Analyzing Iran’s Claimed 112 New Naval Vessels
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Navy (IRGC-N) announced that it had received 112 new fast attack boats on May 28. Using satellite images, and poring over photographs of a parade that unveiled them, I have been counting and identify what they got.
99 boats. minisubs and flying boats were on static display. The XLUUV was also shown.
H I Sutton (Includes material © CNES 2020 / PLEIADES satellite imagery | Acquired through ShadowBreak Intl)
The first observation is that there were possibly only 100 vessels on display. At least there were only 99 on the parade ground, plus one more in the water (the XLUUV, see below).
The craft included 9 missile boats. These were made up of four Chinese-designed ‘C-14’ catamarans and one North Korean-derived ‘Zolfaqhar,’ plus four of a new type. The new model is very similar to the Zolfaqhar but smaller in every respect. All of these types carry light anti-ship missiles and are much smaller than the equivalent boats in other countries. This emphasizes swarm tactics and action against civilian targets such as tankers.
The most significant new type is actually a single prototype of a robotic mini-sub. This is termed an Extra-Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV) in Navy parlance. It is much larger than most UUVs in service worldwide although similar to the latest Boeing Orca XLUUV entering service with the U.S. Navy, and Manta entering service with the Royal Navy. It is almost certainly considerably less advanced than either of those projects, but that might be a strength as well as a weakness. Having XLUUVs could pave the way for the IRGC to gain new ways to conduct covert operations in the Persian Gulf.
Other unusual underwater craft on display were two swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs). These are wet submarines meaning that the crew has to wear diving gear to operate them. In some respects there are similar to the SEAL Delivery Vehicles in service with the U.S. Navy SEALs, but much less capable. The IRGC-N model is actually a smaller version of the Al-Sabehat 15 SDV which in service with the Iranian SBS (Special Boat Service). Like most of the types displayed, it is actually not new.
There were a total of 38 gun boats with multiple-launch rockets. The tactic would be to drive alongside a tanker and fire them into the superstructure. Some of the RIBs also had rocket launchers. And there were 10 smaller interceptor boats armed only with machine guns.
Thirty-two of the boats were rigid-inflatable boats (RIBs). The types seen, some armed with machine guns and rockets, are often associated with the Sepah Navy Special Forces. They would likely be using in boarding operations, such as seizing a tanker.
The remaining boats were five patrol boats of an unidentified type. These were covered by tarpaulins, but from their outline appeared similar to the smallest missile boats.
The most exotic item in the list were three Bavar 2 wings-in-ground-effect (WIG) flying boats. Iran introduced this type in 2010. These tiny planes are designed to fly so low that they benefit from a peculiar aerodynamic effect which reduces drag. They are so small however, and unarmed, that it is not clear what their military value is.
Having looked at the evidence, my suspicion is that while some of these of these vessels are newly built, and most are newly delivered, very little was actually new in capability terms.
Calling these new vessels “warships” would be a stretch, but in the world of asymmetric warfare, Iran has a massive fleet of useful vessels. The IRGC-N has used these flotillas to harass and threaten shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. In April they were shown acting aggressively around U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships. Those incidents, which the U.S. 5th Fleet described as “dangerous & harassing” involved some of the exact types of boat in the parade.
So while the parade may not be as ‘new’ as the propaganda implied, it does represent a significant investment in existing capabilities.