Iran Fires Missiles At Its Fake Carrier, Says Its Satellite Has Been Watching From Above (Updated)

The last time the Iranians trotted out the mock aircraft carrier for an exercise, they eventually blew it up.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Iran photo


Iran has now released video footage and other details about a major exercise in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz that involved various types of attacks on a mock U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Iranian forces employed various air, sea, and ground-launched weapons against the faux flattop, including anti-ship ballistic missiles and a Bell 206 type helicopter modified to carry an anti-ship cruise missile. The country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps also claimed that its Nour satellite, which was launched earlier this year, had taken imagery of the drills from space.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said that the exercise, called Great Prophet 14, had entered its final phase on July 28, 2020. Satellite imagery had shown that it had towed the mock carrier, the centerpiece of the drills, out into the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, sometime last week. You can read more about this heavily modified barge, which was first built in 2014, ostensibly as a movie prop, in our initial reporting on its latest outing here. It had suffered significant damage during the Great Prophet IX exercise in 2015, but Iran began refurbishing it last year.

"Surprising weapons and hardware – including long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking intruding vessels floating at a distance – are being used," IRGC Brigadier General Abbas Nilforoushan, the official spokesperson for the exercise, said, according to PressTV.

Video from the drills did show multiple launches of what appeared to be members of the Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missile family, which have ranges between 124 and 186 miles, depending on the exact version. Iran has claimed to have developed variants of the Fateh 110 in the past with anti-ship capabilities, including the Khalij Fars, Hormuz-1, and Hormoz-2. The latter missiles reportedly also have anti-radiation capabilities, allowing them to home on ground-based signal emitters, such as radars, as well. 

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Another variant, the Fateh Mobin, may have an imaging infrared sensor for greater precision in the terminal phase of flight, as well as a possible moving target capability. This missile has also been demonstrated against floating targets at sea.

The video below is of older Fateh Mobin (written Fateh Mubeen) testing, including against floating targets.

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Great Prophet 14 also included a Bell 206 type light helicopter firing a modified Nasr-1 anti-ship cruise missile from the launch rail mounted underneath its fuselage. The Nasr-1, which has a maximum range of just under 22 miles, is a copy of the Chinese C-704 and has been in use in Iran in air-launched applications from fixed-wing aircraft for years now. To fit under the helicopter, the tips of the fins on the missile's mid-section are removed.

The Iranians also fielded it in truck-mounted launchers and on various ships and revealed a submarine-launched derivative last year. Ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, which may have also included the larger Noor, a copy of the Chinese C-802, have also been employed during Great Prophet 14.

The Imperial Iranian military received a number of license-made Augusta-Bell AB-206s from Italy during the reign of the Shah, some of which remain in service today. The helicopter in question had a civilian type paint scheme rather than a camouflage one and appears to be the same one that was involved in the Great Prophet IX exercise back in 2015.

Satellite imagery shows actually relatively limited damage to fake flattop's deck, though some of the mock fighter jets on top have clearly been destroyed. The lack of visual puncture holes on top calls into question whether any of the ballistic missiles actually hit the target or were even necessarily fired at it at all. The video footage Iran released also does appear to show at least one anti-ship missile hitting the largely open mid-section after skimming at sea level.

Beyond these missiles, the exercise also featured a swarm of IRGC speed boats firing artillery rockets at the mock carrier, as well as combat divers who could have placed limpet mines on its hull. A team of commandos also repelled on the barge's top deck from an Mi-17 helicopter to conduct a simulated assault and at least one individual parachuted onto the ship. 

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All of these tactics were seen during Great Prophet IX, as well, as seen in the video below.

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Iran also says that Great Prophet 14 included air defense drills. More notably, the IRGC said that its Nour satellite, which it successfully launched in April using a previously unseen space launch vehicle called Qassed, had captured imagery of the exercise from space. This satellite, which has been described vaguely in the past as a "multi-purpose" system, is Iran's first dedicated military space-based asset. 

The Iranian government has yet to release any images from Nour to back up its claim or give a sense of how high the fidelity of the imagery actually is. Still, if true, having its own organic space-based intelligence gathering capability of any kind could be valuable for Iran, which has very limited other means of peering into denied areas in opponents' territory, such as in Israel or Saudi Arabia.

So far, Iran appears to have refrained from actually blowing up the faux carrier as it did during Great Prophet IX. The detonation of a large explosive charge on the barge during that exercise in 2015 caused major damage to it, but provided a spectacular visual for propaganda purposes.

Iran's fake aircraft carrier explodes during Great Prophet IX in 2015., AP

Still, just being able to train against a large mockup of any kind offers some degree of practical opportunities for Iran to evaluate its various tactics, techniques, and procedures. Limiting the actual damage to the barge will make it easier to refurbish it and use it in future drills, as well. 

Though there are questions about the exact state of Iran's maritime warfare capabilities, Great Prophet 14 has certainly showcased a number of them that do pose real threats to American and other foreign warships, including aircraft carriers, operating in the region. This comes as the USS Nimitz, the first in the class of carriers that the Iranian barge is modeled after, is presently heading toward the Middle East, where it will likely take up station, replacing its sister ship the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which has now left the area and is in the Mediterranean Sea.

Iran routinely objects to the presence of American warships in the Persian Gulf. The regime in Tehran also regularly threatens to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which between 20 and 30 percent of the world's oil exports pass, in response to foreign sanctions, especially those the United States has placed on its oil and natural gas industries.

Of course, Iran could certainly use a major propaganda victory. In addition to being subject to crippling international sanctions, the country has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and recently suffering a string of mysterious explosions and fires. Foreign actors, primarily Israel, have been implicated in at least some of those incidents, which may also have deliberate acts of sabotage carried out with assistance from the United States. The regime in Tehran has also accused the U.S. military of conducting a dangerous intercept of a Mahan Air Airbus A310 airliner as it flew over Syria last week, which American authorities have strenuously denied.

There is certainly still time for the IRGC to cap off the Great Prophet 14 exercise with an even more dramatic display involving its fake American aircraft carrier.

Update: 2:00 PM EST—

U.S. personnel at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, both situated on the opposite side of the Persian Gulf from Iran, went on high alert in response to three Iranian missiles fired during Great Prophet 14 that appeared to be heading their way. These missiles, possibly ballistic missiles, fell into the water, but had come "close enough" to cause concern, according to Fox News

Unspecified " intel indicators" had detected the missiles, CNN reported. This could include information from a variety of U.S. assets in the region, such as the AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar that the U.S. Army operates in Qatar or any of a number of aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms that routinely operate over and around the Persian Gulf. A U.S. Air Force E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft was seen orbiting off the coast of the UAE earlier today. It and other ISR aircraft, manned and unmanned, have undoubtedly been observing the Great Prophet 14 exercise, in general.

Space-based early-warning satellites may have also been involved. These helped spot Iranian ballistic missiles fired at bases housing American troops in Iraq in January. 

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