Iranian Ghadir-class submarines are unveiled during a ceremony in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas in August 2010. (AFP/Getty Images)
DUBAI — Despite limited capabilities and lacking in modernization, Iran has always been seen as the major naval threat in the Arabian Gulf region.
Experts agree this is due to its ability for irregular warfare and to threaten, intimidate and conduct asymmetrical operations and wars of attrition.
According to the January “Gulf Military Balance” report by Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iran is sometimes described as the “Hegemon of the Gulf.” But it is a comparatively weak conventional military power with limited modernization since the Iran-Iraq War.
“It depends heavily on weapons acquired by the shah. Most key equipment in its Army, Navy and Air Force are obsolete or relatively low-quality imports,” he wrote.
Cordesman, however, highlighted that Iran is proficient at irregular warfare.
“It has built up a powerful mix of capabilities for both regular and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] forces to defend territory, intimidate neighbors, threaten the flow of oil and shipping through the gulf, and attack gulf targets,” he wrote.
“It has a dedicated force to train and equip non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and Shiite extremists in Iraq — potential proxies that give Iran leverage over other states.”
Matthew Hedges, a military analyst based here with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, added that the Iranian support of non-state actors such as Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen are some of the leading threats in the region.
“The Iranian Revolutionary Guards [Corps] threaten every state in the region,” he said. “The IRGC possess mini-subs and are a constant menace to not only the UAE Navy, but to all naval trade passing through the Strait of Hormuz as they are particularly hard to trace. There have been numerous unconfirmed reports that Iranian midget subs have been spotted within a number of the regional ports, something which is particularly worrying for the entire [Gulf Cooperation Council] region.”
In November, gulf naval commanders stated that the IRGC mini-subs are a major danger in the gulf’s littorals.
“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,” UAE Navy Chief Rear Adm. Ibrahim Musharrakh told the Gulf Naval Commanders Conference on 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,” he said.
The Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard Corps have launched three classes of submarines, two of which are small subs, since 2007. The programs, however, have been secretive, and limited information has been released 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 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 also is referred to as a subclass 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 also is 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 IRGCN.
NTI’s report on “Iranian Submarine Capabilities,” released in July, states the SDVs, due to their limited endurance and payload, are primarily used for mining, reconnaissance and special operations, and are restricted to operating in coastal waters.
Col. Yousif al-Mannaei, deputy commander of the Bahrain Naval Operations Center, explained the need 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,” he said. “At this point, the exchange of information and intelligence sharing, as well as the formation of a database, is vital.”
According to Michael Connell, director of Iranian Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, Iran has two independent naval forces with parallel chains of command.
“The two navies have overlapping functions and areas of responsibility, but they are distinct in terms of how they are trained and equipped — and more importantly, also in how they fight,” he wrote in an article for the United States Institute of Peace. “The backbone of the regular Navy’s inventory consists of larger surface ships, including frigates and corvettes and submarines.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy is generally considered to be a conventional “green water” Navy, he wrote, operating at a regional level, mainly in the Gulf of Oman but also as far out as the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
“The Revolutionary Guard’s naval force has a large inventory of small fast-attack craft, and specializes in asymmetrical, hit-and-run tactics; it is more akin to a guerrilla force at sea,” Connell wrote. “Both navies maintain large arsenals of coastal defense and anti-ship cruise missiles and mines.” ■