Military personnel place a flag on a submarine during the Velayat-90 war… (Stringer/Iran/Reuters )
Iran is rapidly gaining new capabilities to strike at U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, amassing an arsenal of sophisticated anti-ship missiles while expanding its fleet of fast-attack boats and submarines, U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts say.
The new systems, many of them developed with foreign assistance, are giving Iran’s commanders new confidence that they could quickly damage or destroy U.S. ships if hostilities erupt, the officials say.
Although U.S. Navy officials are convinced that they would prevail in a fight, Iran’s advances have fueled concerns about U.S. vulnerabilities during the opening hours of a conflict in the gulf.
Increasingly accurate short-range missiles — combined with Iran’s use of “swarm” tactics involving hundreds of heavily armed patrol boats — could strain the defensive capabilities of even the most modern U.S. ships, current and former military analysts say.
In recent weeks, as nuclear talks with world powers have faltered and tensions have risen, Iran has repeated threats to shut down shipping in the oil-rich gulf region. Its leaders also have warned of massive retaliation for any attacks on its nuclear facilities, which the United States believes are civilian covers for an Iranian drive to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.
Last week, Iran’s Foreign Ministry declared that the presence of U.S. warships in the gulf constituted a “real threat” to the region’s security.
Pentagon officials have responded by sending more ships, urged on by Congress as well as U.S. allies in the region. This month, the Navy announced that it would deploy the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to the Middle East four months ahead of schedule. The shift will keep two carriers in the gulf region.
The United States also has announced new military exercises in the region, including a mine-sweeping drill in the gulf, and has moved to add new radar stations and land-based missile-defense batteries in Qatar.
Assessing the risks
The likelihood that Iran would risk an all-out attack on a vastly superior U.S. fleet is judged to be small. But Iranian leaders could decide to launch a limited strike if Israel or the United States bombed the country’s nuclear facilities. Analysts also cautioned that a conflict could be sparked by an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow passage through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil passes from the Persian Gulf into open seas — in retaliation for international economic sanctions.
In either scenario, Iran’s ability to inflict significant damage is substantially greater than it was a decade ago. A Pentagon study in April warned that Iran had made gains in the “lethality and effectiveness” of its arsenal. The Pentagon declined to comment for this article.
Iran’s increased power to retaliate has led some military experts to question the wisdom of deploying aircraft carriers and other expensive warships to the gulf if a conflict appears imminent.
A 2009 study prepared for the Naval War College warns of Iran’s increasing ability to “execute a massive naval ambush” in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway dotted with small islands and inlets and perfectly suited for the kind of asymmetric warfare preferred by Iran’s commanders.
“If the U.S. chooses to station warships in the Strait of Hormuz during the buildup to conflict, it cedes the decision of when to fight and allows the fight to begin in the most advantageous place for Iran,” wrote the study’s author, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Colin Boynton. “This could lead to a devastating first salvo on U.S. Navy warships, which would most likely be operating under restrictive rules of engagement.”
Since 2009, analysts say, Iran has added defensive and offensive capabilities. Some of them have been on display in recent months in a succession of military drills, including a missile exercise in early July dubbed Great Prophet 7. The exercise included a demonstration of Iran’s newly deployed Khalid Farzh anti-ship missile, which has an internal guidance system, a powerful 1,400-pound warhead and a range of 180 miles.
Iran’s arsenal already included a variety of anti-ship missiles such as the Chinese-made Silkworm. More recently, Iran has boasted of progress in developing high-speed torpedoes based on Russian designs. Such claims are often exaggerated, but the April Pentagon assessment noted that Iran’s arsenal now includes ballistic missiles with “seekers” that enable them to maneuver toward ships during flight.
Modern U.S. warships are equipped with multiple defense systems, such as the ship-based Aegis missile shield. But Iran has sought to neutralize the U.S. technological advantage by honing an ability to strike from multiple directions at once. The emerging strategy relies not only on mobile missile launchers but also on new mini-submarines, helicopters and hundreds of heavily armed small boats known as fast-attack craft.