Navigating Iran's Non-Conventional Navy

If there were to be a conflict, or even a skirmish, between Iran and the United States, the United States would emerge victorious. No doubt about it. There is not even a question in my mind.

However, and this is an essential however, Iran will be able to inflict damage on the United States. About that, as well, I have no doubt.

The United States has better everything than Iran. Better weapons, equipment, training, and better experience. But Iran has one big advantage. It's the home team advantage and Iran has designed and developed specific offensive and defensive weapons for their home field.

And the best weapon in Iran's arsenal is their navy. Iran has developed a navy to protect and attack in the Persian Gulf and the all too important Straits of Hormuz. In fact, National Interest magazine and website rated Iran's navy the fourth most powerful navy in the world. The reason for this high ranking is their submarine fleet.

Iran's is a non-conventional navy. It hardly has ten active large ships. Their ships are not the threat. It is their thirty-four mini submarines that turn Iran's navy into a menacing force. Thirty-four, in terms of subs, is a huge number. These subs are officially termed midget subs or "littoral" subs. About twenty-four of the subs were locally built in Iran, the rest were built and bought from North Korea. The Iranians have dubbed their mini subs Ghadir, which mean midget in Farsi.

These diesel-electric subs are extremely useful in the shallow and narrow straits and water ways in the region near Iran. Larger nuclear subs and Western subs cannot maneuver well in either the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf. These mini subs are the perfect attack vessel given that terrain. These mini vessels move effortlessly between tankers in the skinny shipping lanes. They are only 100 feet long, nine feet wide, and have six people wedged inside operating the sub. The Ghadir's draft, which is the measurement of the depth of the sub in water when it is surfaced, is only 7.5 feet.

But that's not all the Iranian navy relies on. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard operates strike forces with tiny rubber speedboats. The speedboats swarm, appear and disappear. They have already struck U.S. and Western ships, military vessels, and commercial vessels. They are undetected. It was members of the elite Revolutionary Guard, on these speedboats, who captured an entire U.S. ship and took all ten sailors, including one woman, captive in January of 2016.

And recently the Pentagon's Vice Admiral Michael Gilday announced in a press conference that the United States has "very high confidence" that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was also responsible for attacks on four oil tankers.

According to Iranian news sources the Guard is making these rubber boats even more dangerous and more undetectable to Western navies. "We are trying to increase the agility of the Guard speed boats and equip them with stealth technology to facilitate their operations," Alireza Tangsiri, the Revolutionary Guard navy chief, was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA

Small is stronger and mini is more threatening in these Iranian controlled waterways. To illustrate the point, in 2009 A U.S. nuclear-powered sub collided with another U.S. vessel at night in the Straits of Hormuz. According to the statement released by the U.S. Navy following the incident, fifteen sailors were lightly injured when the nuclear sub, the USS Hartford, rammed amphibious ship USS New Orleans. And that incident was the second time the USS Hartford rammed a ship in the Straits. The first incident happened two years earlier, in 2007, making it the second collision involving a U.S. nuclear submarine in the Strait of Hormuz in just over two years.

And in 2013 the USS Jacksonville, a billion dollar nuclear sub, heard a thump while conducting a pre-dawn maneuver in the Strait of Hormuz. No one was hurt, but the sub lost its periscope to a fishing trawler.

This should not be interpreted as a critique of the U.S. Navy. It is a description of how tight the waters and terrain are. It is a brief assessment of Iran's weapons and home field advantage. It explains why Iran's navy is ranked fourth in the world. It is a reality check for us, and an acknowledgment that any military dustup with Iran will almost certainly entail U.S. losses.

But a conflict with Iran will have multiple dimensions. And yes, the United States will prevail.