Surface Forces: Expanding Iranian Navy


March 1, 2024: Going into 2024 the Iranian navies are expanding their fleets. Iran is unique in that it has two navies. One is the regular navy while the other is a more specialized naval force operated by the IRGC or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. There is also a Coast Guard which is the coastal waters component of the Border Guard Command that guards land borders.

The regular fleet consists of three Russian built Kilo class submarines, an Iranian-built coastal submarine and two midget submarines. Surface warships consist of seven frigates, four of them which entered service after 2010 while the other three have been in service since the early 1970s. There are four corvettes, three of them rather ancient, having entered service in the 1950s and 1960s. The most recent one entered service in 2023 and more of these are under construction. These include the two new Soleimani Class twin hull catamaran corvettes. These displace 600 tons and have a top speed of 59 kilometers an hour and a max range of 9,900 kilometers. Their shape makes it more difficult for enemy radar to track and, if the new corvette maintains radio silence, it is difficult to detect and track.

This new class of corvettes is heavily armed with six anti-ship cruise missiles, six land attack surface missiles and 16 anti-aircraft missiles. There is also one 30mm autocannon and four three-barrel 20mm autocannon. The ship carries a helicopter and facilities for launching or recovering three fast attack boats, each carrying an anti-ship missile.

The navy already has fifteen fast attack craft displacing 234 or 275 tons each. There are six offshore patrol boats, three of them 85 ton ships and three displace 105 tons. There is only one minesweeper ship although Iran may have helicopter-based mine sweeping capability.

Support ships consist of ten landing craft, four of them displacing 2,500 tons and the rest of them 280 tons. There are fourteen amphibious air cushion landing craft, eight displacing 10 tons and six displacing 55 tons. There are 27 fleet auxiliary support ships with 14 capable of distant high seas operations while the rest are for operations near the Iranian coasts in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. One frigate is based in the landlocked Caspian sea and a coastal submarine is being built for the Caspian Sea Fleet along with a fast attack craft combat ship.

A 7,500-ton destroyer is under construction along with two more frigates and six fast attack craft. At the end of 2023 Iran added another warship to its Caspian Sea Fleet by introducing the Damavand, a Moudge-class frigate. The original and first Moudge-class ship was the Jamaran, which was lost in 2018 during a storm. In mid- 2021 Iran put the fourth Moudge class frigate, the Dena, into service. This ship is described as a Light Frigate. These ships are actually heavily armed and haphazardly equipped corvettes. Iran planned to put seven into service and three more were under construction with uncertain service dates because of the difficulty in finding the needed warship components.

The Jamaran entered service in 2010 after at least six years under construction. The second one, the Damavand, entered service in 2015. This one was built in a Caspian Sea shipyard and took six years to complete. In early 2018 it ran aground while entering port in bad weather. Satellite photos showed it partially submerged. The ship was refloated and towed to a shipyard for repairs, where it was declared complete after 18 months. Despite that the ship never returned to service. This may be due to problems with equipment damaged when the ship was partially sunk. Getting necessary electronic and mechanical components is always a problem when building these ships. For example, the third Moudge, the Sahand, entered service at the end of 2018 after eight years of construction efforts. This one was more heavily armed and equipped for long-distance voyages of up to 150 days if accompanied by a supply ship. To demonstrate this, Sahand traveled to the Atlantic in 2021, accompanied by a tanker/supply ship. This was mostly a publicity stunt.

It is unclear how long the latest Moudge was under construction because Iran carries out a lot of this work in a shed, to protect the new warship from the elements during five or more years of construction effort. Iran now tries to keep quiet about warship construction efforts because of these unpredictable delays.

Iran has had little access to foreign shipbuilders since the 1980s, and by 2000 had developed the capability of building their own small warships. These are crude but they float, and their weapons generally work. Construction takes place in the commercial shipyards that Iran has developed since the 1990s to repair existing commercial ships and build smaller tankers and cargo carriers. This eventually led to warships, which is a common trend for nations seeking to build their own. Before the monarchy was overthrown in 1979, Iran bought modern warships from foreign suppliers, a practice still common among Persian Gulf oil states. Only the UAE has developed some warship construction capability, mainly as part of its effort to prepare the economy for less dependence on oil income.

The Iranian Navy is led by officers who think along more conventional lines than their government. Western ship commanders generally have good professional relationships with their Iranian counterparts, even when the Iranian Navy is under orders to give Western ships a hard time. If an Iranian captain reports by radio that he has his orders, it means he will follow through with whatever bizarre actions he has been ordered to carry out but be apologetic about it to his foreign peers.

The Iranian Navy has fewer options than the Revolutionary Guard, simply because the navy has fewer but larger and easier to spot warships. Since 2005 the navy has generally been stationed on the Indian Ocean and the Caspian Sea, while the IRGC navy has been given responsibility for the Persian Gulf and protecting all those Iranian oil facilities along the coast. The Revolutionary Guard is not a real threat to Arab oil fields and tankers because the Arabs and their Western allies have control of the air and can destroy Iranian warships, boats, oil fields and tankers that way. What the IRGC hopes to do at sea is create as formidable a threat as possible, even if this threat, in the form of suicidal speedboats and missile boats backed up by shore-based anti-ship missiles, is short-term. In the long run, any Iranian naval power is doomed if it becomes a problem to other nations in the Gulf.

In Iran, the IRGC has its own “Navy of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”. The main job of the IRGC is to protect the religious dictatorship from the Iranian armed forces and a growing number of angry Iranians. As a result, the IRGC Navy has about as many personnel, 23,000, including marines and naval aviation, as the Iranian Navy. The IRGC force has about 40 large missile and torpedo boats, 100-200 tons each and over a thousand smaller craft, many of them just speedboats with dual outboard engines and machine-gun mounts.

The IRGC builds its own small boats and regularly holds highly publicized ceremonies to induct new boats into the IRGC Navy. The IRGC operates most of the 1,500 small boats used by the naval and coast guard forces. Because of this, opponents have had to develop two sets of tactics for dealing with Iranian naval forces. Iran’s two navies are very different from each other. The traditional navy exists alongside the less well equipped, but more fanatical, forces of the IRGC. Both forces are equipped, trained, and led very differently. The IRGC force is sworn to defend the religious dictatorship while the regular navy strives to defend Iran.




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