Leadership: Iran Heads For The High Seas


December 29, 2010: For the last two years, Iran has had one or more of its few surface warships working with the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. This is 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). Perhaps encouraged by this, Iran recently 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.

Technically, the Iranians can pull this off, but just barely. And this is mainly because, in the last decade, Iran has been building some larger warships. Not really large, but big enough to take trips across the Indian Ocean. Last February, for example, the Iranian Navy sent its first domestically built destroyer, the Jamaran, to sea. This was the "destroyer" that Iran announced it was building three years ago. In fact, it's a 1,400 ton corvette. The new ship has a crew of 140, and is equipped with anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-ship weapons. At the moment, the Jarmaran seems to be filled mostly with hope and press releases.

The Iranian navy could certainly use some new warships. Currently, the only major warships it has are 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 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 several older North Korean mini-subs as well, some of them built in Iran. Or so it is said.

All that's been heard of from Iran's naval shipbuilding facility at the Bushehr shipyard are reports of labor problems. There have been strikes and lockouts, and 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 new Jamaran has Chinese C802 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.

A more appropriate high seas warship, although less impressive looking, is the Russian built Kilo class subs Iran has. This is a 30 year old design that first entered service in 1982. So far, 49 have been built, 42 are still in service and more are under construction. It may be an old design, but it is mature and has been updated with modern electronics and quieting technology (that makes it more difficult to detect under water.)

Iran received three of these boats in the 1990s. The Kilos weigh 2,300 tons (surface displacement), have six torpedo tubes and a crew of 52. They can travel about 700 kilometers under water at a quiet speed of about five kilometers an hour. Top speed underwater is 32 kilometers an hour. Kilos carry 18 torpedoes or SS-N-27 anti-ship missiles (with a range of 300 kilometers and launched underwater from the torpedo tubes.) Kilos can stay at sea 45 days at a time. It can travel at periscope depth (using a snorkel device to bring in air) for 12,000 kilometers at 12 kilometers an hour. The combination of quietness and cruise missiles makes Kilo very dangerous to American carriers. North Korea, China, India, Indonesia, Romania, Algeria, Vietnam and Iran have also bought Kilos. The main reason for purchasing Kilos is that they cost about half what equivalent Western subs go for.





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