We would like to express our thanks to naval OSINT analyst H I Sutton, of Covert Shores, for his kind assistance with this article.
Illness is an odd thing. One rarely pays close attention to outside events unless those events have a direct and immediate impact on the ill person. In the case of your humble author, 2022 was a rough year. As a result, I completely missed this article when it came out, and didn’t think clearly about the implications of using larger vessels in a DIY Navy when that article was written.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…Consider this to be Part 2.
For small national navies, as well as “guerrilla” navies, Part 1 is still absolutely true: limited funds and resources limit options when building a naval force of any kind. However, for the nation-state that is in the “middle sea” [sic], so to speak, those have more options.
As described in a previous article, a nation desiring to construct a navy needs to first decide on exactly what kind of navy they need – not want, but need. To briefly recap, there are three basic choices: Blue, Green & Brown:
- A “blue” navy is basically the kind of navy used by the United States, Great Britain, and France, the kind of navy that Communist China aspires to: a naval force to maintain the “Sea Lanes of Communications” (the SLOC). This is the hardest kind of fleet to build, and far and away the most expensive.
- A “green” navy is mostly a coastal force, whose main job is to facilitate amphibious operations, i.e., landing troops ashore. Still expensive, but the better choice for nations like the Republic of the Philippines.
- A “brown” navy operates almost solely along rivers and close in to coastlines. These naval forces are comparatively cheap, but are very limited in range and capabilities, compared to the other two types of fleet.
Obviously, there is a good deal of overlap between the various types: brown and green navies complement each other well, where their environments meet. Likewise, green and blue navies can have a very great deal of overlap when projecting state power at a long distance. While there is little overlap between blue and brown fleets, blue water units can benefit from the lightweight/high-speed boats of the brown squadrons.
Iran, however, has taken the path of outside-the-box thinking to a different level.
Beginning in 2021, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commissioned the building of at least two “drone carriers,” former “Panamax” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panamax] box-carriers [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Container_ship] refitted to operate combat and surveillance drone aircraft, “Shahid Mahdavi” and “Shahid Bagheri”. In form, the two ships initially looked like their recent sister ship, the “forward base ship” “Makran”.
Unlike Makran, however, Mahdavi and Bagheri are apparently focused solely on drone craft operations. The Bagheri is being fitted with an overhanging deck extension on their port (left) side. While visually similar to US Navy carriers of the last c.65 years, this seems to have been designed in order to launch and recover heavier drone craft on an angle, from port to starboard, due to the container ships’ superstructure at the aft (rear) end, which cannot be easily modified. This seems to be confirmed, as Iranian state news is showing pictures of a “ski jump” being installed on the Bagheri. The “ski jump” flight deck has been used to aid in flight operations since at least the 1970’s, when the UK’s Royal Navy used them for their “Harrier carriers”, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, during the Falkland Islands War of 1982.
This modification opens the possibility of launching much heavier drone craft, capable of carrying much heavier ordnance than other drones. While certainly incapable of handling heavier, manned craft, this bodes ill for anyone Iran chooses to focus on.
There has not been a direct, “force on force”, aircraft carrier battle since WW2; the aforementioned Falklands campaign nearly resulted in one, but that turned out to be a false start. While there have been thousands – if not tens of thousands – of carrier-launched fighters and bombers attacking land targets and land-based aircraft, these were not “carrier” battles, in the naval sense. The concern, here, the nightmare of rational naval planners since the 1970’s, has been the “improvised aircraft carrier.” The naval dimension of the Falklands War, once again, informs on the problem.
When Argentina invaded the Falklands, Great Britain immediately assembled an amphibious task force for “Operation Corporate”. Like most post-WW2 navies, Great Britain had comparatively few naval supply and support ships in its fleet, and had to resort to “STUFT” (Ships Taken Up From Trade), civilian vessels requisitioned into military service as auxiliary vessels to carry supplies, and occasionally troops.
One of these vessels was the SS Atlantic Conveyor.
A combination roll-on/roll-off container ship, Atlantic Conveyor was used primarily to ferry aircraft for the British invasion force. When the vessel arrived in the combat area, the Harrier ‘jump jets’ she carried were launched from her, and flown off to the aircraft carries. On May 25th 1983, during the ferocious air attacks by Argentine air forces during the Battle of San Carlos, Atlantic Conveyor was struck by two Exocet anti-ship missiles, killing twelve of her crew, including her captain; gutted by fires, the ship sank three days later, while under tow, joining several other vessels in becoming the first Royal Navy vessels lost in action since World War 2. The loss of all of the remaining aircraft aboard (all of them helicopters) would severely hamper British operations ashore for the remainder of the campaign.
But note the first part of that story: Atlantic Conveyor was able to at least launch manned fighter jets while underway. What the Royal Navy – long starved for funding for ships and manpower (HMS Hermes was scheduled for decommissioning – without a replacement – when the invasion happened) had built a “jack carrier”, effectively equivalent to a WW2 “escort carrier”, at very short notice, with the potential – had she not been destroyed – of being able to conduct combat operations at some level.
This capability had been recognized with helicopters for many years, but this was the first time it had been proven valid for manned combat jet aircraft. Although conjectural, this is likely the real reason why the US and UK defense establishments buried the Harrier’s proposed follow-on aircraft, the supersonic version of the Hawker Siddeley P.1154, cancelled in 1965. No serious attempt was made to perfect a supersonic-capable VTOL until the introduction of the F-35B by the United States in 2015. As there are few carriers in the world capable of operating conventional jet aircraft, this ensured the naval dominance of those states that possessed these massive and expensive weapons.
Now, however, we find ourselves in the 21st Century, and technology has significantly progressed, across the board. Long-range drone craft, capable of carrying heavy ordnance, and armed – presumably – with anti-ship missiles and capable air- and anti-ship missile defenses, have now changed the structure of naval “battle calculus.” This is because the world’s second- and third-line military forces have relearned the fundamental truth of national military strength: it doesn’t matter how strong a nation’s military is overall, but how much of that force can be brought to bear against a particular target.
Iran’s naval deployment of ersatz carriers may seem laughable to many in first-line forces, but no one in second- or third-line navies are laughing. Iran has demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of worldwide naval cruises and deployments, and while their carriers and other vessels almost certainly stand no chance against a US or UK task force, they are more than a match for most of the other navies in the world. This is especially true for their “forward base ship” concepts, which are capable of deploying commando units via helicopter and speedboat, in a manner similar to first-line navies.
The deployment of these three vessels, the Makrun, Mahdavi and Bagheri, marks the first time since 1976 (in the days of the Imperial Navy of Iran) that Iran has had a truly capable naval arm for its military forces. Given the country’s friendly relations with Russia and Communist China, the possibility of joint fleet operations with at least China, if not Russia, along with their recent truce – brokered by the PRC – with Saudi Arabia, means than Iran can easily conduct far more complicated and wide-ranging power projection operations than they were able to in the past.
Much more worryingly, these ship commissioning’s are being done in public, and there are plenty of nations in the world at Iran’s tier who can take inspiration to boost their own naval capabilities.
The foundations of the world economy are set on the concept of the “freedom of the seas”, a concept enforced since World War 2 by the United States, Great Britain and France…but all three states are in financial trouble, and their navies are down to razor-thin numbers, in both ships and sailors. It will take careful, resolute and competent leadership to navigate through this.
The question is: is that leadership in place? Or even on the horizon?