The Iranian Threat to the U.S. Navy May Be Overblown
The Islamic Republic Iranian Navy runs toward larger, more expensive and more capable ships, and has rebuilt more slowly. Even as late as 2007, the IRIN’s principal warships were three Vosper Mk. 5 frigates of the Alvand class. Built in the late 1960s and displacing only 1,100 tons, four ships were built, but one, Sahand, was destroyed during Operation Praying Mantis. Other ships included ten out of twelve Combattante II–class missile corvettes purchased before the war from France, and domestically manufactured copies, all equipped with Chinese Ying Ji C-802 antiship missiles. The Navy also controls three Kilo-class attack submarines purchased from Russia and fourteen North Korean Yono-class midget submarines, the same kind that sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010.
Over the last ten years IRIN has apparently enjoyed slightly better funding, adding eleven more missile ships armed with C-704 and C-802 missiles. The Navy has also commissioned two new Jamaran-class frigates, copies of the Vosper frigates that are armed with a seventy-six-millimeter gun, three twenty-millimeter and forty-millimeter cannon, Standard antiair missiles, torpedoes, and C-704 or C-802 missiles. Four more Jamarans are under construction, and seven Sina fast-attack craft are under construction to replace the Combattantes.
Iran’s long coastline, astride some of the most important waterways in the world, makes land-based antiship missiles a useful weapon. The country has batteries of C-802 missiles, as well as local variants Ghadir and Ghader, with ranges of 120, two hundred and three hundred kilometers, respectively. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Forces, which control most of the country’s ballistic missiles, tested antiship ballistic missiles capable of striking enemy warships at sea in March of this year. These missiles are believed to have a range of thirty kilometers and the ability to home in on enemy radars.
The IRIN and the IRGC have separate responsibilities. The IRGC is responsible for defending Iran and controlling naval operations west of the Strait of Hormuz, while the IRIN is responsible for operation east of the strait and beyond. A zone of shared responsibility exists directly at the strait, within the vicinity of the coastal city of Bandar Abbas. Most countries would maintain a single naval force to patrol all of Iran’s southern waterways, and maintaining two separate naval forces is unnecessarily bureaucratic. That said, the IRGC is a deeply influential arm of the modern Iranian government and cannot simply be wished away.
Iran’s naval forces constitute a key part of the country’s defense. They are also likely active in Iran’s support of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, but the extent of such support is unknown. While it might be easy to discount such a lightweight force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Naval Forces and the Islamic Republic of Iran Naval Forces have numbers on their side and the ability to mount complex, multidirectional attacks with antiship missiles against much larger foreign naval vessels. They are a small, but potent, threat to any foreign navy that might stand in their way.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This article originally appeared in October 2017.
Image: U.S. Navy