Iran's Maritime Reach

Use of ASCMs, anti-ship mines or maritime improvised explosive devices against ships in the Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf sea ports of debarkation cannot be ruled out. In case the US forces decide to take military action then they are going to face an environment in the Gulf which will be dense with guided ballistic and cruise missiles, maritime swarming tactics, proxy forces equipped with guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles (G-RAMM), and the threat of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks.

Issue: 4 / 2013By Lt General (Retd) Naresh Chand

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Islamic Repub lic of Iran is an important country of Western Asia whose strategic location enables it to dominate the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Iran is one of the world‚s oldest civilisations and the eighteenth largest country in the world in terms of area. The Persian Constitutional Revolution established the nation‚s first parliament in 1906 which was within a constitutional monarchy. The UK and the US triggered a coup d‚état in 1953, resulting in Iran becoming a more autocratic country. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 led to the downfall of the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and establishment of the Islamic Republic. Iran is a founding member of the United Nations (UN), Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Organisation of Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Iran ranks second in the world in natural gas reserves (16 per cent) and third in oil reserves of 151.2 billion barrels. Within Middle East, it has the second largest oil reserves. It is OPEC‚s second largest oil exporter and is an energy superpower.

Iran‚s foreign relations follow the twin strategy of trying to remove all outside influence—western and especially the US, and also cultivating diplomatic relations with developing and non-aligned countries. Iran maintains diplomatic relations with almost every member of the United Nations except the US, since the Iranian Revolution, and Israel, which it does not recognise.

Iran‚s nuclear programme has become the bone of contention with the western world led by the US, who influenced the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran, thereby causing its economic isolation and hardship for its citizens. Hassan Rouhani has been recently elected as President of Iran and has taken oath of office on August 4. India was represented by its Vice President M. Hamid Ansari. Rouhani has replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was a hardliner. In his opening address, Rouhani stressed on moderation, dialogue with the West and end of the sanctions.

Defence Expenditure

Iran‚s military spending is the lowest in the Persian Gulf and it has been striving hard to develop its own military hardware due to the embargo on arms sale. However, Russia, China and North Korea still try to supply naval hardware to Iran. Iran‚s defence budget during 2008 was about $9 billion which does not include expenditure on Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps which was increased by 127 per cent in 2012.

Islamic Republic of Iran Navy

The Imperial Iranian Navy was renamed Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Traditionally, IRIN has been the smallest branch of the Iranian Defence Forces and is tasked with guarding Iran‚s littoral, which includes many ports and the coastal area. It also carries out anti-piracy operations when required. It is not really a modern navy having a few major surface ships like Alvand class frigates as well as the new Jamaran class frigates, which have been indigenously developed with modern communications, sensors and armament. It has three destroyers which are more than 50 years old. IRIN also has some corvettes armed with modern anti-ship missiles. IRIN is focusing on developing frigates, corvettes and medium to large fast boats capable of carrying modern precision antiship missiles. Some corvettes have been armed with Chinese C-802 missiles which are actually Yingji-82 or YJ-82 of Chinese origin. YJ-82 is an anti-ship missile which has a small radar reflection, sea skimming and effective anti-jamming capability and thus the missile is very difficult to locate and intercept. Its export name is the C-802. Various versions of the missile have ranges varying from 120-500 km. The IRIN is supported by Russian SSK Kilo attack submarines and mini-submarines. Air support for mine sweeping and antisubmarine is provided by helicopters like Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion minesweeper/heavy-lift transport helicopter and Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King anti-submarine warfare/medium-lift utility helicopter. IRIN wants to become a blue-water Navy but has been overtaken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, which is now primarily tasked with securing Iran‚s interests in the Persian Gulf region.

Iran’s Claimed Indigenous Development—Some Examples

Paykan missile boat: Iran has also developed a Sina class missile boat Paykan, which is similar to the French Kaman class which is equipped with four or two C802 SSM anti-ship missiles, one Fajr-27 76mm dual purpose gun and one 40mm anti-aircraft gun.

Hoot torpedo: Hoot supercavitation torpedo has been developed by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps which means whale in Persian. It travels at approximately 360 kmph which is much faster than a conventional torpedo. Experts believe that it has been reverse engineered from the Russian torpedo VA-111 Shkval and has been test-fired in 2006.

Thaqeb missile: Thaqeb, meaning Saturn in Persian, is an Iranian naval missile demonstrated during 2006, which can be fired both from surface and underwater. It is supposed to have a long range but details are not known.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy’s (IRGCN) primary mission is the security of the Persian Gulf. It has 20,000 Navy guards including 5,000 marines and 1,500 boats of all type which operate separately and also in conjunction with IRIN. The Revolutionary Guards’ Navy has on its inventory various types of watercraft like missile boats, torpedo boats and patrol boats. The boats are armed with missiles of Chinese origin but have been given Persian names. It has helicopters to provide air support. Many islands have been developed along the Persian Gulf to provide bases for the boats.

Iran and Persian Gulf

The Persian Gulf is located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. The Strait of Hormuz is a bottleneck which is only 56 km at its narrowest point. The Persian Gulf and its coastal areas are the world’s largest single source of crude oil and related industries. Al-Safaniya, the world’s largest offshore oilfield, is located in the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf was a focus of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War and again during Persian Gulf War of 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. A major portion of the world’s oil transits through the Strait of Hormuz to the open seas. Iran’s coastline runs nearly the entire length of the Gulf’s northern edge and has over 10 large and 60 small ports and harbours. The area is also dotted with many fishing villages which can offer excellent places for hiding small ships.

Iran’s A2/AD Strategy

The relations between the US and Iran have been historically strained since the ouster of the Shah and there seems no hope in the near future for its improvement. The situation also got more complicated as Iran is predominantly Shia dominated while most of the Arab states are Sunnis and supported by the west lead by the US. Both China and Iran are no match to the US, militarily and economically, and thus have tried to create ‘no-go’ zones in their respective maritime areas to curtail the US reach, with the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. Iran A2/AD strategy is an asymmetric “hybrid” that mixes advanced technology with guerrilla tactics to deny the US forces basing access and maritime freedom of manoeuvre. A2/AD is not merely a sea denial strategy but denial of crucial areas and involves naval power coupled with airpower integrated with air defences to maintain air parity or superiority over its territory and forces. Meanwhile, Iran is single minded in its pursuit of acquiring A2/AD and nuclear ballistic missile capability at any cost. According to the report published by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “Iran, in particular, has been investing in new capabilities that could be used to deter, delay or prevent effective US military operations in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s acquisition of weapons is to enable it to deny access to the Gulf, control the flow of oil and gas from the region, and conduct acts of aggression or coercion.”

The Iranian Navy has a very strong presence in the Persian Gulf with its naval bases strung all along the coast including a large naval air station and operational headquarters at Bandar Abbas. The Iranian Navy is reinforced by the IRGCN which has constructed outposts on islands close to the strait. The IRGCN has also built an elaborate network of tunnels and underground missile bunkers on these islands. Iran continues striving to improve its A2/AD capability with the support of China, North Korea and Russia. This capability includes ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced anti-ship mines and mobile antiship cruise missiles which can be fired from multiple surfaces like ship, land, submarines and high-speed boats. The scenario in the immediate future does not seem very threatening for the US as Iran has a long way to go before it can be taken seriously. But seeing Iran’s doggedness in the pursuit of improving its A2/AD capability to target shipping in the Persian Gulf and endanger oil and natural production in the region, it requires immediate prophylactic action by all the affected countries led by the US.

Iran has a geographical advantage which will allow it to achieve its aim of A2/AD with lesser resources. The Strait of Hormuz also is a formidable bottleneck. Iran’s strategy is to use multiple resources from land, sea and air. The use of anti-ship mines will slow down and disrupt movement of ships with little room for manoeuvre, thus making those easy targets for torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). Small craft will be used for suicide attacks with ballistic missiles threatening the forward US bases. With the further development of WMD by Iran, there is all likelihood of these being dovetailed into their military planning. Iran’s A2/AD strategy could be on the following lines:

Use of Small Craft and Mines

Iran’s hybrid strategy would continue at sea, where its naval forces would engage in swarming “hit-and-run” attacks using sophisticated guided munitions in the confined and crowded waters of the Strait of Hormuz and possibly out into the Gulf of Oman. Iran could coordinate these attacks with salvos of anti-ship cruise missiles and swarms of unmanned aircraft launched either from the Iranian shore or from the islands guarding the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s mine-laying capability (density per square metre) in the Persian Gulf is quite high which is being increased both by the Iranian Navy and IRGSN. Iran also plans to augment its limited number of specialised mine vessels with small craft, submarines, helicopters and even commercial vessels if required. The only way is to attack Iran’s mine laying resources before they become effective. Some out-of-the-box thinking by embarking small craft with missiles makes it a formidable weapon platform. IRGCN operates Iran’s entire fleet of missile craft which include Chinese-built Thondor (Hudong) class fast attack craft equipped with I-band search and navigation radars and armed with the C-801 and C-802 antiship cruise missiles. Supporting these are small patrol boats equipped with heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, antitank-guided weapons and man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or just small arms. Some of these small ones are difficult to detect except in very calm waters. The possibility of suicide attacks cannot also be ruled out.


Iran’s ASCM inventory includes a mix of old Western and Russian missiles, and missiles of Chinese origin like the Silkworm series. It is reported that Bandar Abbas is fortified by hundreds of ASCMs. Another Chinese example is the Sardine and its upgraded version, the Saccade (CS-802). The Sardine is the equivalent of French Exocet. Noor is Iran’s indigenously manufactured improved version of the C-802. These missiles are capable of being launched from a variety of platforms including aircraft and trucks. Iran also has an air-launched version of the C-801, installed on up to six old US-built F-4E aircraft. Iran continues to improve its ASCM systems.


Iran has also tried to improve its submarine capability and it has added three Soviet era Kilo submarines (Type 877 EKM) from Russia. Each submarine can operate up to six weeks and carries 18 torpedoes/24 mines. These submarines are likely to be located outside the Persian Gulf and once in the open sea, those can be used optimally for their capability. These submarines can easily threaten any ship leaving the Persian Gulf or provide a perimeter A2/AD perimeter defence as Iran did in 1987 by laying mines in the Gulf of Oman. These submarines are supported by Yono class midget submarines and Nahang class coastal submarines.

US Concerns

In July 2012, security analysts reported that Iran was acquiring new deployment capabilities, allegedly to strike at the US warships in the Persian Gulf in the case of an armed conflict, amassing an arsenal of anti-ship missiles while expanding its fleet of fast-attack boats and submarines. Use of ASCMs, anti-ship mines or maritime improvised explosive devices against ships in the Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf sea ports of debarkation cannot be ruled out. In case the US forces decide to take military action then they are going to face an environment in the Gulf which will be dense with guided ballistic and cruise missiles, maritime swarming tactics, proxy forces equipped with guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles (G-RAMM), and the threat of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks. The US has to be prepared for such a scenario.