What a Fake Aircraft Carrier Reveals About How Iran Plans to Take on the US

 In Sea, Iran, Air, Forces & Capabilities, N11
  • Iranian mil­i­tary exer­cis­es in the Persian Gulf in late July fea­tured a mockup air­craft car­ri­er, which appeared to be a repli­ca of a US Navy Nimitz-class air­craft car­ri­er.
  • The exer­cise, and its appar­ent ref­er­ence to the US Navy, comes amid height­ened ten­sions between the two coun­tries, and the maneu­vers on dis­play reflect­ed how Iran would take on the US in a real war.
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Last Monday marked the start of “Great Prophet 14,” the latest mil­i­tary exer­cise by Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.

It includ­ed rocket and mis­sile launch­es, anti-air­craft fire, drone attacks, and ship maneu­vers, cul­mi­nat­ing in an attack a barge designed to look like a US Nimitz-class car­ri­er.

Footage showed the mock car­ri­er car­ry­ing fake air­craft and being hit by a mis­sile fired from an under­ground launch­er. Divers attached limpet mines to its hull, armed speed­boats cir­cled it, and com­man­dos fast-roped onto its deck from a heli­copter.

Iran mockup aircraft carrier Strait of Hormuz

An Iranian fast boat, top left, approaches a mock aircraft carrier built by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, July 26, 2020.
Maxar Technologies via AP

The drills come amid height­ened ten­sions between Iran and the US.

In the years since President Donald Trump with­drew from the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 and tight­ened sanc­tions, Iran has attacked and threatened tar­gets across the region.

Tensions peaked in January, when the US killed the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force in a drone strike. In response, Iran fired cruise mis­siles at Iraqi mil­i­tary bases, injuring 110 US troops.

While no direct action has occurred since then, this week’s drill shows Iran is still prepar­ing for a larger con­flict and that its sur­round­ing waters will be the main venue for it.

A tale of 2 navies

Iran mockup aircraft carrier Bandar Abbas

A mockup of an aircraft carrier built by Iran, in Bandar Abbas, February 15, 2020.
Maxar Technologies via AP

Iran’s waters are divid­ed between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. They are con­nect­ed by the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 21 miles wide at its nar­row­est point and is the busiest ship­ping lane for petro­le­um in the world. The region as a whole has over half of the world’s proven crude oil reserves.

Defense of Iran’s waters is divid­ed between the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ naval com­po­nent, the IRGCN. The IRIN is part of Iran’s reg­u­lar mil­i­tary while the IRGCN answers to the IRGC, an inde­pen­dent mil­i­tary force respon­si­ble for guard­ing Iran’s polit­i­cal system and fur­ther­ing the ideals of the Islamic rev­o­lu­tion.

Despite being Iran’s offi­cial navy, the IRIN’s exclu­sive areas of oper­a­tions are lim­it­ed to the Gulf of Oman and Caspian Sea. The IRGC, on the other hand, is solely respon­si­ble for defend­ing the Persian Gulf, although both forces share respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Strait of Hormuz.

The US estimates the IRGCN’s size at 20,000 mem­bers, while the IRIN num­bers 18,000, total­ing about 6% of Iran’s esti­mat­ed 610,000-strong active mil­i­tary force.

Conventional and asymmetrical warfare

Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat

An Iranian speedboat.
Vahid Salemi/AP

The IRIN oper­ates about 112 ves­sels, mostly small coastal patrol and sup­port ships, armed with impres­sive anti-ship mis­siles.

Additionally, the IRIN oper­ates about 19 sub­marines. Three are Russian-built Kilo-class attack subs pur­chased in the 1990s. The rest are mini sub­marines, like the Ghadir-class, a copy of North Korea’s Yono-class, that can launch tor­pe­does and mis­siles. Ghadirs can oper­ate in shal­low water and their size can make them dif­fi­cult to detect.

Despite being small in size and number, the subs are suited for the defen­sive con­flict sce­nar­ios Iran faces.

The IRGCN relies almost entire­ly on over 1,000 small ves­sels known as fast attack craft (FAC) and fast inshore attack craft (FIAC). These are essen­tial­ly speed boats armed to the teeth with rock­ets, mis­siles, and heavy machine guns and are meant to swarm enemy sur­face ships with heavy fire.

The IRGCN has a rep­u­ta­tion for being extreme­ly hard­line and aggres­sive, even among the IRGC.

“They are more for­mi­da­ble and more zeal­ous in terms of reli­gious and rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals,” Farzin Nadimi, an expert at The Washington Institute spe­cial­iz­ing in defense affairs for Iran and the Persian Gulf, told Insider.

Iran navy submarine Bandar Abbas mini sub

Iranian sailors on the Ghadir-942 submarine in southern port of Bandar Abbas, Iran, November 29, 2018.
(Rahbar Emamdadi/Mehr News Agency via AP)

That ded­i­ca­tion would put the IRGCN front and center in a con­flict in the Gulf.

“They see them­selves at the front row, as the edge of the sword of resist­ing against the ‘Great Satan’ of the United States. They see them­selves as the grand guar­an­tors of secu­ri­ty of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz,” Nadimi said.

This mil­i­tary struc­ture enables Iran to fight both con­ven­tion­al­ly and asymmetrically. Iran’s arsenal of ship- and shore-launched cruise mis­siles, FACs and FIACs, naval mines, sub­marines, drone air­craft, anti-ship bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and air-defense sys­tems would create a no-go zone all over the Gulf.

In the event of war, the IRIN and IRGC would most likely imme­di­ate­ly set out to mine the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. Thousands of Iran’s esti­mat­ed 5,000 mines would be deployed as quick­ly as pos­si­ble.

Iran would then turn to its most effec­tive weapon: bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Iran’s mis­sile arsenal is the largest and most diverse in the Middle East, with some report­ed­ly able to reach as far as 2,000 kilo­me­ters. Iran could launch hun­dreds or thou­sands of mis­siles at mul­ti­ple tar­gets across the region.

Iran strait of hormuz exercise on replica US aircraft carrier

Iran's Revolutionary Guard fires missiles during a military exercise, July 28, 2020.
Sepahnews via AP

Because the Persian Gulf is such a con­fined area, the mis­siles may arrive in min­utes, and the sheer number of them could over­whelm anti-mis­sile defens­es.

Obvious tar­gets would be US mil­i­tary bases, espe­cial­ly the US Central Command for­ward head­quar­ters at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and the Fifth Fleet and US Naval Forces Central Command head­quar­ters in Bahrain. Iran is also likely to strike other Gulf state mil­i­taries, par­tic­u­lar­ly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But Iran’s tar­gets would not just be lim­it­ed to mil­i­tary facil­i­ties. They would likely aim at every­thing of value: oil wells, tankers, refiner­ies, and even royal yachts — all to make any con­flict as costly as pos­si­ble by desta­bi­liz­ing the region and the global econ­o­my.

“They will pick a fight all over the region to not only sat­u­rate the enemy, but sat­u­rate the inter­na­tion­al media with bad news,” Nadimi said.

While the IRGC and IRGCN set about con­trol­ling the Persian Gulf and clos­ing the Strait of Hormuz, the IRIN will sortie into the Gulf of Oman to face any US or coali­tion ships that may come to strike back.

No easy victories

Strait of Hormuz Iran military navy

Iranian military personnel participate in war games near the Strait of Hormuz, December 30, 2011.
REUTERS/Fars News/Hamed Jafarnejad

It is uncer­tain if Iran’s forces could suc­cess­ful­ly achieve such goals. As Nadimi noted, “how long they can sus­tain that depends on how much the other side is deter­mined to stop them.” If Iran “goes all the way,” the US and its allies will too, Nadimi said.

And the US and its allies have advanced capa­bil­i­ties of their own — most notably in naval and air­pow­er. The IRGCN’s swarm tac­tics will likely prove unsuc­cess­ful against a large and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly supe­ri­or flotil­la with air sup­port.

Regardless, any con­flict with Iran will be extreme­ly costly. The IRIN and IRGCN have been train­ing for this exact sce­nario for decades. They have a geo­graph­i­cal advan­tage, a capa­ble mis­sile arse­nal, ded­i­cat­ed sol­diers, and a number of prox­ies will­ing to create chaos in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like Iraq and Yemen.

And with the inter­na­tion­al arms embar­go on Iran ending in October, Iran may get access to more advanced weapon­ry and equip­ment from China and Russia.

“The IRGCN is dug in and will be a dif­fi­cult enemy to destroy.” Nadimi said. “It won’t be easy for the US to turn the tide.”

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