Gulf Menace: An Iranian Ghadir-class mini submarine moves into the Arabian Gulf from the southern port of Bandar Abbas last November. The head of the United Arab Emirates' Navy said Iran's mini subs pose an imminent threat to maritime security in the region. (Agence France-Presse)
ABU DHABI — Iranian midget submarines are an imminent threat to maritime security in the Arabian Gulf, and regional naval leaders are looking for immediate options “within reach” to counter the threat.
That means acquiring anti-submarine weaponry in the short term and new submarines in the longer term, said Rear Adm. Ibrahim al Musharrakh, commander of United Arab Emirates (UAE) naval forces.
“Anti-submarine operations are causing a real challenge to our units in the Arabian Gulf waters due to the small subs that are being used in shallow waters, which creates a challenge for sonar systems to detect them,” Musharrakh told the Gulf Naval Commanders Conference here Nov. 6. “Furthermore, the merchant traffic creates clutter and noise that diminishes the capability of submersible devices to spot and helps the mini subs to operate without being spotted.”
The Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard Command have launched three classes of submarines, two of which are small subs, since 2007. The programs, however, have been very secretive and limited information has been released on them by the Iranian naval command.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit nuclear watchdog, three Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines were commissioned from 1992 to 1996. They are called Tareq-class subs in Iran.
Iran reportedly paid US $600 million for each boat, and they are all based at Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz. Two of the Kilo-class submarines are operational at any one time and are occasionally deployed in the eastern mouth of the strait, the Gulf of Oman or the Arabian Sea.
However, the real threat is from the smaller submarines deployed in 2007. According to the NTI, that’s when a wave of deployments began of small Ghadir-class and Nahang-class midget submarines for use in shallow coastal waters.
NTI reports that the number of operating Ghadir-class submarines ranges from 10 to 19.
The Ghadir-class is also referred to as a sub-class of the Yono class, suggesting that the submarines may be based on North Korean technology, although the level of North Korean involvement is unknown, the organization said.
The midget subs are operated by both the Iranian Navy and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). Their operational capabilities include firing torpedoes (both the Ghadir and the Nahang class have two, 533mm tubes), laying mines for anti-shipping operations, as well as insertion of special forces into enemy territory. Iran is also experimenting with wet submersibles. The Sabehat-15 GPS-equipped two-seat submersible swimmer delivery vehicle (SDV), designed by the Esfahan Underwater Research Center, has undergone testing with both the Iranian Navy and the IRCGN.
Due to their limited endurance and payload, NTI’s report on Iranian Submarine Capabilities released in July states that the SDVs are primarily used for mining, reconnaissance and special operations and are restricted to operating in coastal waters.
Musharrakh stated that, despite the information collected, there remains a lack of intelligence.
“The Arabian Gulf’s natural incline and the navigation of large marine vessels on certain routes would make it very hard for conventional and mini submarines to operate in it,” he said. “However, they still present a clear danger to units operating in the gulf, infrastructure and merchant traffic.”
“We need accurate intelligence on the capabilities of these small boats, their operations, areas they are deployed and how they are operated as well as their weaknesses,” he added.
Col. Yousif al Mannaei, deputy commander of the Bahrain Naval Operations Center, echoed Musharrakh’s call for more intelligence collection.
“As we all know that the sea is very vital for our well being and the world economy, the air supremacy and surface supremacy has been achieved,” he said. “However, we have no subsurface superiority in the Arabian Gulf waters.
“It is a real threat, and the [Gulf Cooperation Council] really understands that and are pursuing ways to counter that; at this point, the exchange of information and intelligence sharing, as well as the formation of a database, is vital,” he said.
Musharrakh said many options are available in the long term, including the acquisition of a submarine fleet.
“There are many different options for combating the threat of submarines in the region, for building the capacity and the capability to acquire submarines is something that is still under process and will take a long time.” He stressed that the threat is imminent and could strike at any moment.
“What we need is something within reach that we can use to counter the threat now; in the long term, you will probably see naval forces in the region acquiring submarines,” he added.
The UAE Navy has ongoing development programs of unmanned surface vessels, among others, but Musharrakh told Defense News that, until now, no defense contractor has presented a clear and viable solution to the threat.
“USVs have not yet proven themselves as viable and effective solutions to combat midget subs,” he said. “What we need are ships with a crew and capability to follow and track these ships, and capable of using the next-generation sonar that can spot them,” he told Defense News. ■