Attrition: Iranian Misadventures in Warship Construction

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December 20, 2021: In December 2021 commercial satellite photos revealed that an Iranian frigate, the Talayieh, had rolled over in a partially flooded drydock while under construction in the Persian Gulf Bandar Abbas ship yard. It is unclear what the cause of this mishap was or how much damage was done. The Talayieh is the fifth of seven planned Moudge (Mowj) class frigates to be built and appears, from the shape of its superstructure and earlier comments by Iranians, that it is an improved version of the Moudge with electronic intelligence collection capabilities.

Five months earlier the fourth Moudge, the Dena, entered service. Dena is described by Iran as a Light Frigate. By international standards these ships are heavily armed and haphazardly equipped corvettes. Iran plans to put seven into service and three more are under construction with uncertain service dates because of the difficulty in finding the needed warship components. Talayieh, before the recent mishap, was supposed to enter service in 2022. Now that will probably be delayed until 2023, or later, depending on what repairs or modifications must be made.

The first Moudge, Jamaran, entered service in 2010 after at least six years under construction. The second one, Damavand, entered service in 2015. This one was built in a Caspian Sea shipyard and took six years to complete. In early 2018 it ran aground while entering port in bad weather. Satellite photos showed it partially submerged. The ship was refloated and towed to a shipyard for repairs, where it was declared complete after 18 months. Despite that the ship is not yet back in service, or at least it has not been seen at sea. This may be due to problems with equipment damaged when the ship was partially sunk. Getting necessary electronic and mechanical components is always a problem when building these ships. For example, the third Moudge, the Sahand, entered service at the end of 2018 after eight years of construction efforts. This one was more heavily armed and equipped for long-distance voyages of up to 150 days if accompanied by a supply ship. To demonstrate this, in mid-2021 Sahand traveled to the Baltic Sea Russian naval base at St Petersburg, accompanied by a tanker/supply ship, to represent Iran at the 235th anniversary of the Russian Navy. This was mostly a publicity stunt.

It is unclear how long a Moudge class ship is under construction because Iran carries out a lot of this work in a shed, to protect the new warship from the elements during five or more years of construction effort. Iran now tries to keep quiet about warship construction efforts because of the unpredictable delays.

The five Moudge class ships built are each nominally armed with one 76mm gun, a 40mm anti-aircraft auto cannon or a 30mm autocannon CIWS (Close In Weapons System) with anti-missile capabilities. Several 20mm autocannon are also carried. There are four SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles), four anti-ship missiles, six 324mm (anti-submarine) torpedoes and room for one helicopter, usually an elderly American Bell 214, used for ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare.) Crew size is about 140 and max speed is 55 kilometers an hour. Length is at least 95 meters (311 feet), with some variation.

All the weapons are made in Iran, usually copies of Western, Chinese, or Russian models. The electronics (radars, sonars, and electronic warfare) are also locally made. Because of the long build time, each Moudge is somewhat different, depending on recent improvements or availability of weapons and electronics. The superstructure also evolves. Like everything else in Iran, engineers and manufacturers are constantly dealing with the need to obtain and smuggle in key components, especially for electronics. Engines for these ships are adapted from those used in commercial vessels.

Iran has had little access to foreign shipbuilders since the 1980s, and by 2000 had developed the capability of building their own warships. These are crude but they float and their weapons generally work. Construction takes place in the commercial shipyards that Iran has developed since the 1990s to repair existing commercial ships and build smaller tankers and cargo carriers. This eventually led to warships, which is a common trend for nations seeking to build their own. Before the monarchy was overthrown in 1979, Iran bought modern warships from foreign suppliers, a practice still common among Persian Gulf oil states. Only the UAE has developed some warship construction capability, mainly as part of its effort to prepare the economy for less dependence on oil income.

The locally built Iranian surface ships are small craft, no larger than 2,500-ton frigates, while the submarines are largely of the miniature variety. Construction of warships is a sideline in the commercial shipyards and only a few warships are being built at a time. Construction is also proceeding slowly so that, apparently, mistakes in the previous ships can be discovered and fixed.

Currently, the only major surface warships it has are four of the new corvettes/frigates (2,000-2,500 tons each), three elderly British built frigates (1,540 tons each), and two U.S. built corvettes (1,100 tons each). There are about fifty smaller patrol craft, ten of them armed with Iranian versions of Chinese anti-ship missiles. Chief among these is the Nasr 1. There are a few dozen mine warfare, amphibious, and support ships. The three most powerful ships in the fleet are three Russian Kilo class subs. Most of the foreign built ships are serving way past their retirement date. This includes the Kilos and most of the fifty mini-subs, most built in Iran. There are several thousand marines and twenty or so aircraft and helicopters.

The Iranian Navy is led by officers who think along more conventional lines than their government. Western ship commanders generally have good professional relationships with their Iranian counterparts, even when the Iranian Navy is under orders to give Western ships a hard time. If an Iranian captain reports by radio that “he has his orders” it means he will follow through with whatever bizarre actions he has been ordered to carry out but will be apologetic about it to his foreign peers.

The Iranian Navy has fewer options than the Revolutionary Guard, simply because the navy has fewer and larger (easier to spot and hit) ships. Since 2005 the navy has generally been stationed on the Indian Ocean and the Caspian Sea, while the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) navy has been given responsibility for the Persian Gulf and protecting all those Iranian oil facilities along the coast. The Revolutionary Guard is there more as a threat to Arab oil fields and tankers because the Arabs and their Western allies have control of the air and can destroy Iranian oil fields and tankers that way. What the IRGC hopes to do at sea is create as formidable a threat as possible, even if this threat, in the form of suicidal speedboats and missile boats backed up by shore-based anti-ship missiles, is short-term. In the long run, any Iranian naval power is toast.

In Iran, the IRGC has its own “Navy of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”. The main job of the IRGC is to protect the religious dictatorship from the Iranian armed forces and a growing number of angry Iranians. As a result, the IRGC Navy has about as many personnel (23,000), including marines and naval aviation, as the Iranian Navy. The IRGC force has about 40 large missile and torpedo boats (100-200 tons each) and over a thousand smaller craft, many of them just speedboats with dual outboard engines and machine-gun mounts.

The IRGC builds its own small boats and regularly holds highly publicized ceremonies to induct new boats into the IRGC Navy. Iran recently put another 110 of these smaller craft into service. These boats were described as faster, with some overhead protection for the three-man crew and the overhead appears to carry several small unguided or rockets or what Iran described as guided missiles. These appear to be ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) with a range of over 3,000 meters. These damage larger ships but won’t sink them unless they are carrying extremely combustible cargoes, like refined petroleum products, some chemicals or liquified natural gas.

The IRGC operates most of the 1,500 small boats used by the naval and coast guard forces. These small craft spend a lot of time at sea and wear out or are lost to accidents or bad weather. Thus, the need for large numbers of new ones. Because of this, opponents have had to develop two sets of tactics for dealing with Iranian naval forces. Iran’s two navies are very different from each other. The traditional navy exists alongside the less well equipped, but more fanatical, forces of the IRGC. Both forces are equipped, trained, and led very differently. The IRGC force is sworn to defend the religious dictatorship while the regular navy strives to defend Iran.

 


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