Murphy's Law: The Unsinkable Iranian Aircraft Carrier

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July 16, 2020: Iran has repaired its six-year-old replica of an American Nimitz Class aircraft carrier. Originally built in 2013-15, the unpowered mockup of the Nimitz hull and flight deck which also had several replicas of American carrier aircraft on the deck. The target barge was built using the materials technology used to build the many Iranian off-shore oil platforms. In short, there was a shell with a metal lattice underneath. Parts of the outer shell could burn, but basically the target barge was built to survive a lot of hit from missiles and bombs, remain afloat and be towed back to port. That’s what happened to the 2015 target barge but nothing was done with the beat-up barge until early 2020 when work quietly began on refurbishing the barge for what appears to be another round of training exercises/propaganda photo-ops.

The barge originally showed up for a three-day Iranian naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz (the entrance to the Persian Gulf). The February 2015 naval exercise involved over a hundred coastal missile and torpedo craft carrying out mass attacks on a replica of an American nuclear carrier. Also involved were cruise missile attacks from nearby Iranian naval bases and at one point, a group of Iranian commandoes were landed on the carrier deck by helicopter, then removed the same way before the main missile attacks began. At the conclusion of the “attack”, there was a large explosion on the “carrier” and the Iranians declared a victory. The propaganda film of the exercises explained that American carriers carry large quantities of aircraft fuel and ammunition for the aircraft as well as the ship.

The Nimitz replica was still afloat and it was towed back to shore where it was expected to be repaired. But nothing happened for five years. The beat-up barge could still be seen from the air, as evidence that it had not been scrapped either. Now the barge is back in action.

During the barge exercises most of the Iranian attackers were small, fast boats between 8 and 27 meters (26 and 88 feet) long and armed with two torpedoes or two locally made anti-ship missiles, or both plus some automatic weapons. The fast attack boats are nothing new for Iran, but the carrier target was. While the target barge was based at Bandar Abbas, the main Iranian naval base right on the Strait of Hormuz, American carrier task forces rarely enter the Gulf. Amphibious carriers (each carrying a battalion of marines as well as helicopters, landing craft and a few F-35B stealth fighters) do enter the Gulf. These sometimes stay at the U.S. Navy facility in the UAE. The largest local U.S. naval facility is outside the Gulf in Oman, where the ports of Duqm and Salalah can already handle very large commercial ships and, due to a 2019 agreement, this now includes nuclear carriers and their escorts. This means even less reason for nuclear carrier task forces to get anywhere near the Strait of Hormuz, except to take part in a major attack on the naval bases at Bandar Abbas and Jast.

While the 2015 Iranian exercise made for great theater, it was seriously lacking as a useful training exercise. The U.S. and other navies in the region have long known of the Iranian mass use of heavily armed speedboats and created countermeasures to deal with it. The Iranian training exercise seemed to ignore all that and had the participants carry on like countermeasures were minimal and not very effective. Perhaps that is realistic as it seems to treat the simulated attack on an American carrier as a suicide mission that, if pursued vigorously in the name of Allah, would end with the spectacular destruction of the kaffir (non-Moslem) warship.

Iran has done some strange things but the “barge” was a surprise. Starting in 2013 Iran was observed (from the air and space) building a two-thirds replica of an American Nimitz class aircraft carrier. It was basically a barge with the carrier deck and “island” up top. Included was the number (68) of the USS Nimitz painted on the replica. U.S. Naval intelligence officers who observed the Iranian vessel take shape via satellite photos called it the Target Barge, in the belief that it might be used by Iranian aircraft or boats to practice attacking a full-size Nimitz. Iran has done this before, building mockups of ships and aircraft. Apparently, the U.S. analysts were correct because the practice attack took place, was thoroughly captured on video by the Iranians and shown endlessly on Iranian TV.

Back in 2014 some Iranian media opined that the Target Barge was being built as a prop for a movie about Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile fired by an American cruiser in 1988. If that was the case then was a very expensive prop, but it may still be used as one.

That said, the USS Nimitz was not anywhere near Iran when Flight 655 was shot down. Nimitz was then (July 1988) in Washington State preparing to head out on a deployment. Nimitz did not arrive off Iran until October 1988. So maybe the movie involves some kind of payback scenario. That goes over well with Iranian audiences as does any video showing things (preferably non-Iranian) getting blown up. No indications of what the theme of Target Carrier Part Two is all about.

 


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