does 50 or fewer damage points, which is most of the lighter ones, does the same d6 airburst critical hits if it's shot down with fewer than three seconds left to run. Most of the smaller missiles would have a hard time achieving even one critical if they hit normally.)

  • Sea-skimming missiles are very hard to spot without a 3D radar. Having the helicopter in position meant the frigate had advance warning of one of the missile swarms; with a second helo to shadow the second boat it could probably have had targeting information for, and taken down, both at a relatively safe distance. (Even so, as with many multi-purpose ships it doesn't really have enough fire directors to engage a swarm effectively.)

  • Having the Qatari coast in play makes a huge difference to tactics if the commanders choose to use it, which this time they did. Detection was harder, and setting up missile shots (particularly with the C-802s, which don't have a waypoint capability) took a lot of effort.

  • It would be interesting to try this with different escort ships. A British Type 23 has the less-capable Sea Wolf rather than Sea Sparrow and only one fire director for it, but carries a helicopter with a better radar and anti-ship missiles of its own that are quite capable of taking on the PTGs. An American Kidd, historically used on this mission, is a much bigger ship, carrying long-ranged Standard missiles with a pair of directors and two helicopters; that would be a much tougher challenge for the Iranians. In that case one should probably not only add more PTGs but mix in the possibility of Iranian submarines; historically in 1996 they have two Kilos based at Bandar Abbas, though they're under the command of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy rather than the Revolutionary Guards' Navy, so one would really want a separate player.

  • Finding VSmall ships is really hard. Of the three scenarios I've run so far, this is the only one that starts forces far enough apart to make detection really important, and I like that about it. Turning on your radar can be a fatal error if you do it too soon, but doing it too late means you don't have information that you could have used.

  • More players always welcome!

See also:
First Harpoon PBEM AAR: Gulf Escort Deja Vu


  1. Posted by Craig Benn at 09:05pm on 13 December 2014

    Hi Roger,

    Love the AAR's.
    I played Harpoon1 back in the day. Generally I was trying to ref on graph paper while players gave me ambiguous orders and it all took far too long. I'd love to have a go with someone else doing the hard work.
    My wargaming tastes are fairly complex - ASL, World in Flames e.t.c so I'm sure I can cope with a little hand holding. I'm not very tech-savvy though. I presume I just send you e-mails to move and fire units?
    My preference would be something historical from the Falklands war, or failing that 80's cold war...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:11pm on 13 December 2014

    Yes, it's all done by text in email. I've added you to my list of players and I'll be sending out an email call for players for the next game shortly.

    (Check the "one for the brow" tag here for notes towards a Cold War alt-history that I mean to do some gaming in some time.)

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