Iran’s plans to build naval power will jolt region
Beirut - The Iranian Navy successfully test-fired a Nasir anti-ship cruise missile during large-scale exercises in February near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. State television screened a video purporting to show the missile hitting its target.
The Iranians have been seeking a seaborne anti-ship missile capability for years and, if their claims to have developed their own weapon, probably based on Chinese technology, are true, then their naval firepower has been greatly enhanced.
The semi-official Fars news agency on March 9th quoted General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as claiming that a sea-launched ballistic missiles called the Hormuz-2 had successfully hit a target at a range of 250km during the exercises.
As with most Iranian claims regarding the efficacy of new weapons developed by the country’s extensive defence industry, this one was probably intended largely to impress the Iranian masses with the power of the Tehran regime than to mirror actual technological achievement.
However, the reports of these anti-ship missiles have been given new weight by the publication of a report by the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) that Iran is expected to expand its mediocre naval forces, largely made up of obsolete US, British and French destroyers, corvettes and patrol craft, into the blue-water fleet that the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had planned.
“Iran has invested heavily in procurement, research and production of multiple anti-ship missile systems over the last several years,” the report said.
These include several types based on China’s C-802 anti-ship missile with ranges of up to 300km and capable of covering the entire Arabian Gulf. Tehran is also seeking to obtain Russian SS-N-26 Yakhont coastal defence cruise missiles.
Moscow has already supplied the Yakhont to Syria. Israel fears these could be used by Hezbollah to attack its vulnerable gas production platforms in the eastern Mediterranean.
The ONI report will intensify Arab fears that Iran is bent on military expansion as part of its perceived strategy of becoming the region’s paramount power.
Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic’s long-time rival, has been engaged in a major military expansion for six years, spurred by the US withdrawal from the region and fears that Iran will exploit this to move against it.
The US-led July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, on top of growing isolationism in the United States, has intensified the Gulf Arabs’ sense of vulnerability.
The Saudis, despite facing an economic decline, are upgrading their eastern fleet based in the Arabian Gulf, with planned purchases of six corvettes, four littoral combat ships and three maritime patrol aircraft.
Riyadh is also reported to be seeking a submarine capability and, on March 3rd, Malaysia offered its submarine training facilities.
The United Arab Emirates, which is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia, is also building up its military and naval forces.
Some regional analysts see the Yemen war as the precursor of wider conflict between the kingdom and Iran that is already spilling over into the Red Sea region, a vital shipping lane linking the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and East Africa where both sides are seeking military and naval bases.
Analyst Abdulrahman al-Rashed, writing in Asharq al-Awsat last November, reflected Arab fears of Iran’s naval expansion, saying it was a “statement of intent on the part of the Iranian leadership, as well as a demonstration of its aggressive posture…
“It is clear that Iran has taken two strategic decisions: To increase its foreign military capability and revive the shah’s old dream of being the police force of the Gulf. Currently, Iran wants to be the police force of the area from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.”
The Islamic Republic’s “wide-ranging military operations in Iraq and Syria confirm that fighting wars has become Iran’s new policy”, al- Rashed wrote.
In November 2016, Iran’s chief of staff, General Mohammad Hossein Baqheri, announced that it wants to establish naval bases in Syria and Yemen, both countries in which it is militarily engaged supporting allies.
This appears to be aspirational bluster but it reflects the Iranian leadership’s plans for long-range naval expansion into the Red Sea, rapidly becoming a maritime conflict zone, and the Mediterranean.
“If… Iran succeeds in establishing naval bases on the shores of Syria and Yemen, this will have troubling implications, mainly for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States, as well as Egypt and Turkey,” observed Ephraim Kam of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
On December 27th, 2016, Iranian Admiral Peiman Jafari Tehrani, the deputy commander for coordination, announced plans to build an aircraft carrier as part of the drive to build up the regular navy. This has been mooted since 2014 but military analysts remain sceptical that Iran has the technology to do this in the foreseeable future.
The Islamic Republic is expected to embark on this force expansion once a UN Security Council resolution banning it acquiring advanced weaponry expires in 2020 — three years from now, the ONI said.
Once free of the resolution, Iran will be able “to pursue foreign acquisitions that have been inaccessible since sanctions were imposed”, the 44-page ONI assessment of Iran’s naval forces, strategy and capabilities stated.
Tehran’s main objectives will be buying surface warships to replace its ageing fleet, submarines and anti-ship missiles capable of taking out US aircraft carriers, whose growing vulnerability to cruise missiles is becoming increasingly apparent.
The report noted that Iran is striving to build a submarine armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, a breakthrough that would be a quantum leap in terms of naval capabilities.
This was a reference to the new 1,180-tonne Besat-class, diesel-electric attack submarine currently under development. Little is known of the programme but the ONI concluded that Iran’s navy could acquire anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) capability “over the next five years”.
Little is known of the Besat programme but it is reported to be similar to the export version of Germany’s Type 209 attack submarines, which are capable of launching US UGM-64 Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles.
Iran’s current submarine force is spearheaded by the three diesel-electric Kilo class boats it bought from Russia in 1992-96 and which are reaching the end of their 30- year operational life. Two are operational at any one time.
Iran also has 10-19 smaller Ghadir-class and Nahang-class subs, all built in Iran but believed to be based on North Korean technology. They operate on shallow coastal waters and their primary mission is laying mines and inserting special forces raiders.
The ONI report also indicated that Iran was seeking to establish an “overlapping network of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles to put at risk ships operating” in the Arabian Gulf.
Iran has two navies — the IRGC’s naval wing and the regular navy. The IRGC’s main maritime mission is coastal defence and operations inside the Arabian Gulf. The regular navy operates as a blue-water force in the Gulf of Aden and beyond, so it will be responsible for force expansion beyond Iran’s shores.
The new weapons Tehran is seeking will be largely operated by the regular navy but the IRGC’s fast-attack craft also have a key role in the emerging Iranian naval doctrine.
It is these IRGC craft that are constantly harassing vessels of the Bahrain-based US Navy 5th Fleet in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz in provocative manoeuvres that US commanders fear could trigger an armed confrontation.
US President Donald Trump has vowed a more aggressive response to these swarms of fast-attack craft and warned if they continue to confront US warships they would be “shot out of the water”.
The ONI reported that between 1996 and 2006 the IRGC took delivery of about 46 of these craft from China and North Korea and has “continued to pursue smaller, faster platforms equipped with torpedoes, short-range anti-ship missiles, or both, that can reach speeds of 40-50 knots”.