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Iran Dreams Of Naval Power

July 24, 2022
Via Iranian media.

This month saw the latest demonstration of the Islamic Republic’s sea power albeit in a curious exercise. At least three ships and a diesel-electric submarine sailed together and launched various drones. The occasion brought fresh evidence of the new vertical take off models now in service with the naval branch. (The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC have their own naval drone inventory, most of them fixed wing.) A surprising addition was a landing craft employed for launching combat drones–these included at least one surveillance drone, the Arash loitering munition, the Ababil drone, and the jet-powered Karrar.

The landing craft with hull number 514 belonging to the IRIN had up to 16 visible fixed wing UAVs arranged on its deck. Each model was launched by a small booster until–in the case of the Ababil and the Arash–their propeller engines activate in mid-air and continue their flight. To help the reader recognize the Arash, which is a loitering munition with an explosive charge loaded inside its airframe, it has a gray paint scheme, a delta wing configuration and a single tail fin. Iran’s military-industrial sector mass-produces several loitering munitions, including a model that resembles the IAI Harop from Israel, and the Arash is too large for being containerized. This particular feature, excess size and weight, is what sets Iranian loitering munitions apart from those made in other countries which emphasize portability and are loaded in containers.

The delta wing Ababil, which is one of Iran’s oldest drone models, can be used as a loitering munition if a guidance system and a warhead are installed in its airframe. Apparently, the IRIN are taking the IRGC’s lead by using the Ababil in this role. Now as for the Karrar as a naval combat drone it’s unclear if the models flown off the ship in mid-July were combat drones with an external payload or Karrar’s rebuilt as loitering munitions. The latter variant means the Karrar’s blur the line separating drones and anti-ship missiles. A flaw in the concept of using landing craft as floating drone carriers is the IRIN haven’t adapted its preferred models for storage aboard the ship. This means they must be loaded while at port using cranes and none can be kept in the hull owing to space constraints. Unless, of course, they are disassembled and taken below deck. Having containerized launchers, such as those used for holding anti-ship missiles, is a practical space saving measure but none have been spotted on any Iranian naval auxiliary ship or surface combatant.

During the exercise where the “drone carrier” participated another landing craft had Ababil and Arash loitering munitions on its deck while a patrol craft launched a new vertical take off surveillance drone. The tactic of drone swarms launched at sea does forebode destructive air attacks if the targets have inadequate air defenses and countermeasures. At the same exercise a diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine did sail above the waterline for its crew to test another handheld fixed wing drone. The overall state of Iran’s naval branches have improved in the last five years. While its ships might be old and suffer from reliability issues the navy and the IRGC’s own surface fleet have significant firepower. The vast inventory of missiles they employ, whether on fast attack craft or on mobile coastal defense units, are a blatant threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Like the rest of its military-industrial sector Iran has a state-owned naval shipbuilding capacity but its output is modest. The results are inarguable, however, and since 2019 lightweight coastal patrol vessels and fast attack craft have been commissioned in large numbers. A scaled down “destroyer,” a minesweeper, a 600 ton submarine and a new class of hovercraft have all been launched in the same time span. There’s also a proven capacity for assembling large transports, albeit by repurposing the old hulls of container vessels, and a whole range of naval weapons are manufactured by the Defense Industries Organization (DIO) and its subsidiaries. Despite this progress the naval branches of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states enjoy a technological edge over the Iranians.

The commercial output of Iran’s shipyards are more inspiring as they have launched 100,000 ton container vessels and tankers.

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