(This first appeared back in 2015.)
Iran has carried out a massive attack on a mock version of an American Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Tehran wanted everyone to know about it—state TV broadcasted the military exercise live.
It’s a revealing look at Iranian naval assault tactics, involving several waves of ships backed by helicopters and shore-launched missiles. The timing isn’t a coincidence. The United States and Iran are deadlocked over a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Iranians built the giant, 1:1-scale mock-up of the carrier on top of a barge almost one year ago. Photos released from Iranian news agencies on Feb. 25 now show it as a smoldering wreck. The missiles Iran fired at it are very real.
But don’t panic. The exercise—known as Great Prophet 9—didn’t factor in American escort warships and warplanes responsible for defending real carriers. It was mostly just for show.
The exercise occurred near Larak Island near the Strait of Hormuz. On the island, Mohammad Ali Jafari—the chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps—and the head of the conservative parliament watched from stands.
First, IRGC navy speedboats performed a mining operation to isolate the “carrier” and limit its maneuverability. Dozens of small speedboats—each armed with an M-08 contact mine—swarmed around the mock up. Iranian state television claimed “a vast area was mined in under 10 minutes.”
During the second phase, the speedboats attacked the giant ship with 107-millimeter rockets. These are small rockets, and likely couldn’t sink a warship the size of an aircraft carrier.
But Iran could intend this tactic as a means to disable critical self-defense systems, such as radars, Phalanx CIWS self-defense cannons and missile launchers.
Next, speedboats armed with small cruise missiles—likely Chinese-made C-704 anti-ship cruise missiles—attacked the ship. These fast speedboats fired a barrage of 12 cruise missiles toward the mock Nimitz.
The third phase included a barrage of heavy, shore-launched anti-ship missiles. Iran launched two cruise missiles and two ballistic missiles toward the barge in a coordinated attack.
The shore-launched cruise missiles were Iranian-made Noor missiles, copies of Chinese C-802 missiles produced under license. The ballistic missiles were Fateh-100 variants fitted with target-seeking infrared nose cameras. At least one of those missed its target.
The fourth phase was an unconventional attack … even by IRGC standards. A commercial Bell 206 helicopter fired a C-704K anti-ship cruise missile from between its skids.
The last phase involved ramming a remotely-controlled suicide boat packed with more than 1,000 kilograms of high explosives into the mock up.
Jafari directly threatened the U.S. Navy in an interview after the attack. He said that it only takes five minutes for IRGC missiles to sink American aircraft carriers. Five hundred speed boats made a parade in the Strait of Hormuz following the exercise.
But in a real encounter, it’s unlikely that such a scenario would succeed. To reach and flank a U.S. aircraft carrier—and mine the surrounding area—Iran’s speed boats would also have to fight past the flattop’s advanced escort warships.
Carriers don’t go anywhere without escorts. And that wasn’t part of the exercise.
Iran also didn’t provide any substantial air defenses for its own ships. A defending carrier is unlikely to sit idle when under attack. In a real battle, U.S. Marines with Mark V speedboats armed with Javelin anti-tank missiles could also provide a defense shield for the American fleet.
But the use of commercial helicopters is concerning. Iran’s military has worked on flying swarms of small aircraft for some time.
Another possibility is that Iran doesn’t intend to use helicopters in an actual attack on a carrier, but is broadcasting its ability to use helicopters against other targets—such as unprepared U.S. ships abroad, akin to the suicide-boat attack on the destroyer USS Cole more than 14 years ago.
The question is—why practice attacking an American carrier right now? Simple. It was an impressive show of force aimed to affect ongoing nuclear talks with Washington.
From the negotiations in Geneva to a disastrous war in Syria, the Iranian regime’s plans to save its sinking economy and preserve its strategic ally in the Middle East are going down in flames.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said the U.S. is ready to abandon negotiations aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. Syrian troops are carrying out a desperate offensive to encircle Aleppo. At least 150 Syrian troops and an IRGC general have died in the offensive.
To have any hope of holding the U.S. to the negotiations, Tehran has to remind the world what could happen if talks break down.