Eyeing Gulf Shipping, Iran’s Mass Producing Submarines

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Eyeing Gulf Shipping, Iran’s Mass Producing Submarines

An Iranian admiral says Tehran is mass producing light submarines, possibly for the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran is steadily increasing its ability to indigenously produce different kinds of submarines, some of which would likely play an important role in any Iranian effort to close down the Strait of Hormuz.

In an interview with the semi-official Fars News Agency this week, Admiral Khordad Hakimi, commander of the Iranian Army’s 4th Naval Zone in the Caspian Sea, said that Iran is mass producing light submarines and has begun constructing medium submarines.

Although Iran is well known for grossly exaggerating its military advances, these statements seem on the mark.

The Islamic Republic of Iran first became interested in acquiring submarines after it had numerous surface vessels sunk by the U.S. Navy during the Tanker War in the late 1980s. Realizing the futility in taking on the USN directly, Iran embraced an asymmetric strategy. Submarines are one component of this, as are its mine-laying capabilities, anti-ship cruise missiles and fast-attack speedboats and other small craft, which it could use in swarming tactics.

With regards to submarines, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Iran purchased three 877EKM Kilo-class (Tareq-class in Iran) diesel-electric submarines from Russia, reportedly paying US$600 million per vessel. These were commissioned by Iran between 1992 and 1996, and have been renamed Tareq-class submarines by Iran’s Navy.

Iran’s Tareq-class subs displace around 3,900 tons when submerged, and were designed by Russia for anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare, according to Naval Technology. They reportedly have six 533-millimeter tubes, and are capable of carrying either 18 torpedoes or 24 mines.

In reality, the utility of the vessels for Iran’s Persian Gulf operations is limited, as the shallow depth of the sea means they can only operate in about one-third of it. The water’s high salt content also hinders their ability to use passive sonar to locate other ships without being detected. 

In November 2007, Iran launched the lead ship of its Ghadir-class midget submarines. These currently form the backbone of Iran’s submarine fleet in the Gulf. Iran claims that the vessel was indigenously built, although many analysts believe it is derived from North Korea’s Yono-class submarine. Iran is now believed to operate about 20 of the 120-ton vessels, which are almost certainly what Hakimi was referring to when he said Iran is now capable of mass producing light submarines.

The Ghadir-class sub has two 533-mm tubes for firing torpedoes, is capable of laying mines and, according to Iranian media outlets, could be used to transport and insert special forces into enemy territory. At the time of the lead ship’s launch in 2007, an Iranian naval official was quoted as saying, “If the enemy makes a mistake, he will receive such a powerful second strike that he won't be able to stand up.”

This is not precisely how Iran would use the vessels according to Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, who previously served as an officer in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, with postings in the Fifth Fleet.

Harmer tells The Diplomat that by Western standards, Iran’s Ghadir-class subs are “very small, very short range, with minimal capability.” Nonetheless, the submarines serve Iran’s purposes well, he adds, explaining:

“The quietest submarine in the world is one that rests on a sandy seabed. That is how the Iranians would use the Ghadir – get it out of port, sink to the bottom of the shallow Persian Gulf, rest on the sandy bottom, and wait for a target to come to it.”

In doing so, Iran would be seeking to avoid the U.S. Navy’s formidable ASW capabilities, according to Harmer.

“The Iranian submarines are very low quality, but if they put their submarines out into the Persian Gulf and put them on the bottom, just resting there, it will be very difficult for us to find them. As long as a submarine is not moving, it is not putting out any ambient noise. If it is not putting out ambient noise, the only way to find it is with an active sonar. Our best active sonar detection ranges for a static target resting on the bottom are maybe 2,500 yards.”

Thus, hunting Iran’s subs would require coming into close contact with them, unless they fired a torpedo, in which case they “would be immediately detected and completely vulnerable to counterattack.” In light of this, Harmer points out that Iran’s submarine doctrine rests on deterrence. If deterrence fails, Iran’s subs would in effect become “suicide vessels.”

Iran’s ability to threaten shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, which 20 percent of the world’s oil travels, is one of the three legs of its deterrent-based military doctrine. The midget submarines play a large role in Iran’s effort to convince the U.S. and its allies that it poses a credible threat to the strait. In principle, the Ghadir-class submarines, used as Harmer explained, could be effective in disrupting shipping. Besides being able to lay mines (Iran has other ships for this), Iran could exploit the narrow shipping lanes and limited routes in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf by pre-positioning subs to attack commercial vessels.

This would require using the submarines as “suicide vessels” however, and probably could only be maintained for a limited period of time, given the likely scope of the USN’s response. Were Iran’s submarines to pursue offensive action, the U.S. would be able to call on its Gulf Cooperation Council and NATO allies in responding to the threat, according to Harmer.

Still, it’s worth noting that the Fars New Agency article this week in which Hakimi discussed Iran’s ability to mass produce light submarines concluded by reaffirming that Iran has the capability to close the strait, although many experts doubt this.

Whatever the extent of the threat of Iran’s current midget submarines, Tehran is clearly playing a long game when it comes to its budding underwater fleet, as will be discussed in a post next week.