The Naval Balance of Power: The Persian Gulf
[The Persian Gulf is home to some of the most important trade routes of western energy needs. This makes freedom of navigation of merchant shipping and especially oil tankers an important issue of importance to western navies, it has also been quoted often times as one of the reasons for the US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war during the 80’s. Access to the Persian Gulf is only possible through the Strait of Hormuz which is mostly dominated by the Iranian Navy, operating from the naval base of Bandar Abbas.
Analysis shows that most countries around the Persian Gulf possess a small yet capable fleet, predominantly built around frigates. Iran is the big exception to this concept since it mostly uses patrol and attack boats in the Persian Gulf and reserves its frigates for power projection in the Arabic and Red Seas. Access to the Persian Gulf has also been important to the US Navy during both Gulf Wars, but with an end to combat operations in Iraq we’ll be seeing a lower US activity in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain will remain to be an important logistical base of support to the US 5th Fleet.
Oman’s navy is constructed around two corvettes of the al-Qahir class which is a version of the Mark 9 class corvettes built by the British firm Vosper Thornycroft in 1996. The armament of these corvettes exists of Exocet missiles and a 76mm OTO Melara canon, giving the Omani navy a certain amount of striking force. The corvettes of the Khareef class are currently being constructed by British BAE Systems, one of which has already entered sea trials. These corvettes are expected to reach the Omani navy within the next three years, bringing the total number of corvettes to five.
With these five corvettes Oman will have a capable ‘green water navy’ that will be mostly aimed at protection of its economical zone but could also be deployed to fight piracy in the area. Oman’s navy also owns an amphibian landing ship, the Fulk al Salamah, which is capable of transporting 240 troops but is currently in service in support of the royal yacht Al Said. The Omani navy also deploys four Province class fast attack boats, equipped with Exocet missiles and a 76mm canon, and three Al Bushra patrol boats. These vessels are used mainly for the protection of coastal waters.
The United Arab Emirates:
The UAE has a small navy of about 2500 men en is made up mainly of patrol boats and fast attack boats. The UAE is currently modernizing its fleet by replacing six Ardhana class patrol boats by 6 corvettes of the Baynunah class. One of these corvettes has already been finished and is in the middle of sea trials. Just like Oman’s navy, these ships are all expected to enter service within the next few years. The UAE also has seven LCT (Landing Craft Tank) and five LCU (Landing Craft Utility) vessels which grant the UAE a limited amphibian capability.
The Royal Bahrain Naval Force (RBNF) deploys several types of ships, most of which have been built in Germany. The RBNF deploys one American Oliver Hazard Perry frigate, two Lürssen MGB 62 class frigates, four Lürssen TNC 45 class patrol boats, two Lürssen FPB 20 class patrol boats and two Swift FBP 20 class patrol boats. The American frigate is equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles while the German frigates are equipped with Exocet missiles. Bahrain also deploys a small number of landing vessels, granting it a limited amphibian capability. The RBNF has two naval bases; the Mina Salman naval base is shared with the United States and serves as a logistical center to the whole US 5th Fleet. The Manama naval base is exclusively used by the US Navy. The RBNF also has its very own shipyard that it has made available to neighboring countries.
The navy of Qatar is built mainly out of patrol boats. A number of these ships, the Vosper Thornycroft Vista class and the Combattante III class, are equipped with Exocet missiles and each have a 76mm canon. Apart from this Qatar also mans four landbasedExocet batteries for coastal defense.
The Royal Saudi Navy (RSN) deploys three Al Riyadh class frigates to the Persian Gulf; these vessels are a modernized version of the French La Fayette class. The RSN also deploys four Al Medinah class frigates but these are located in the Red Sea and serve to protect trade in the Red Sea. It is unlikely, due to the problem of piracy around the Horn of Africa, that these frigates would be moved to the Persian Gulf. The RSN also fields eight Badr class corvettes in the Persian Gulf. These vessels were built by the United States in the early eighties and are equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Apart from these the RSN also fields a few patrol boats and minesweepers. All RSN vessels in the Persian Gulf operate from the Jubail naval base. Saudi Arabia has also shown interest to procure British Type 45 destroyers, but up to this day no order has been placed.
The Kuwaiti navy is very small and in 2008 its personnel amounted to a mere 2700 men. The navy is made up from some patrol boats of which the largest has a displacement of 410 tons. Only the TNC-45 patrol boat is armed with four Exocet missiles and the eight Combattante BR-42 class of attack boats are each equipped with four Sea Skua surface to surface missiles.
The Iraqi navy is currently being reconstructed after the two Gulf Wars. At this moment the Iraqi navy deploys three Saetti Mk4 class patrol boats. These vessels are better known as the Diciotti class of the Italian coastguard. The Iraqi navy also possesses a number of patrol boats and river patrol boats. At this point in time the Iraqi navy is only capable of protecting its own coastal waters, combating smuggling operations and protecting offshore oil rigs in its waters. The Iraqi navy has 1500 personnel for this, 800 of which are part naval infantry of the 1st Iraqi Naval Battalion. A second battalion is planned to be created in the future.
Of all countries surrounding the Persian Gulf, Iran possesses the largest navy. The most important vessels of the Iranian navy are the three Kilo class submarines. Iran has built submarines on its own, the most famous of which are the Ghadir class of mini submarines that have a limited combat power. Iran declared in 2008 to be building a submarine of a 1000 tons displacement, the Qaaem class, which will be capable of firing torpedoes and missiles. The surface fleet of Iran is made up of several different types of frigates. The most important are the three Saam/Alvand class frigates, equipped with Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles. The Saam class dates from the early seventies. Iran also deploys two Moudge class frigates that it has built itself; these ships are copies of the Alvand class. The Iranian surface fleet also includes several outdated corvettes of the Bayandor and Hamzed classes, each equipped with C-802 missiles. Apart from these the navy also possesses many patrol, attack and missile boats that are stationed mostly within the Persian Gulf. Iran also fields a couple landing crafts which grant it a limited amphibian capability.
Most countries around the Persian Gulf deploy a small yet capable ‘green water navy’ that are equipped with the efficient Exocet anti-ship missile. The most powerful maritime power in the Persian Gulf without a doubt is Iran. It is interesting to note that Iran has a navy that functions as both a ‘green water navy’ and a ‘brown water navy’. The Iranian green water capabilities are built around its frigates and Kilo class submarines. We can see that Iran has recently deployed these ships more often in the Arabic and Red Sea, these vessels have even operated in the Mediterranean sea for a limited time.
While Iran’s frigates are small compared to western frigates, they are capable of power projection and supporting Iran’s status as a regional power. A notable trend is Iran’s capability to develop and build its own ships. Isolated from western ships and western shipbuilding technology, Iran has been forced to produce its own ships. So far this capability is limited to constructing patrol boats and mini submarines, but the capabilities seem to be evolving towards the construction of larger ships through the construction of small frigates based on the Alvand class. Iran has also developed its capability to construct submarines since up to now Iran has concentrated on the construction of small Ghadir class mini submarines, but currently intends to build larger submarines with a displacement of 1000 tons. While this submarine would still be smaller than Kilo Class submarines, it is definitely an improvement of capabilities over the Ghadir class of submarines.
Iran’s green water navy is concentrated in the naval base of Bandar Abbas, where it has direct access to the Arabic Sea while it can still be deployed to the Persian Gulf. In the Persian Gulf Iran predominantly deploys a brown water navy based on patrol and attack boats, as opposed to surrounding countries. It is clear that Iran is aiming for a different strategy of naval warfare in the Persian Gulf than other countries. While the surrounding countries are based on conventional maritime combat, Iran chooses to deploy fast, short but heavy surprise attacks against heavier slower vessels of other countries.
Iran realized after the tanker war and Operation Earnest Will that the Persian Gulf is relatively small for a conventional maritime struggle and offers little room for maneuvering, especially to units operating in a larger fleet context. Iran’s strategy and tactics in the Persian Gulf seem to be aimed at quickly mobilizing a large number of patrol boats in a certain sector, conduct a rapid powerful attack and then quickly withdraw. Iran knows it is difficult to defeat a Close in Weapons System (CIWS) with only one or even a few missiles. Small, fast and agile boats allow simultaneous attacks from several sides against a frigate in order to overwhelm the CIWS system. Fast attack vessels also allow rapid attacks against oil rigs and merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf. During Operation Earnest Will Iran’s brown water capability was vulnerable to attack helicopters, especially at night. We could assume that Iran has learned lessons from this episode and equipped its patrol and attack boats with the necessary technology and surface to air missiles to fend off this threat. Most of these fast attack and patrol boats are under the command of the Revolutionary Guard and are spread around several bases such as Farsi and Sirri Island.