Key point: Tehran keeps building new ships but they are just variations on the same old design. Sanctions and a lack of domestic capacity means no stunning warships for Iran.
The Iranian navy announced it would build a new kind of warship -- a destroyer displacing as much as 7,000 tons of water, potentially placing it roughly in the same class as major American and European surface combatants.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
Be skeptical. Iran for decades has failed significantly to expand its surface fleet. The lack of resources that so far have constrained Tehran’s fleet likely will continue to limit it. Don’t count on a “mega-ton” destroyer, as Iranian media described it, to enter service any time soon.
Iranian navy commander Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi on Nov. 24, 2019 announced the plan for the new destroyer class. Khanzadi said the fleet had established the Negin project to oversee the vessel’s development.
The admiral said the new destroyer would displace between 5,000 and 7,000 tons of water and would possess long range and high endurance. Iran frequently announces naval deployments across the Atlantic to U.S. waters but never actually has followed through on the announcements.
At present, the Iranian fleet’s biggest warships are corvettes displacing around 1,300 tons of water. All the corvettes are based on a British design dating to the 1970s.
But Iran “has made major achievements in manufacturing different weapons and military equipment, especially vessels,” Fars News Agency reported.
The fleet in December 2019 announced plans to manufacture a 300-feet-long, helicopter-carrying trimaran warship it calls Safineh. If and when it enters service, the triple-hill vessel will “be used in asymmetric coastal warfare and rapid-reaction operations,” Fars explained.
But it’s worth noting that every new surface warship Tehran has managed to acquire in recent years at best is a slight improvement on the same basic corvette design the Iranian fleet has relied on for nearly 50 years.
The Iranian navy in August 2019 announced it will return to service the frigate Damavand following 18 months of repairs. Damavand in January 2018 collided with a pier, killing two sailors and badly damaging the vessel.
Damavand is part of Iran’s Caspian Sea fleet. The landlocked Caspian Sea borders Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Ships in the Caspian fleet realistically cannot play any direct role in a conflict on the Persian Gulf.
Damavand is one of three Moudge-class frigates in Iranian service. Four more reportedly are under construction. Iran operates one ship, Sahand, that is a slightly larger version of the Moudge class.
The Moudges are reverse-engineered copies of Iran’s British-designed, 1970s-vintage Alvand-class ships, three of which remain in service.
The seven Moudges and Alvands are the biggest and most powerful surface ships in the Iranian fleet. Tehran describes the vessels as “destroyers,” but the ships actually are corvettes by international naval standards.
The Moudges and Alvands are equipped with radars and armed with guns plus a few short-range, shoulder- and tube-launched anti-air and anti-ship missiles.
By comparison, any one of the U.S. Navy’s roughly 70 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, each displacing 9,000 tons of water, carries more than 90 long-range anti-air, anti-ship and land-attack missiles.
Still, Iran heralded Damavand’s return to service. “The destroyer has been upgraded and equipped with the latest technologies, making it ready to face the harshest situations in the Caspian Sea,” Khanzadi told Iranian media.
If war breaks out, American forces could target Iran’s small navy as well as the vessels belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps militia.
The battle could be brief. Iran’s fleet has a long history of waging losing fights with the United States and other Western powers.
Newly equipped with British-designed vessels, the Iranian navy fought hard during the bloody Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988. Iran’s attacks on tanker ships—some strictly neutral, others admittedly supplying Iraq—incited international rage.
In 1987, Washington approved Kuwait’s request to “reflag” its tankers as American vessels, in order to allow the U.S. Navy to escort the ships through the Persian Gulf. The Americans’ Operation Earnest Will, lasting from July 1987 to September 1988, included several smaller efforts that resulted in the destruction of Iranian forces.
The U.S. Navy converted two oil-service barges into “sea bases” for Special Operations Forces and armed helicopters, and the U.S. Army placed attack copters aboard Navy ships. On Sept. 21, 1987 Little Bird helicopters from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment attacked the Iranian vessel Ajr as she laid mines, forcing the crew to abandon ship.
A few days later, Little Birds sank three Iranian patrol boats.
On Oct. 16, 1987, an Iranian missile struck a Kuwaiti tanker, injuring 19 people. In response, a U.S. task force targeted two inoperable oil platforms that IRGC forces were using as bases for armed speedboats.
American warships surrounded the platforms, compelling the Iranian crews to evacuate. U.S. commandos climbed aboard one platform to gather up any documents the Iranians had left behind. Four U.S. destroyers opened fire, setting the platforms ablaze.
On April 14, 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine while escorting tanker ships through the Persian Gulf. The carrier USS Enterprise led a retaliatory raid.
Two U.S. destroyers and an amphibious assault ship carrying a battalion of U.S. Marines assaulted an oil platform the Iranians were using as a staging base. The Iranians fired back, drawing heavy return fire from the destroyers and Marine Cobra helicopters. Marines stormed the platform, capturing one surviving Iranian gunner.
Iranian speedboats raided three civilian cargo ships. As the Iranians withdrew, Enterprise’s A-6 bombers zeroed in, sinking one speedboat with cluster bombs.
The Iranian missile boat Joshan fired a Harpoon anti-ship missile at a group of American warships—and missed. The Americans fired back with Harpoon and Standard missiles then sank the damaged Joshan with their guns.
While the U.S. ships fought off Iranian air attacks, Tehran’s “destroyers” joined the battle. Sahand and Sabalan both fired without effect at A-6s overhead. The A-6s shot back with Harpoons and laser-guided bombs, sinking Sahand and badly damaging Sabalan.
The newer frigate Sahand is named for the ship the Americans sank in 1988.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.