Naval Air: Iran Builds Aircraft Carriers


February 19, 2023: For the first time since 2020 Iran has been spotted, via commercial satellite photos, building a new major warship. Iran is always building new small craft, some of them armed with anti-ship missiles but most of them much smaller and armed mostly with an aggressive attitude. The new ship under construction in the Bandar Abbas shipyard (on the Straits of Hormuz) carries only a few manned aircraft (helicopters) and a lot of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), particularly the kind used as cruise missiles. In that sense this is a unique use of naval aviation. This is not a ship purpose-built as a carrier but the Perarin, a former container ship built in 2000. As a container ship could carry 3,280 TEU (20 foot containers). Perarin is 240.2 meters (788 feet) long and 32.2 meters (106 feet) wide with a draught of 7.7 meters (25.25 feet). That means the ship will run aground if water depth is not over 7.7 meters.

Perarin has a DWT (deadweight tonnage) of 41,971 tons. Deadweight tons measure the actual weight of everything carried in the ship, including supplies, miscellaneous equipment, fuel, and even crew, expressed in metric tons: As a rule, 1,500 deadweight tons translates into about 1,775 measurement tons. Warship tonnage is measured differently, in terms of "displacement tons." Each 35 cubic feet of sea water displaced by the vessel is a "displacement ton." As that volume of sea water actually weighs approximately one metric ton, displacement gives a rough indication of the actual weight of the vessel. In other words, this container ship is large enough to be converted into an aircraft carrier.

Such conversions are nothing new and were carried out in a big way during World War II when the United States and Britain built about 135 escort carriers (CVEs), often by converting existing cargo ships or tankers. CVEs were typically around 150 meters (500 feet) long, not much more than half the length of the fleet carriers (CVs) of the same era, but were less than a third of the weight. A typical CVE displaced about 8,000 tons, compared to almost 30,000 tons for a full-size fleet carrier. The aircraft hangar typically ran only a third of the way under the CVE flight deck and housed a combination of 24–30 fighters and bombers organized into one single "composite squadron". By comparison, a late model Essex-class CV fleet carrier could carry 103 propeller driven aircraft. All carriers built since World War II were built as carriers, not converted cargo ships or tankers. The post-war carriers were designed to handle fewer but larger jet=propelled warplanes that operated at higher speeds even when landing.

Converting a container ship to a carrier is difficult because the superstructure (crew quarters, work spaces and offices) stretches across the ship and is over a hundred meters from the rear of the ship. Using a container ship as a carrier means building an odd shaped flight deck. Reconstruction of the Perarin began about nine months ago and recent satellite photos show an angled flight deck that partially overhangs the hull. The area behind the superstructure is apparently being used as a helicopter landing pad with anti-aircraft guns mounted at the rear of the ship.

The new carrier will carry and operate several types of UAVs, including the Shahed 129A. Iran has about three dozen of these and while they look like an American Predator, they are smaller (less than half a ton) and the tech was obtained from reverse engineering an Israeli Hermes 450 that crashed largely intact in a place the Iranians could recover it. The 129A entered service in 2013 and is not used as a cruise missile, like the smaller (less than a quarter ton) Shahed 136 used in Ukraine as a cruise missile. The 129a can carry four Sadid guided bombs. Each of these weighs 34 kg (75 pounds) and has a max range of six kilometers. Accuracy is (at several meters) not as precise as missiles like Hellfire which can hit within a meter of the target, Sadid was proved effective when used in Syria.

Operating relatively large UAVs like the 129A from a carrier deck may lead to a few accidents and possible loss of some 129As. This is less of a problem with the smaller UAVs used as cruise missiles on one-way missions. Most of the UAVs carried by the new carrier will be these smaller models. They are built in large quantities and Iran assisted the Russians in building a factory in Russia to produce several types of Iranian UAVs. The larger UAVs are often built in smaller quantities, often no more than 30 or 40. The exceptions are particularly successful models, like the more than 200 Mohajer-6s built since 2018.

Iran’s UAV carrier can carry over a hundred UAVs if most of them are the smaller models used as cruise missiles. The larger UAVs are essential for reconnaissance and surveillance and training operations can be monitored because they have to be held at sea under realistic (windy with rough waters) to be effective. Some Western navies operate large UAVs off carrier decks. Turkey has built an amphibious assault ship with a carrier deck designed for operating large, jet powered, UAVs. The only problem with the Iranian carriers is that they are easy to spot and track by nations (like Israeli) with their own surveillance satellites and warplanes carrying long-range air-to-surface missiles that can be used against ships. Israel also has submarines operating in he region.

Iran appears to be converting a second ship (a tanker) into a carrier and apparently has ambitious plans for these new ships. Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, made so largely by the mischief Iran creates, and the neighbors, especially the wealthy Arab oil states are heavily armed and well trained to handle whatever Iran aims at them.

Iran has not built many large warships, mainly because of the expense and lack of suitable shipyards. The last large warship built, in 2020, was the Shahid Roudaki. This was not exactly a warship but a RO-RO (Roll on-Roll Off) freighter built in 1992. RO-RO means the ship has ramps that make it easy for vehicles to get on or off the spacious deck and spaces below the deck. The 150 meter (452 foot) long and 22 meters wide Galaxy F/ Shahid Roudaki can carry up to 536 cargo containers in the hold and on deck. This ship is elderly by commercial shipping standards and Iran could have bought it cheap, gave it a new paint job and filled a deck with various types of rockets, air-defense systems and UAVs, plus one elderly (1970s vintage) Bell 412 helicopter.

The Iranian RO/RO warship actually belongs to the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) Navy, which does not have any large combat ships, just armed speedboats (over a thousand) plus five amphibious ships (three LSTs and two smaller LCTs) and three cargo ships. The 12,000-ton Shahid Roudaki has not seen any action and was apparently built to test new concepts, including the conversion of larger ships into aircraft carriers.

The actual Iranian Navy maintains a force of conventional warships, but not as many as it would like. Currently, the only major surface warships it has, are three 1,500-ton frigates built in Britain during the 1970s. More recently (between 2010 and 2021) Iran built four 1,500-ton frigates. There are three older (1960s) corvettes (under a thousand tons), two from America and one from the Netherlands.

There are about fifty smaller patrol craft, ten of them armed with Chinese anti-ship missiles. There is 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 which produce merchant ships that are larger than destroyers. 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). 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 containing a large stock of spare parts and skilled ship techs to install them as needed.

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 significant naval power and that does not appear to be changing any time soon.




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