Surface Forces: Iranian Naval Disaster


March 14, 2018: Iran has lost its largest warship in the Caspian Sea, the 1,500 ton Damavand. In early January the ship ran aground on rocks near a jetty protecting the harbor it was attempting to enter during bad weather. At first Iran played down the severity of the situation but after a month it was clear the ship was breaking up and probably unsalvageable. With the loss of the Damavand Iran has only one recently built large (over 1,000 tons) surface warship. The Damavand was the second of what was supposed to be a class of seven ships and entered service in 2013. A third, a slightly larger, version of this type of ship (Sahand) has a hull built but not much else because of budget problems. The first ship of this class, Jamaran, is based in the Persian Gulf, with most of the Iranian Navy, which consists mostly of small coastal missile boats, small locally built submarines and lots of speedboats manned by fanatic members of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).

The Iranian navy could certainly use some new warships. Currently, the only major surface warships it has except for the Jarmaran are three elderly British built Alvand class frigates (1,540 tons each) and two U.S. built Bayandor class patrol frigates (1,100 tons each). The 560 ton Government Yacht Hamzeh was also refit as a warship by installing a 20mm autocannon, two machineguns, and four C-802 anti-ship missiles on it and is probably used mostly for training purposes. Hamzeh is now the largest Iranian warship in the Caspian Sea. There are about fifty smaller patrol craft, ten of them armed with Chinese anti-ship missiles. There are another few dozen mine warfare, amphibious, and support ships. The three most powerful ships in the fleet are three Russian Kilo class subs. There are about fifty mini-subs, most of them built in Iran.

There are some serious quality problems with Iranian built warships, and not just because of budget problems and sanctions. Iran's naval shipbuilding facility at the Bushehr shipyard has lots of labor problems. There have been strikes and lockouts as well as complaints of poor designs and sloppy management. Iran has, for the last two decades, announced many new, locally made, weapons that turned out to be more spin than substance.

Iran does have commercial shipbuilding firms that produce merchant ships that are larger than destroyers. Thus it was believed that Iran could build something that looks like a destroyer. The Jamaran (or Moudge) class ships have Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles, but a lot of the other necessary military electronics are harder to get and install in a seagoing ship. Iran has coped by using commercial equipment. This does not make for a formidable warship but does enable high seas operations.

Iran is trying to expand its growing (slowly) naval power on all its coasts (Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean). Thus since 2011 Iran has had one or more of its few surface warships working with the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. This was the first time since the 1970s that the Iranian Navy has conducted sustained operations outside its coastal waters. Despite their own Islamic radical government, the Iranian sailors have got along with the other members of the patrol, including the United States (which is officially the "Great Satan" back home). Encouraged by this, Iran announced that it would send more of its warships off to distant areas, mainly to show the world that Iran was a naval power capable of such reach. These voyages often ran into problems and the Iranians learned to send a resupply ship along that contained a large stock of spare parts and skilled ship techs to install them as needed.

Since 2000 Iran has been building some larger warships. Not really large but big enough to take trips across the Indian Ocean. In 2012 Iran got a chance to try long-distances cruises when the first Jamaran, which had already been in service for two years. In 2013 it put the second Jamaran into service, but only in the Caspian Sea. But both these vessels were hastily built by yards with no experience in building major surface warships. That meant a lot of mistakes were made. Moreover, the Iranians could not get modern weapons or equipment and were fitting out these ships with whatever they could scrounge up. Iran planned to build a total of seven vessels of the Jarmaran class. Between the labor and supply problems and the 2014 collapse in oil prices it was slow going and, in fact, so far not going much at all.

The original Jarmaran entered service in 2010, followed in 2013 by Damavand and then, after the collapse of oil prices, nothing. Both entered service roughly two years after launch. The Jamaran class is the largest locally built surface warship in Iran and it was based on the British built Alvand class frigate (also known as Vosper Thornycroft Mk 5). The Jarmarans were described as “destroyers” when first announced (as under construction) in 2010. In fact, it's a 1,400 ton corvette. The ships have a crew of 140 and are equipped with anti-aircraft artillery in form of one reverse engineered Bofors 40mm clone and two Oerlikon 20mm cannons, two (four on first ship of the class) Fajr anti air missiles (Iranian clone of the SM-1), anti-submarine weapons (six 324mm light torpedoes), and anti-ship missiles (four C-802s), in addition to a 76mm Fajr-27 double purpose cannon, which is an Iranian copy of the common OTO Melara 76mm cannon. In 2014 the ships were modified with a phased array radars, replacing terribly obsolete parabolic antenna radars, boosting their still modest air defense capabilities. The ships also have a small helicopter pad.

It wasn’t until November 2012 that Iran announced it was building the new a slightly larger and better equipped version of the Jamaran/Moudge class of corvettes. At the time all that was shown was pictures of the completed hull and superstructure. The ship had yet to be fitted out with weapons, electronics, or most other equipment. That was supposed to take place by 2015 but the collapse of oil prices halted that and it has not yet resumed construction. There are four other Jamarans under construction but the work is stalled.

This was embarrassing because in 2012 tut the Iranians couldn’t wait to announce what a great ship the improved Jamaran would be. These announcements are seen as useful to cheer the population up. However, as of early 2018, the Sahand is still awaiting outfitting with weapons, electronics and other equipment. The Sahand, despite Iranian reports of being an improvement over the earlier Jamaran class frigates, though still unfinished, seems to be just another ship of Jarmaran class.

A larger ship, a 7,500 ton destroyer was announced in 2013 but construction has not made much progress and even the press releases have dwindled. Again it’s a matter of resources. The collapse of world oil prices in 2014, more that the numerous economic sanctions, crippled the expansion plans for the Iranian Navy. Most of the sanctions were lifted in a 2015 treaty but that has not helped the navy much because a lot of the additional cash went to prop up the Assad government in Syria and finance the pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen.

What it comes down to is that the navy is not nearly as high a priority as the ground and air forces. Iran has never been a major naval power and that does not appear to be changing any time soon.


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