Iran Looks Set To Blow Up Its Fake Aircraft Carrier Again

Satellite imagery shows that Iran has towed its refurbished mock aircraft carrier out into the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, strongly suggesting that it will be a feature in an upcoming exercise. The movement of the heavily modified barge, which is meant to be a surrogate for an American flattop, came just days before a still-murky U.S. Air Force intercept of an Iranian airliner over Syria last week and followed a string of mysterious explosions and fires, some of which may have been the result of foreign sabotage. 

One image from satellite firm Maxar, dated July 25, 2020, shows a tug moving the barge, which has a broadly similar outward appearance to a U.S. Navy Nimitz class carrier and has 16 faux fighter jets on its deck, including some that are visually reminiscent of F/A-18 Hornets or Super Hornets

Another image, from the following day, shows the mock carrier, which also has a large crosshair painted on its top deck, stationary with a small speed boat-type watercraft approaching it at high speed.

It’s not clear when the Iranians moved the barge into the Straight of Hormuz from its mooring in the port city of Bandar Abbas. The War Zone reviewed imagery from Planet Labs that shows that it was still at Bandar Abbas on July 20, but had left by July 23. 

The carrier first emerged in 2014, ostensibly as a prop for a movie, titled Airbus, about the infamous shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in 1988. American-Canadian owned Reel Knights and an unspecified “entertainment company” were reportedly set to join forces on the movie, with Sean Stone, Oliver Stone’s son, directing.

However, in February 2015, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked the fake carrier during major exercise, known as Great Prophet IX, in the Strait of Hormuz. The barge suffered significant damage and had sat for years a largely unrepaired state outside the Iranian naval base in Bandar Abbas. 

IRGC speed boat-type craft fire rockets at the fake aircraft carrier during Great Prophet IX in 2015., AP
The fake carrier explodes during the 2015 exercise., AP

In 2019, there were indications that the Iranians had begun to refurbish it. In August 2019, satellite imagery showed that they had moved it inside the protected portion of the naval base’s harbor to continue working on it. By February 2020, it looked complete.

The fake carrier outside of the protected portion of the harbor in July 2019., Google Earth
The faux flattop moved inside the protected portion of the harbor in August 2019., Google Earth
Work on the barge looks complete in this satellite image from February 2020. The fake aircraft on its deck are visible., Google Earth

Iran, which is subject to an ever-growing number of international sanctions, especially from the United States with regards to its oil and natural gas industries, routinely conducts military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threatens to blockade the strategic waterway in response to foreign aggression. Though the total amount fluctuates regularly, between 20 and 30 percent of all of the world’s oil exports pass through this maritime passage. Closing it off, even relatively briefly, would have major first and second-order worldwide economic impacts, something The War Zone has explored in-depth in the past

Iran also routinely objects to the presence of American warships in the Persian Gulf, especially aircraft carriers, and constantly threatens to attack them if provoked. In April, a swarm of IRGC speed boats harassed Navy and Coast Guard ships in that body of water while they conducted their own exercises, coming dangerously close at times.

The Navy has also confirmed that, in December 2019, at least 18 IRGC boats sailed alongside the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships in her strike group as they passed out of the Persian Gulf into the Gulf of Oman by way of the Strait of Hormuz. A key component of Iran’s simulated operation against the mock aircraft carrier during Great Prophet IX in 2015 was a swarming boat attack. This is a very real threat to American and other foreign ships in the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere, as The War Zone

has highlighted on multiple occasions.

Iran also has a wide array of other anti-ship capabilities, including midget submarines capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles, land-based anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, naval mines, remote-controlled suicide boats, and combat divers carrying limpet mines. In May, the IRGC also revealed what appeared to be a small, unmanned submarine-shaped vehicle that could also launch suicide attacks. 

An apparent unmanned submarine-like vehicle the IRGC debuted publicly in May., ISNA

It’s unclear whether this craft was capable of fully submerging or operating only in a semi-submerged state, which would be similar to the method of operation of many so-called “narco subs” used for drug smuggling. Even if a small portion of the vehicle would have to remain above the waterline, it could still be very hard for a target ship to spot.

It remains to be seen just what Iranians might throw at the fake carrier, though the overall signal it is meant to send, a broad challenge to the United States and policy of maximum pressure toward the regime in Tehran, will be clear, regardless. It could also provide a sorely needed propaganda victory for the regime in Tehran, which is under immense pressure, including internally over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may take on greater significance in light of the nebulous intercept by two U.S. Air Force F-15 combat jets of an Airbus A310 airliner belonging to Iran’s Mahan Air over Syria on July 23. The U.S. military has denied that it harassed the A310 and simply conducted a legal visual inspection after the aircraft did not respond to requests to identify itself after appearing to deviate from an established air route over a strategic forward operating base housing U.S.-backed Syrian forces. Iranian Road Minister Mohammad Eslami has described the incident as a “terrorist act, one of aggression” and Laya Joneydi, Iran’s Vice President for Legal Affairs, has said it was a “clear violation of aviation security.”

Iran has also seen a number of explosions and fires in recent weeks, which reports have indicated could, in some cases, be deliberate acts by foreign powers, chiefly Israel, potentially with assistance from the United States. In one of these incidents earlier this month, seven civilian ships caught fire in the port city of Bushehr, which is situated on Iran’s southern coast on the other side of the Persian Gulf from Bandar Abbas.

A separate report recently said that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has expanded the Central Intelligence Agency’s authority to conduct covert operations against the regime in Tehran, including cyber-attacks.

Iran blowing up its fake aircraft carrier again will offer an opportunity to both evaluate and publicly demonstrate its extensive naval warfare capabilities, sending a signal to the United States and producing some highly value propaganda for domestic consumption at the same time.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.