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As Iran marks its Navy Day on Friday, the country has in recent years sought to bolster its naval capabilities in a bid to project power far beyond its shores, while sanctions have spurred Iran’s domestic defence production.
Iranian naval forces are roughly split in two. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) is responsible for the Gulf area of operations and is mainly coastal-based.
The conventional Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) operates in the Gulf of Oman and the Caspian Sea.
Traditionally the two navies have rightly focused on coastal defence and their capabilities have reflected that. Large numbers of patrol craft and missile attack boats are used to defend its shores. However, both navies have recently added to their numbers with more advanced ships and submarines.
The IRGCN received 100 new fast attack craft in May, plus it took possession of an indigenously designed ocean-going catamaran, the Shahid Nazeri. Twin hulled, it can carry 100 soldiers and is reported to have a range of thousands of kilometres – firmly placing it as an ocean-going vessel.
This – plus a new base support ship, the Abdollah Roudaki – will allow the IRGCN to increase its support for operations away from Iran.
The Abdollah Roudaki, a converted roll-on roll-off merchant vessel, has been touted as a multirole helicopter carrier.
Pictures of it show its deck covered in varieties of drones, anti-ship missiles and attack boats.
While it does indeed carry helicopters, it is in no way like a standard aircraft carrier and is in no way comparable to helicopter carriers like Japan’s Izumo or Turkey’s Anadolu, both purpose-built and extremely capable.
It does signal the intention of the IRGCN to project power beyond its traditional Gulf area of operations and there are plans for a naval base in the south of the country beyond the chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz, giving it access to the Indian Ocean and beyond.
It would help provide protection and security for Iranian fishing vessels that have been harassed by pirates and foreign naval ships alike. It would also act as a bulwark against what is seen as growing United States naval activity and an increased Israeli presence in the region.
The IRIN already has two bases on the Gulf of Oman, at Chabahar and Jask, and its focus is on longer-range patrol craft and its fast-growing submarine fleet.
While big ships tend to be the focus of media attention, it is the smaller vessels being designed in Iran that are improving the IRIN’s combat power.
New destroyers, such as the Dena class, will be fitted with Vertical Launch Systems for its missiles. It can pack more missiles into a given space and the load can be mixed to include air defence, anti-ship or land-attack, depending on the mission.
The ships will be equipped with an improved anti-submarine warfare suite and are designed to enhance Iran’s blue water, or ocean-going, capability.
It is not only on the surface that Iran’s naval forces have increased. Submarines are being built that can now operate in the deeper Indian Ocean rather than the shallow waters of the Gulf.
The Fateh, or Conquerer, submarine has been locally made. As a diesel-electric submarine, it is quiet, with a reasonable range suited more for oceans than coasts but is small enough to be a harder target to find.
While not revolutionary in design, it shows a steady improvement in performance and design and would still pose a threat to any navy.
The weapons have also improved. Long-range anti-ship missiles now pack a bigger punch, with a greater range – such as the Noor, with a range of 180km (112 miles), and the Gadir, which can hit and destroy targets out to 300km (186 miles).
There is even a semi-stealth missile, the Nasr-e Basr, that is currently undergoing trials. These new missiles can be mounted on a variety of platforms from destroyers to fast-attack craft, greatly increasing their lethality.
These new designs, along with catamarans; faster, more capable destroyers; quiet, deadly submarines; and long-range anti-ship missiles are all locally designed. While initially using older foreign designs as templates, they have been steadily improved over time as Iran’s military-industrial complex matures.
It is often counterintuitive, but comprehensive sanctions against the country have meant Iran has had no choice but to design and build the weapons it needs to protect itself and project power in the region.
Caught up in the chicken-and-egg situation faced by all sides during a regional arms race, Iran has seen its neighbours increase defence spending and embark on crash rearmament programmes, triggering its increase in weapons manufacture.
Iran’s neighbours have looked on as Iran’s military capabilities have grown and increased their weapons procurement drives.
The IRGCN once solely focused on the Gulf but is now looking to project its naval presence beyond the Strait of Hormuz as it finds itself involved in conflicts beyond its shores.
Its focus on light, fast, heavily armed craft designed to swarm and overwhelm an adversary will now be supplemented with base ships that can reach out further, supplying military help and logistics to forces on land.
The IRIN now has bigger, better ships and submarines which will allow it to patrol the Gulf of Oman and conduct operations further from its own bases as it seeks to secure its trade routes and fend off potential enemies.