The Iranian and Russian navies are together conducting drills, training ops and maritime combat maneuvers in the Indian Ocean, a potentially concerning scenario all but destined to grab attention at the Pentagon.
Russia’s TASS news agency confirmed that the operations have started, calling the exercises “Iranian-Russian Marine Security Belt Drills,” in the Northern Indian Ocean.
Neither Russia or Iran possess a naval warfare capability sufficient to rival the U.S. Navy, and their combined naval forces would likely be expected to fall short in any kind of massive, open water maritime warfare engagement. However, it does seem the development may be a cause for concern at the Pentagon for a number of key reasons.
There is the mere geographical and surveillance equation, as any kind of collaborative or data-sharing operations between the Russians and Iranians multiplies any ability to track or attempt to threaten U.S. activities in the region. While Iran is reported to operate some large platform, deeper draft ships such as amphibious assault ships and frigates, the text of a 2016 Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security says Iran’s largest Naval threat is asymmetrical in nature, writing that Iran knows it “can’t compete with the U.S. Navy.”
This assessment is consistent with known Iranian naval activity in recent years, which has included harassing or swarming behavior in the Persian Gulf by Iranian small boats. Small boat tactics are believed to present a threat to the U.S. Navy continues to take quite seriously. After all, they present a possible scenario wherein ship defenses could in effect be flooded or overwhelmed by dispersed, fast-maneuvering points of incoming attack.
Small boat threats are part of the reason why the U.S. Navy has refined certain deck-fired gun technologies and upgraded ship defenses such as its Close-in-Weapons System (CIWS). In recent years, the Navy has added new scope and range to its ship-integrated CIWS area defense weapon, a deck-fired phalanx gun able to fire hundreds small interceptors at once to intercept, counter and destroy approaching air attacks closely approaching a ship. Building upon this, the Navy’s 1B CIWS upgrades add a surface defense capability to the platform to, among other things, specifically counter the serious threats presented by small boat swarms.
At the same time, an Iranian attack from larger, rocket-armed surface ships is also part of the overall threat equation. Iran, according to the aforementioned 2016 Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security, does possess “four 70-ton Zafar patrol boats armed with either MLRS rocket launchers or C-701 mix of torpedoes and guns.”
Iran operates as many as six frigates and a combination of well more than sixty patrol boats and fast attack craft combined, according to a report from the International Institute of Strategic Studies called “The Military Balance 2020.”
Due to a variety of factors such as a need to sustain oil shipping through areas such as the Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s Navy considered a much more significant threat than its Air Force. The text on Naval Strategy makes yet another significant point regarding the Naval threat posed by Iran, suggesting that Iran “depends heavily upon its coastal island and ship borne anti-ship missiles to make up for its lack of airpower.”
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.