The Buzz

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Has Squadrons of Crazy Sea-Skimming Flying Boats

Iran has fielded a variety of unusual weapons over the years: F-14 Tomcat fighters hotwired to fire Russian missiles, homemade mini-submarines, and remanufactured Cold War jets.

In 2006, Iranian television showcased a peculiar sea-skimming flying boat, and four years later Tehran triumphantly announced it had three squadrons of them serving in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. News commentators boasted it was one of the few countries to “design and produce such advanced flying boats,” which is technically true.

The blue-painted Bavar-2 flying boats seen in this video are examples of Ground Effect Vehicles, also known as ekranoplans, sea skimmers, or Wing-In-Ground vehicles. Basically, these are designed to fly at very low altitudes by capitalizing on “ground effect,” the phenomenon in which wing surfaces encounter less drag the closer they are to the surface. After generating lift through speed during takeoff, GEVs can stay airborne as long as they remain within that low-altitude envelope. This makes them more applicable to maritime operations, where inconvenient mountains are scarce.

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The Soviets were the first to deploy functional GEVs in the 1970s and 1980s, including a few huge Lun-class ekranoplans weighing four hundred tons that could lug huge carrier-killing cruise missiles, and an even larger prototype dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster.

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Iranian engineers took a very different tack with the Bavar-2. The small one- or two-man boats appear to be intended for scouting purposes. The little vehicles can skim meters above the surface at around a hundred knots (115 miles per hour). They are equipped with night-vision goggles, cameras and real-time datalinks. Armament comprises a single machine gun; missile- or rocket-launching capability has been claimed, but there’s little evidence of it so far.

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The little vehicles probably aren’t intended to strike the enemy directly, but instead would enable Iran’s asymmetric naval strategy to shut down the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a new conflict in the Persian Gulf. Tehran realizes its naval forces don’t have the survivability or firepower to slug it out with adversaries in a head-on engagement. Instead it would lean on the shallow, confining geography of the Persian Gulf and especially the chokepoint of the Strait—only twenty-nine miles from shore-to-shore at its narrowest point—to launch swarming motorboat attacks, mini-submarine ambushes and long-range strikes with antiship missiles. Conveniently, the Bavar-2s have been deployed at Bandar Abbas, a naval base directly facing the straits—you can see a satellite photo of a unit here.

In service of the missile-attack gambit, the Bavar-2s (the name means “Belief” or “Confidence”) would skim ahead, acquire targeting data on enemy warships, and relay that information to speedy missile boats. Zulfikar-class fast patrol boats could then quickly dart into maximum firing range while traveling at seventy knots to launch their two Nasr-1 cruise missiles (domestic versions of the Chinese C-704), then run away to avoid retaliation. The Nasr-1 has a range of twenty-one miles and carries a 330-pound warhead.

Iran has also boasted of “stealth features” for the Bavar-2. However, the piston pusher engine protruding above the design’s high-mounted wing hardly seem to have indiscrete radar cross sections, nor reduced infrared signatures. Nonetheless, the little vehicles can skim at very low altitudes to delay radar detection from warships—though for how long is open to debate.

In any event, Tehran is apparently far from done with GEV vehicles. In 2015, the website Bellingcat published satellite photos of a new, eight-meter-long twin-engine GEV flying boat spotted at the Bostanu shipyard. Photos showed the vehicle deployed on water, but could not confirm whether it was even designed for military use.