Iranian Naval Capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz: A Geospatial Analysis

In August, around 100 US Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed to Bahrain [source]. These Marines are on standby to escort merchant shipping through the Straits of Hormuz at a given notice. The object of their threat is fairly clear. In July, Iran seized a Tanzanian-flagged tanker ship which it claimed was potentially involved in smuggling unspecified illicit goods [source]. The proximity to the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain and the potential introduction of Marines on merchant shipping raises the prospect of prolonged tensions in the Gulf. In this report, we leverage geospatial intelligence to examine the extent of Iranian naval capabilities. We also examine Iran’s air warfare capability. Finally, we utilize Sentinel-1 SAR imagery to collate possible locations of Iranian coastal defence batteries in order to assess their potential role in the event of hostilities.

Key Judgement-1: It is highly unlikely that Iran is hardening its airbases in order to blunt the impact of US air dominance in a future war.

Key Judgement-2: It is likely that the Iranian Navy will pursue attacks on civilian shipping with light attack craft and submarines over a conventional confrontation with US and allied navies.

Key Judgement-3: It is highly likely that Iran would heavily rely on its missile deterrence capability in the absence of sufficient air or naval power, increasing the threat to civilian energy infrastructure.

KJ-1: It is highly unlikely that Iran is hardening its airbases in order to blunt the impact of US air dominance in a future war.

a) Iran’s much-touted Eagle 44 underground air base is not yet complete as of 19 September. The facilities still require roadwork and further excavation [see Fig. 1].

b) We did not observe any visible ventilation points or visible ATC facilities. Moreover, the base has at least 2 active support areas that appear to host construction equipment. This further indicates that the base is not fully complete [see Fig. 1].

c) Eagle 44 can accommodate F-14 Tomcats (with retracted wings), F-4 Phantom IIs and Su-24 Fencers. In February, Iran released photos of a taxiing F-4 inside the underground facility [source].

d) Should Russia deliver Su-35 Flankers to Iran, we judge that Tehran may be unable to station them at the Eagle 44 site based on the tunnel width and their longer wingspan compared to an F-4 [source].

e) In other sites, Iran utilizes hardened aircraft shelters to store its combat aircraft. We observe shelters at Vahdati Air Base in western Iran and the joint civil and military airfield in Bandar Abbas [see Figs. 2 and 3].

f) Vahdati Air Base is home to the IrAF’s 41st, 42nd and 43d Fighter Squadrons which operate F-5 Tigers [source].

g) The joint Army-Navy air base in Bandar Abbas hosts transport helicopters as well as the Iranian Navy’s BHC Wellington Class hovercraft [see Fig. 4, Annex].

Name: Eagle 44 Hybrid Base

Location: 28°2’32″N   55°31’8″E

Description: Eagle 44 is a large underground facility that hosts at least one visually confirmed F-4 through Iranian press releases. However, the tunnel entrances may not exceed the wingspan requirements of larger aircraft such as the Su-35. Moreover, unfinished spurs and support buildings indicate that the facility is not yet complete.

Fig. 1

Annex to Figure 1

Name: Vahdati Air Base (4th Tactical Air Base)

Location: 32°26’51.64″N, 48°23’6.03″E

Description: Vahdati is a tactical airbase which is home to the IRIAF’s 41st, 42nd and 43d Fighter Squadrons operating F-5s. The airbase contains hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) with blast wall protection. A munitions storage area consisting of several dozen partially subterranean hardened bunkers sits at the southern axial point of the base. This base was unsuccessfully attacked by Iraqi Mig-23 and Mig-21 aircraft in September of 1980 [source].

Fig. 2
Name: Bandar Abbas Airport

Location: 27°13’56.35″N, 56°22’54.60″E

Description: Bandar Abbas Airport is a joint civilian-military installation outside of the city of Bandar Abbas. There is a collection of hardened aircraft shelters alongside a separate base area for munitions storage. In April, we observed a single An-26 and one C-130 on the aircraft apron by a hangar allegedly used for propeller maintenance.

Fig. 3
Name: Joint Army-Navy Hovercraft/Air Base (Bandar Abbas – West)

Location: 27° 9’16.94″N, 56° 9’50.99″E

Description: West of Bandar Abbas airport is a small airfield with dedicated hangars for transport helicopters. In May we observed at least three functional Mil Mi-8s at the facility in addition to an An-26 transport aircraft. Moreover, we observed three Mk.4 type hovercraft at the hovercraft launch on the bottom end of the base. Please see the annex for a closer view of the craft.

Fig. 4

KJ-2: It is likely that the Iranian Navy will pursue attacks on civilian shipping with light attack craft and submarines over a conventional confrontation with US and allied navies.

a) In late April, we observed Moudge Class frigates IRIS Jamaran and IRIS Sahand at Bandar Abbas Naval Base. The vessels are armed with at least four Mehrab surface-to-air missiles (75km range) [see Fig. 5].

b) As of late May, the IRIS Jamaran and IRIS Sahand are the only vessels at Bandar Abbas that pose a serious threat to American air assets [see Fig. 5, 6].

c) Of particular note is the IRGC Navy’s new missile catamaran Shahid Solemani at Bandar Abbas as well as the IRIS Shahid Roudaki [see Fig. 6]. The new catamarans have vertical launch SAM systems that can operate Sayyad 3 SAMs [source].

d) The Shahid Solemani and the Shahid Roudaki are both capable of carrying a contingent of fast attack craft [source].

e) Across the last 12 to 24 months, we observed no major surface combatants at Bandar E-Jask nor any vessel capable of threatening US air assets [see Figs. 7, 8].

f) We observed Ghadir Class submarines departing Bandar E-Jask over the course of 12-24 months. This indicates that the submersibles regularly conduct patrols in the Strait of Hormuz [see Figs. 7, 8].

g) We note that Kilo Class Submarines have cladding of anechoic tiles which absorb sonar and make detection difficult [source].

Name: Bandar Abbas – South

Location: 27° 8’29.51″N, 56°12’15.45″E

Description: The large naval port of Bandar Abbas is home to the Iranian Southern Fleet. In this capture of the southern section, we can see at least two moderately sized surface combatant warships, the IRIS Sahand and IRIS Jamaran. Five Ghadir Class and one Kilo Class submarine are visible as well.

Fig. 5
Name: Bandar Abbas – North

Location: 27° 8’29.51″N, 56°12’15.45″E

Description: The large naval port of Bandar Abbas is home to the Iranian Southern Fleet. In this capture of the northern section, we can see the newest missile catamarans which supposedly have some stealth capabilities as well as the Shahid Roudaki, an intelligence and support ship.

NOTE: These two captures are on opposite sides of each other at the port in Bandar Abbas
Fig. 6
Name: Bandar-E Jask Naval Base

Location: 25°39’1.94″N, 57°46’5.18″E

Description: A small naval facility which sits on an artificially created outcropping with an axial access road. No large surface vessels have been observed here. However, we observe Ghadir Class submarines coming and going.

Fig. 7
Name: Bandar-E Jask

Location: 25°39’1.94″N, 57°46’5.18″E

Description: A small naval facility which sits on an artificially created outcropping with an axial access road. No large surface vessels have been observed here. However, we observe Ghadir Class submarines coming and going. In this capture, an additional Ghadir Class submarine is observed, indicating regular patrols in the Strait of Hormuz.

Fig. 8

KJ-3: It is highly likely that Iran would heavily rely on its missile deterrence capability in the absence of sufficient air or naval power, increasing the threat to civilian energy infrastructure.

a) There is a new catamaran-type missile boat at the IRGC’s 112th Naval Brigade’s base on Qeshm Island. An additional smaller one appears to be under development. These crafts can extend the coverage of Iranian missiles in the Strait [see Fig. 9].

b) We observed a probable vertical launch system for either Fajr-3 (range of 43 km) or Noor ASCMs (range of 120 km) at an IRGC drone base approximately a dozen kilometres north of the 112th Brigade [see Fig. 10].

c) Images posted online indicate that these missile batteries were deployed just north and south of the drone base between 2020 and 2022, adding an additional layer of missile coverage over the Strait [see Fig. 11].

d) Strong radio frequency interference (RFI) patterns are visible from nearby Hengam Island, indicating that there is an active military radar system at this location [see Fig. 12].

e) Further RFI patterns are visible across 12 to 24 months on Qeshm Island, which correspond to known deployment locations of missile systems [see Fig. 13].

f) Fajr-3 missile systems are visually confirmed to have been deployed at sites across Qeshm Island from 2020 onwards [source].

g) Deployment of missile systems overlooking Hormuz enhances Iran’s area access denial strategies [source].

h) Iran claims to have further developed underground missile bases along the Persian Gulf [source].

i) SAR imagery indicates an additional launch battery site on Hormuz Island and Bandar E-Pol, allowing for better missile coverage over the approaches to Hormuz [see Fig. 13].

Name: IRGCN 112th Naval Combat Brigade Base

Location: 26°41’28.12″N, 55°54’58.48″E

Description: An IRGCN base hosting the 112th Naval Combat Brigade. We observe fast attack and interceptor craft along with a completed missile frigate catamaran and what appears to be an uncompleted catamaran as well.

Fig. 9
Name: Suspected IRGC Drone Base – Qeshm Island

Location: 26°43’13.01″N, 55°58’24.37″E

Description: There is a probable IRGC drone base on Qeshm Island. In June we observed a Shahed Saegheh UCAV at the south hangar entrance near a support vehicle. Across the runway, there are what appears to be a vertical launch transport system and mobile radar parked at the north hangar.

Fig. 10
Name: IRGC Drone Base – Overview

Location: 26°43’13.01″N, 55°58’24.37″E

Description: An overall view of the drone base with the probable location of launch vehicles for either Fajr-3 or Noor ASCMs.

Fig. 11
Name: Strait of Hormuz – Synthetic Aperture Radar View

Location: South Qeshm Island

Description: A Synthetic Aperture Radar view of South Qeshm Island showing a strong positive radio frequency interference return emanating from nearby Hengam Island.

Fig. 12
Name: Qeshm Island – Synthetic Aperture Radar View

Location: Qeshm Island

Description: A Synthetic Aperture Radar view of Qeshm Island showing a strong positive RFI return emanating from multiple sources correlated with known Fajr-3 battery sites.

Fig. 13

Analytical Summary

We have a high level of confidence in our assessment that the Iranian Navy cannot ultimately prevail in a kinetic engagement against US military assets in the Strait of Hormuz without adequate air power. We base this assessment on collected imagery, established international reporting and think tank reporting. We assume that USAF aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II are significantly more advanced than Iran’s secondhand F-14 Tomcats or F-5, F-4 and Mig-29s. As such, any marginal benefit gained by launching air assets from underground facilities such as Eagle-44 would reach diminishing returns fairly rapidly. Accordingly, Iranian naval assets in the Strait would not enjoy the support of air assets beyond the initial 24-48 hours of any conflict. Should this assumption prove incorrect, we would expect to see pitched air battles between Iranian and US air assets. We considered the alternative that Iran will rapidly acquire more advanced air units from either Russia or China but dismissed it due to the lack of observed evidence or publicly available reporting.

Relative Naval Power

We have high confidence in our assessment that the Iranian Navy will prioritize attacks on civilian shipping. We base this assessment on previous actions by Iran in times of war as well as collected imagery indicating a large number of submarines and light attack craft. We assume that Iran would not risk those smaller assets in an action against larger US carrier groups. Should this assumption prove incorrect, we would expect to see pitched naval battles between Iranian and US naval forces. We considered the alternative that Iran may attempt to coalesce naval units into a single large formation but dismissed it due to the observed behaviour of light attack craft and submarine patrols.

Robust Missle Capabilities

We have medium confidence in our assessment that Iran can sufficiently deter military action by threatening civilian shipping. We base this assessment on collected SAR imagery, press reports, geolocation efforts and think tank reporting. We assume Iranian missile doctrine calls for consistent mobility of missile systems in order to reduce the threat from US Wild Weasel operations. Should this assumption prove incorrect, we would expect to see aggressive targeting and destruction of civilian vessels in the event of a war. We considered the alternative that Iran has vastly inflated its missile deterrence capabilities but dismissed it due to observed RFI patterns fronting the Strait.

Annex

We draw particular attention to the presence of 3-4 BH.7 hovercraft located at the launch in Bandar Abbas. These craft give Iran the ability to rapidly project force into Hormuz with troops and missile systems. By landing forces on islands, Iran can control lynchpin positions in Hormuz.

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