Attrition: Iranian Naval Mishaps

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June 19, 2020: For the second time since 2018, Iran has lost a major ship to an accident. The latest incident, on May 10th, saw the 650-ton Konarak accidentally hit by a Chinese designed C-802 anti-ship missile fired from a nearby Iranian corvette. The Konarak was built in the Netherlands in 1988 as an unarmed naval support ship. With a crew of fifteen and top speed of 39 kilometers an hour, Konarak is used for tasks like transporting and setting up floating targets for test firings of anti-ship missiles. This was what it was doing in the Gulf of Oman when it was hit by the missile fired from the Iranian corvette Jamaran.

Konarak was apparently not far enough away from the smaller floating target when the Jamaran fired one of its Noor (C-802) missiles. The radar in the nose of the Noor detects the specific target to be hit and homed in on the larger Konarak instead of the smaller target the Konarak had carried and unloaded for the exercise. The missile obliterated the superstructure of the Konarak, killing 19 of the people aboard and wounding another fifteen. The additional people on the Konarak may have included specialists to unload and set up the target as well as observers and photographers to get a closer look at what happened to the target. The Konarak did not sink and the wreck was eventually towed back to a naval base where it remains. The Konarak experienced several other explosions after it was hit as the ship was also carrying recently installed weapons. To make matters worse, it took several hours for other navy ships to arrive to deal with the still floating Konarak and the wounded. Video later appeared on the Internet showing local fishermen showing up soon after the Konarak was hit to rescue the wounded from the water and the burning Konarak. The fishing boat was about 16 kilometers away and noticed the smoke from the burning Konarak.

Meanwhile, the government and navy leadership ordered all details of the incident kept secret. Anyone who was caught releasing details would be punished. That had the predictable result and details soon appeared on the Internet, posted by anonymous sources and including video of the fishing boat arriving first to render aid. That led to online and offline discussions and criticism of the government and navy leadership. This made the situation worse, which seems to be standard government procedure even though that is not the intent of the secrecy and threats. The government is out of touch with Iranians and situations like this are just another affirmation.

Konarak may also have had its crew size increased since a 2018 refurbishment that upgraded the engines and other equipment and added weapons; two C-704 anti-ship missiles and a 20mm autocannon. Technically this turned Konarak into a warship. The two missiles and the autocannon weighed less than two tons for a ship designed to carry 40 tons of cargo on deck. Konarak had earlier been equipped to carry up 90 troops over short distances.

Konarak was hit by an Iranian built version of the 650 kg Chinese C-802 subsonic anti-ship missile called Noor. Because this missile uses a small jet engine, it can travel at relatively low altitude for long distances, in this case, 170 kilometers, initially guided by an unjammable INS (Inertial Navigation System) to the general area of the target. Then the special hard-to-jam radar in the nose is used to spot and home in on a target. Iran had ordered 150 C-802s from China in the 1990s but the arms import sanctions on Iran halted deliveries after 60 had arrived. Apparently China allowed Iran to build a copy of the C-802. At the time the C-802 was new but it was older tech. The Noor has been illegally smuggled to the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon and more recently to Shia rebels in Yemen. Both of these groups have used the Noor against warships. In 2006 Hezbollah fired two against an Israeli warship but the Noor guidance system was jammed or defective and only clipped and damaged the Israeli ship. In the Red Sea, the Yemeni rebels have had more success, inflicting damage on cargo ships. One or two were fired at an American destroyer offshore, as part of an international blockade, but failed to hit because the destroyer's anti-missile defenses worked.

The two anti-ship missiles carried by the Konarak are later models called the Nasr-1. This is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-704. This missile uses a solid-fuel rocket and moves at a higher (but still-subsonic) speed than the Noor. Range is 35 kilometers although there is a version (C-705) with a more powerful jet engine (than Noor) with a range of 170 kilometers. The C-704/5 has a much-improved guidance system that can pick out and hit a specific type of ship. In 2011 Israel intercepted a ship trying to smuggle six C-705 to Islamic terror group Hamas in Gaza. Israel released many photos and details of the C-705. This missile got more unfavorable publicity when two of them failed during a demonstration for the president of Indonesia. The first one failed to launch on command but unexpectedly fired anyway five minutes later and did not hit the target. The second missile fired on command but failed during flight and also did not hit the target. China says it has improved the reliability of the C-705 and developed more advanced anti-ship missiles. China often develops new models quickly. For example, the C-704 entered service about six years after the C-802. Both are widely exported.

Iran also had problems with its locally built Jamaran class corvettes. The first Jamaran entered service in 2010 followed by Sahand in 2012 and Damavand in 2013. In 2018 Iran has lost its largest warship in the Caspian Sea, the 1,500 ton Damavand, to an accident. In early 2018 Damavand ran aground on rocks near a jetty protecting the harbor it was attempting to enter during bad weather. At first, Iran played down the severity of the situation but after a month it was clear the ship was badly damaged and probably unsalvageable. Iran insists it will repair the Damavand but so far that has not happened.

With the loss of the Damavand Iran has only two recently built large (over 1,000 tons) surface warships. The Damavand was the second of what was supposed to be a class of seven ships and took longer to arrive because it was built in a smaller Caspian Sea shipyard. A third, a slightly larger (2,000 tons), version of this type of ship, the Sahand, is listed as completed in 2012 but all that was completed at that point was the hull and superstructure. The Sahand was apparently completed in 2018, but not with all the weapons and equipment it was designed to have.

The first Jamaran is based in the Persian Gulf, with most of the Iranian Navy, which consists mostly of small coastal missile boats, small locally built submarines and lots of speedboats manned by fanatic members of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).

The Iranian navy could certainly use some new warships. Currently, the only major surface warships it has except for the Jarmaran and Sahand are three elderly British built Alvand class frigates (1,540 tons each) and two U.S. built Bayandor class patrol frigates (1,100 tons each). The 560-ton Government Yacht Hamzeh was also refitted as a warship by installing a 20mm autocannon, two machineguns, and four C-802 anti-ship missiles. Hamzeh is probably used for training new sailors to use weapons. Hamzeh is now the largest Iranian warship in the Caspian Sea. There are about fifty smaller patrol craft, ten of them armed with Chinese anti-ship missiles. There are another few dozen mine warfare, amphibious, and support ships. The three most powerful ships in the fleet are three Russian Kilo class subs. There are about fifty mini-subs, most of them built in Iran.

There are some serious quality problems with Iranian built warships, and not just because of budget problems and sanctions. Iran's naval shipbuilding facility at the Bushehr shipyard has lots of labor problems. That includes strikes and lockouts as well as complaints of poor designs and sloppy management. Iran has, for the last two decades, announced many new, locally made, weapons that turned out to be more spin than substance.

Iran does have commercial shipbuilding firms that produce merchant ships that are larger than destroyers. Thus, it was believed that Iran could build something that looks like a destroyer. The Jamaran (or Moudge) class ships have Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles, but a lot of the other necessary military electronics are harder to get and install in a seagoing ship. Iran has coped by using commercial equipment. This does not make for a formidable warship but does enable high seas operations.

Iran is trying to expand its growing (slowly) naval power on all its coasts (Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean). Thus since 2011, Iran has had one or more of its few surface warships working with the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. This was the first time since the 1970s that the Iranian Navy has conducted sustained operations outside its coastal waters. Despite their own Islamic radical government, the Iranian sailors have got along with the other members of the patrol, including the United States, which is officially the "Great Satan" back home. Encouraged by this, Iran announced that it would send more of its warships off to distant areas, mainly to show the world that Iran was a naval power capable of such reach. These voyages often ran into problems and the Iranians learned to send a resupply ship along that contained a large stock of spare parts and skilled ship techs to install them as needed.

The Jamaran class is the largest locally built surface warship in Iran and it was based on the British built Alvand class frigate (also known as Vosper Thornycroft Mk 5). The Jarmarans were described as “destroyers” when first announced (as under construction) in 2010. In fact, it's a 1,500 ton corvette. The ships have a crew of 140 and are equipped with anti-aircraft artillery in form of one reverse engineered Bofors 40mm clone and two Oerlikon 20mm cannons, two Fajr anti-air missiles (Iranian clone of the SM-1), anti-submarine weapons (six 324mm light torpedoes), and anti-ship missiles (four C-802s), in addition to a 76mm Fajr-27 double purpose cannon, which is an Iranian copy of the common OTO Melara 76mm cannon.

In 2014 the ships were modified with phased array radars, replacing terribly obsolete parabolic antenna radars, boosting their still modest air defense capabilities. The ships also have a small helicopter pad.

It wasn’t until November 2012 that Iran announced it was building the new and slightly larger and better equipped version of the Jamaran; the Sahand. This larger ship was supposed to be in service by 2015 but the collapse of oil prices halted that and it wasn’t until 2018 that Sahand was completed. There are four other Jamarans under construction but work appears to be stalled.

This was embarrassing because in 2012 the Iranians couldn’t wait to announce what a great ship the improved Jamaran would be. These announcements are seen as useful to cheer the population up. The Sahand, despite Iranian reports of being an improvement over the earlier Jamaran class corvettes, seems to be just another Jarmaran, just a bit larger.

A much larger new ship, a 7,500-ton destroyer was announced in 2013 but construction has not made much progress and even the press releases have dwindled. Again, it’s a matter of resources. The collapse of world oil prices in 2014, more than the numerous economic sanctions, crippled the expansion plans for the Iranian Navy. Most of the sanctions were lifted in a 2015 treaty but that has not helped the navy much because a lot of the additional cash went to prop up the Assad government in Syria and finance the pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen. Then the U.S. revived the sanctions in 2017 and that further depleted Iranian finances, leading to more cuts in defense spending.

What it comes down to is that the navy is not nearly as high a priority as the ground and air forces. Iran has never been a major naval power and that does not appear to be changing any time soon.

 


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