Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies

February 1, 2017

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile
  • Military


Office of Naval Intelligence

Executive Summary 
At the time of our first publication in 2009, Iran’s two navies were only a few years into a major reorganization, and each service was navigating through a period of considerable change. Now, nearly a decade following the reorganization, we have a better understanding of Iran’s ultimate intentions for the reorganization and clearer insight into how its navies are progressing during this time of transition. This new insight and understanding have made it even more necessary to consider and address each of Iran’s navies as distinct organizations with independent strategies, doctrines and missions. It is, in fact, a tale of two navies. 


Over the past several years, much of the world’s attention on Iran has been focused on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in relation to its nuclear program. During the same period of time, Iran staged a major naval exercise that blatantly featured attacks directed against a mock-up of a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Iran also employed its navies in an attempt to reinforce Huthi rebels in Yemen and to interdict the merchant vessel Maersk Tigris in the Strait of Hormuz. Each of these events serves as a reminder that Iran’s navies are capable of churning the waters of the Persian Gulf and beyond. As Iran continues to hone its naval strategy and modernize its respective fleets, this capability will only improve, creating greater challenges to security in an already security-challenged region. 


National Defense Strategy
The main components of Iran’s defense strategy are ballistic missiles, naval forces, and proxies in the region. Each of these potentially provides the means to target Iran’s regional neighbors, or military forces based or operating in the region. When specifically focused on the Strait of Hormuz or oil infrastructure in the region, they provide Iran with the means to impact the global economy, in general, as well as the economies of those countries reliant on oil or natural gas from the Middle East, in particular.


Naval Capabilities
Currently, Iran uses a dual-track approach to advance modernization, which leverages its foreign acquisitions to improve its domestic production capabilities. Using this approach, Iran acquires foreign technology, reverse-engineers it, and then incorporates it into its own production initiatives. Iran has assimilated this methodology to satisfy its requirements across the spectrum of naval warfare including platforms, weapons, and sensors. 


IRGCN Principal Naval Capabilities
Driven by an asymmetric doctrine--based on speed, numbers, stealth, survivability, and lethality-- the IRGCN focuses its naval acquisitions along four primary capabilities: fast attack craft, small boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and mines. Considering it began as a fleet of lightly-armed small boats in the 1980s, IRGCN acquisitions in each of these four core areas have greatly improved its capabilities. Individually, these improvements cannot compete with western technology. However, taken together, they could create an overall capability that is greater than the sum of its parts, particularly when employed in tight operational spaces like the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. 


Coastal Defense Cruise Missiles
The tight water space in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as vast miles of coastline, both provide optimal firing positions for coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs). 

Accordingly, as one of the primary layers of defense for both the IRGCN and the IRIN, Iran has invested heavily in procurement, research, and production of multiple anti-ship missile systems, over the past several years.

Iran’s initial experience with CDCMs was gained with the Chinese-built Silkworm missiles during the Tanker War. Over the past decade, Iran has expanded its inventory by developing a domestic production capability for the Chinese C802 and C700 series cruise missiles. The C802 derivatives are known as Noor, Ghader, and Ghadir, with ranges reportedly of 120 km, 200 km and 300 km, respectively. In addition to the development and deployment of these systems, Iranian CDCMs continue to evolve in all categories including, range, speed, flight profile, autonomy, seeker, and destructiveness.


Antiship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM)
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Forces (IRGC ASF) controls Iran’s ballistic missile forces. The IRGC ASF has advertised several ballistic missile variants with the capability to target ships. The variants include the Khalij-e Fars, Hormuz-1 and Hormuz-2 missiles, which reportedly have a range of 300 km and are equipped with terminal seekers, one of which is anti-radiation homing (ARH).

With each new domestic program, Iran gains valuable technical experience, advancing its defense industries in support of its military objectives. While still lagging considerably behind leading nations, Iran’s defense industries have made recognizable strides in equipping its navies and other military services, with a broad range of capabilities for the maritime environment. As Iran incorporates these capabilities and develops proficiency in using them, the IRGCN and IRIN will be more capable of fulfilling their respective missions. For any navy, training, exercises, and operational proficiency are critical elements to achieve that objective.  


Read the full report here.