Surface Forces: It Is What Iran Says It Is


December 13, 2020: In November Iran presented its new warship, the Shahid Roudaki. Not exactly a warship but a RO-RO (Roll on-Roll Off) freighter thought to be a ship named Galaxy F that was built in 1992 and until recently operated in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Atlantic. 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 use of cargo ships to carry lots of weapons is not new and the United States actually followed through on some of these ideas. For a decade, from 1994 through 2004 American political and military leaders seriously proposed the construction and use of an “Arsenal Ship”. Plans for an all-missile firing surface ship came in 1994, as a class of 6 vessels, each armed with 500 long-range missiles. Weaponry would have included a version of the Tomahawk cruise missile designed to destroy armored vehicles using guided submunitions. The ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) and navy Standard surface to air missiles would also be loaded in the ship's vertical launch system. Arsenal Ships would forgo a massive superstructure embedded with sensors and fire control systems, relying on Aegis cruisers and destroyers for command and control, and missile guidance. In this the Arsenal Ship would be similar to the aircraft carrier, which also relies on other warships for support. The Arsenal Ship would be built to commercial standards and would require a smaller (about 50 personnel) crew. Many ideas which the Navy eventually incorporated in future warships were first proposed for the Arsenal Ship program. This included crew rotation (“sea swapping”) to keep the Arsenal Ship deployed near distant trouble spots as much as possible, save for routine maintenance. Reduced manning techniques would also have allowed the ships to operate with much smaller crews. Arsenal Ships were to use many countermeasures to defend it in shallow waters. Counter flooding would be used off an enemy shore, causing it to settle low in the water, reducing its radar signature. A double hull to prevent sinking would absorb mine or torpedo strikes.

Supporters promoted the arsenal ship as a complement to America's expensive and over-worked aircraft carriers. Not surprisingly it was cancelled in 1997 for budgetary reasons, and opposition from the carrier lobby in the Navy. The idea was revived again during the 2000 presidential elections as part of the new administration's plan to beef up the offensive power of the Navy. As often happens after elections, this plan seems to have been forgotten, though the concept is refusing to die out completely.

One Arsenal Ship concept did come to life. Four Ohio class SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs submarines), which were scheduled for retirement, were instead converted into arsenal ships of a sort. Their spacious missile tubes, which formerly carried ballistic missiles, were converted to carry with 154 smaller Tomahawk cruise missiles. In late 2007 the first of four Ohio class SSBNs entered service as SSGNs (non-ballistic missile nuclear subs). The first conversion took four years. The other three boats entered service over the next two years. The conversion, which included a scheduled mid-refueling of the nuclear reactors, cost about the same (nearly a billion dollars each) as the proposed converted freighters servicing as Arsenal Ships armed with 500 missiles. The four SSGNs had several advantages over the original Arsenal Ship proposal. While SSGNs only carried 154 missiles, there was also space (living, working and training) for 66 commandos (usually SEALs) and their equipment. Two of the 24 ballistic missile tubes were devoted to use by special operations via the SEALs or other special operations personnel, plus underwater equipment. This included gear that enabled the SEALs to leave the submerged SSGN and get to shore undetected.

The idea of converting ballistic missile subs, that would have to be scrapped to fulfill disarmament agreements, had been bouncing around since the 1990s. After September 11, 2001, the idea got some traction. The navy submariners loved this one, because they lost a lot of their reason for being with the end of the Cold War. The United States had built a powerful nuclear submarine force during the Cold War, but with the rapid disappearance of the Soviet navy in the 1990s, there was little reason to keep over a hundred U.S. nuclear subs in commission. These boats are expensive, costing over a billion each to build and over a million dollars a week to operate. The four Ohio class SSBN being converted each have at least twenty years of life left in them.

The idea of a sub, armed with 154 highly accurate cruise missiles, and capable of rapidly traveling under water, ignoring weather, or observation, at a speed of over 1,200 kilometers a day, to far-off hot spots, had great appeal in the post-Cold War world. The ability to carry a large force of commandos as well was also appealing. The Ohio SSGNs already carried a wide variety of electronic sensors and other data collecting gear. In one SSGN you had your choice of hammer or scalpel. Tomahawks continued to undergo upgrades. More capable cruise missile designs are in the works as well. The four SSGNs are due for retirement before the end of the decade and no replacement is planned. Instead, the new Virginia class SSNs have more cruise missile tubes added. So far the Ohio class boats were only used once for a mass launch of missiles. This was off Libya in 2011 when an Ohio launched 93 cruise missiles to suppress the Libyan air defense system so a multi-national air campaign could begin to prevent the Libyan military carrying out to massacre rebels and civilian supporters seeking to over the Kaddafi dictatorship.

The Iranian Arsenal Ship is a very different creature and 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 Shahid Roudaki could be used as another cargo ship or be deployed offshore with its deck full of weapons and armed speedboats ready to be lowered into the water and put to use.

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, except for the locally built 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 also the largest Iranian warship in the landlocked 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 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 major naval power and that does not appear to be changing any time soon.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close