Cid Standifer is a freelance reporter, web designer and translator based in Arlington, Va. She has written for Military Times, Inside Washington Publishers and the Roswell Daily Record.
In an apparent reaction to the recently concluded multinational minesweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance before the United Nations, Iran released film and video of its latest unmanned aerial system (UAS). Iran calls the new UAS Shahed-129 (or Witness-129). The Guardian news website provided the following transcript of Iranian television coverage of the Shahed-129 flight demonstration: “The new drone . . . can carry out combat and reconnaissance missions with its 24-hour non-stop flight capability.” The transcript goes on to report, “home-made aircraft is capable of hitting targets at a distance of 1,700-2,000 kilometers… [and] can be equipped with electronic and communication systems including cameras which can capture and send live images.”
While the Shahed-129’s flight performance claims may be exaggerated, the system nonetheless will join several other indigenously manufactured Iranian unmanned aircraft. For U.S. sailors operating in the Persian Gulf sightings of Iranian-built drones are a common. The fact is, Iran has been manufacturing reconnaissance drones since the 1980s, when they began building and flying the Mohajer systems during the Iran-Iraq War. The Mohajer was followed by a line of indigenously built systems such as the mass produced Ababil. The smaller Ababil UAS has been exported to Hezbollah forces, who used it against Israel in the 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon. More recent reports indicate that Syrian government forces may be using this system to locate and target rebel forces in Syria. The Ababil also made headlines in February 2009 when an Iranian controlled drone was shot down by a US F-16 after making an incursion into Iraqi airspace. So clearly then the, Shahed-129 is just the latest in a long line of Iranian built systems that Iran routinely operates. By all appearances, robotic systems have been part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s military arsenal since the early days of the revolution.
Sea mines are historically the most dangerous threat to naval vessels. Since World War II, 15 U.S. Navy ships have damaged or destroyed from mines. Compared to torpedoes, small boat attacks and missiles, mines have caused more than four times more damage to U.S. Navy ships. Though the threat is well known, the mine countermeasure enterprise has suffered in recent years. Specifically, the U.S. Navy’s Avenger class minesweepers have had systemic maintenance and performance shortfalls. In the last year, the U.S. has moved the bulk of its minesweepers to its Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and this month has started the largest mine countermeasure exercise of its kind in the last several decades. International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 12 is currently ongoing, a partnership between the U.S. and almost 30 other countries. The U.S. Naval Institute spoke with Rear Adm. Ken Perry on Sept. 21 about the exercise, the health of the minesweeper fleet and what the exercise has to do with Iran.
Q: Could you give us a run down of the exercise?
A: The purpose is to demonstrate interoperability with our international partners to demonstrate our commitment to freedom of navigation and our ability to defend it against mine threats in particular. Our ability to conduct mine counter measure operations and mine clearance operations effectively. We had a very successful conference, a symposium, over the last couple of days it included naval leaders from the participating countries as well as industry representatives officials and other stake holders in freedom of navigation and maritime commerce and mine clearance and mine warfare capabilities. So with that symposium successfully conducted we transferred to the harbor phase where we have conducted a number of shipboard orientations for the participants including senior naval officials aboard the ships.
We are sailing now toward the at-sea maneuvers where we will conduct a number of at mine counter measure evolution involving aircraft and surface ships and under sea forces, divers unmanned and under water vehicles.
As the United States continues to help Israel improve its missile defense shield due to growing fears of possible attack by Syria and Iran, claims by Iran that it has developed its own ‘carrier-killer’ that can evade U.S. Navy defense systems to hit ships in the Persian Gulf are drawing skepticism from naval experts.
As first reported by Jane’s Defence Weekly, Iran released images of a test last month in which the Khalij Fars antiship ballistic missile was launched and struck a moving target. The missile is purported to be a smaller version of China’s modified Dong Feng 21, which was quickly dubbed the ‘carrier killer’ after it was revealed in a March 2009 report by the U.S. Naval Institute.
Like the Dong Feng 21, the Khalij Far is alleged to be able to track moving ships and then take a flight path that attacks though a “hole” that is not covered by the U.S. air defenses, designed to guard against antiship missiles that approach from more typical altitudes and angles.
If real, the Khalij Fars would pose a significant threat to U.S. ships in the waters near Iran. While the missile’s touted range of 185 miles falls well below the Dong Feng 21 reach of 1,240 miles, it would be enough to strike anything in the Strait of Hormuz within a few minutes.
An infographic published on the official Hezbollah website on 21 July illustrated an attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier using the Kahlij Fars and other missiles in the Iranian arsenal.
When an obviously lost tourist approached Arthur Rubenstein on a Manhattan street and asked how to get to Carnegie Hall, the piano virtuoso replied: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So it is for the U.S. Navy and partner navies’ mine countermeasures (MCM) forces operating in the Arabian Gulf in mid-2012. Hosted by the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT), the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 (IMCMEX 12) is an international symposium and associated afloat exercise of mine countermeasure capabilities, scheduled for 16 to 27 September at multiple locations in the USNAVCENT area of operations. MCM assets from more than 20 countries on four continents will participate, making it the largest MCM exercise to date.
The operation is “a defensive exercise aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in international waterways in the Middle East,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said. Washington has warned Tehran not to mine the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which the Islamic republic has threatened to do unless international sanctions against its nuclear program are pulled back.
Although IMCMEX 12 is taking place in the Arabian Gulf, it won’t be conducted in the Strait of Hormuz, said Lt. Greg Raelson, Commander Fifth Fleet public affairs in a 20 July telephone interview. “The exercise focuses on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.”
A version of this story originally appeared in June. It has been updated by the author to reflect recent events.
Iran threatens to mine the Strait of Hormuz, petroleum markets react, world economies take notice, and more U.S. and allied naval forces are sent to the region, upping the ante for Tehran and the U.S. Navy.
Iran’s top naval commander, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, late last year warned that closin the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” The Obama administration publicly dismissed the threat as “aber rattling,” but also privately informed Tehran that attempting to close the strait would trigger a U.S. military response.
“The laying of mines in international waters is an act of war,” Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said in a Feb. 12 interview.
“We would, under the direction of the national leadership, prevent that from happening. We always have the right and obligation of self-defense and this falls in self-defense. If we did nothing and allowed some mining,” he noted, “it would be a long and difficult process to clear them.”
Whether an “act of war” or not (the international rules — admittedly more honored in their breach than observation— do allow for peacetime mining of high-seas areas under certain strict conditions. Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to U.S. and international sanctions over its nuclear program.
Reports in early June indicated that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in the early stages of developing nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. The initial response from many observers, myself included, was to concentrate on the mechanics. Iran has no tradition of building submarines, apart from a few mini-subs and, apparently, plans for a 1,000-ton “semi-heavy” boat. Iran’s navy thus has no working Nautilus onto which to retrofit a nuclear plant. There are no shortcuts.
Iranian Kilo-class Nahang-class diesel submarine
Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has no tradition of naval nuclear propulsion. Combine the naval-architecture challenge with the nuclear challenge, and Tehran’s entry into the SSN club confronts steep engineering and financial barriers. Considering these barriers and the time it will take to surmount them, it appears whimsical for Iranian officials to assign much priority to an SSN program.
On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that it appeared far-fetched to think China would invest lavishly in refitting an unfinished, 20-year-old hulk of an aircraft carrier it had purchased for scrap. And yet it did. Today the ex-Varyag plies the sea as a training platform for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. We kid ourselves if we project our own assumptions and cost-benefit calculations onto foreign nations with very different histories, customs and worldviews.
Tension levels between Iran and the U.S. are high after Iranian officials voiced threats to cut off the Strait of Hormuz with sea mines in December. As the U.S. and Israel become more vocal about limiting Iran’s ability to develop its nuclear program, Iran has threatened to disrupt the oil supply that passes through the strait. From miniature submarines, to mines and the U.S. Navy’s response what follows is an analysis of the threat Iran could potentially pose to merchant and naval vessels. ~Editor, Sam LaGrone
View Iranian Navy in a larger map
A U.S. Naval Institute overview of Iranian naval forces and capabilities and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Information from the upcoming Combat Fleets of the World 16th Edition, Jane’s World Navies, the U.S. Navy and globalsecurity.org.
Icons from mapicons.nicolasmollet.com
“Any ship can be a minesweeper –- once,” goes the old naval joke, but top American commanders in the Middle East are not laughing. Amid the roller coaster of tensions with Iran and a new high-level order to confirm that it can “shoot straight,” the Navy is beefing up its mine warfare capabilities in the Persian Gulf.