Forces: Iran Reinforces Its Caspian Sea Fleet


January 9, 2024: At the end of 2023 Iran added another warship to its Caspian Sea naval forces 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 July 2021 the Iranians 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 locally built Iranian surface ships are small craft, 1,400-ton corvettes and 1,500-ton frigates while the submarines are largely of the miniature variety. Construction of warships is a sideline in the commercial shipyards and only a few warships are being built at a time. Construction is also proceeding slowly so that, apparently, mistakes in the previous ships can be discovered and fixed.

Currently, there are three elderly Kilo-class subs from Russia and three smaller subs. Major surface warships consist of seven corvettes/frigates displacing no more than 1,500 tons each. There are three smaller, under 1,000 ton corvettes. There are about fifty smaller patrol craft, ten of them armed with Iranian versions of Chinese anti-ship missiles. Chief among these is the Nasr 1. There are a few dozen mine warfare, amphibious, and support ships. The three most powerful ships in the fleet are three Russian Kilo class subs. Most of the foreign built ships are serving way past their retirement date. This includes the Kilos and most of the fifty mini-subs, most built in Iran. There are several thousand marines and twenty or so aircraft and helicopters.

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 and larger and easier to spot and attack ships. Since 2005 the navy has generally been stationed on the Indian Ocean and the Caspian Sea, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC navy has been given responsibility for the Persian Gulf and protecting all those Iranian oil facilities along the coast. The Revolutionary Guard is a 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 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 became 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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