Both Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Navy have some overlapping responsibilities and capabilities. While the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operates an expensive fleet of speedboats and other ‘fast-attack’ boats, Iran’s submarine fleet sails under the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy. However, Iran’s domestically produced submarines are more valuable as mine-layers than as torpedo platforms.
In 2007, Iran began developing the Ghandir- and Nahang-classes, and in 2017 U.S. Naval Intelligence estimated that Iran has around fourteen of the two classes. In 2018, two more Ghadir-class submarines joint the Iranian fleet. Iranian media claims that the Ghandir-class is also capable of launching missiles in addition to torpedos. Both classes are relatively small and intended for shallow-water operations rather than deeper, blue water missions.
In 2019, Iran unveiled the Fateh-class submarine class. According to Jane’s, he Fateh-class is Iran’s first indigenously-manufactured submarine. It weighs around 600 tons and can launch anti-ship missiles, while submerged, in addition to torpedos.
Iran’s domestic submarines are small, shallow-water divers. Their strengths lie not in their diving characteristics or even in their torpedo strength, but in their mine-laying abilities. Iranian submarines would be “effectively immune to detection for brief periods when running silent and remaining stationary on a shallow bottom just outside the Strait of Hormuz.”
Much has been written about Iran’s anti-ship capabilities, particularly Iran’s anti-ship missal arsenal, but mines have not received nearly as much attention, though mines are a much more affordably area denial/power projection tool at Iran’s disposal.
A report from the Marshall Center explained the particular threat mines have posed to the U.S. Navy: “since 1950 there have been 200 percent more ship casualties in the USN caused by mines, than by all other sources combined.”
The Iranian Navy has a wide variety of sea mines at its disposal, including “influence, acoustic, magnet and contact charges” some locally produced, and some Soviet designs purchased from Russia, as well as a particularly potent Chinese designs, such as the EM52.
The EM52 is particularly dangerous. According to a U.S. Navy assessment, the EM52 is a Chinese improvement on the Russian KMD3000 sea mine, and has a “250 kg rocket-powered warhead that races from the bottom toward detected targets at speeds over 100 knots. The MC52 is difficult to sweep, and triggers on a ship's magnetic, acoustic, pressure, or seismic signature created when a hull passes near the mine’s sensors. The mine…functions in water up to 350 feet.”
In keeping with cost-effectiveness, a relatively low-tech and comparatively inexpensive naval mine could take out extraordinarily expensive American or coalition surface ships on the cheap.
It should probably be unsurprising that naval mines are an attractive alternative to anti-ship missiles and speedboats that could be effectively used in the Gulf in the event of war with the United States.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.