Iran Unveils Its New Sea Base Warship That Looks Like A Floating Arms Bazaar

Packing drones, boats, missiles, and a helicopter, it is Iran’s somewhat questionable take on American expeditionary sea bases.

byThomas Newdick|
Iran photo


Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has unveiled an unorthodox new multirole warship that it says is armed with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles and is capable of carrying helicopters, drones, and fast attack boats. Described by local media sources as an “oceangoing warship capable of carrying aircraft,” the Shahid Roudaki is reportedly named after an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Navy commander who was assassinated, continuing a recent convention of naming new weapons systems after “martyrs” of this kind.

Reportedly measuring 492 feet long, and with a displacement of 4,000 tons, the Shahid Roudaki is a former roll-on/roll-off ship that’s been adapted for military use. It joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) fleet today in a ceremony attended by IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami and several senior military officials.

According to Iran’s semi-official Tasnim News Agency, the IRGC plans to use the Shahid Roudaki as a “marine city,” able to carry out a wide range of missions including combat, reconnaissance, and logistics, “with the purpose of ensuring sustainable security in maritime routes and rescuing trade vessels and fishing boats of Iran and regional countries.”

The same report adds that the IRGC Navy has “already expressed readiness to dispatch vessels to international waters.” This suggests that the Shahid Roudaki is envisaged operating outside Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and could instead potentially range as far as the Red Sea.

The various weapons and other systems that are seen on the deck in pictures from the ceremony at least visually reflects the warship’s purported mission spectrum, as a multipurpose vessel for long-range operations. From bow to stern, the weapons visible on deck comprise eight anti-ship cruise missiles in four twin container launchers, six Ababil-2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a single Bell 412 helicopter, four speedboats, and a 3rd Khordad surface-to-air missile system on a road-mobile transport-erector-launcher plus what appears to be an associated command vehicle. Iranian media reports that the vessel is also equipped with a three-dimensional phased-array radar, plus “advanced communication systems for electronic warfare.”

While the type of anti-ship cruise missiles the ship is seen carrying has not been officially announced, there has been speculation on social media that these could be Qader or Qadir weapons, to which Iranian sources attribute a range of 124 miles and 186 miles respectively. These are reportedly derived from the Noor anti-ship missile, which is an Iranian copy of the Chinese C-802.

Four twin container launchers for anti-ship cruise missiles are located toward the bow., IRAN PRESS SCREENCAP

The Ababil-2 UAVs, which are launched from fixed stands on the ground, are ostensibly designed for surveillance missions, but can also carry explosive warheads and function as “suicide drones.” The Ababil series, and variants and derivatives thereof, has become something of a signature weapon in various conflicts that Iran has been involved with, in recent years, including the Yemeni civil war. Iran has other types of smaller unmanned aircraft, many of which can be used as suicide drones, that it could potentially launch from this ship. 

Aside from these larger drones, images taken over the bow of the Shahid Roudaki reveal a pair of quadcopters, small-scale UAVs that could be used for surveillance in the vicinity of the warship, or potentially delivering lightweight weapons. 

These drones pose very real threats, as evidenced by the unprecedented strikes on oil-related infrastructure in Saudi Arabia in 2019, which also involved several land-attack cruise missiles. The U.S. Navy also notably knocked down at least one Iranian unmanned aircraft after it came within “threatening range” of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz that same year.

An Ababil-2 UAV is displayed in front of the Bell 412 helicopter., IRAN PRESS SCREENCAP

The 3rd Khordad air defense system, the last of the weapons visible on Shahid Roudaki’s deck, is a variant of Iran’s Raad, or Thunder. This surface-to-air missile system is itself analogous to the Russian Buk (SA-11 Gadfly) and came to wider prominence after reportedly being the weapon used to shoot down a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator drone, or BAMS-D, flying over the Gulf of Oman, in June 2019.

The 3rd Khordad surface-to-air missiles atop a road-mobile transport-erector-launcher., IRAN PRESS SCREENCAP

The ship’s relatively large open deck could possibly accommodate other weapon systems, as well, including fixed or road-mobile cruise and ballistic missile launchers, or large caliber rocket artillery. Other kinds of mobile surface-to-air missile systems, as well as the radars associated with them, might also fit onboard.

An aerial view of the warship Shahid Roudaki., IRAN PRESS SCREENCAP

At least in broad strokes, the Shahid Roudaki appears to be a much smaller version of the U.S. Navy’s Expeditionary Mobile Base concept. Those American ships are variants of the modified Alaska class oil tanker design, which you can read about here. Their role is to provide a persistent and capable maritime presence nearly anywhere on the high seas, and the IRGCN may hope to achieve something similar with its new warship, albeit on a much more modest and regional scale. This wouldn't be surprising as the Iranians have gotten a very close look at one of these hulking vessels in action in the Persian Gulf, along with other U.S. sea base concepts that have called those waters home over the years. 

In concept, the Shahid Roudaki also seems to have major parallels with the MV Ocean Trader, a highly modified Special Warfare Support vessel operated by the United States Military Sealift Command and which is able to operate helicopters, jet skis, drones, and various fast boats and Zodiac inflatables. It also uses the roll-on, roll-off cargo ship arrangement as its foundation. However, while there is little to give away the Ocean Trader’s military mission, the function of the IRGCN’s new warship is made abundantly clear by the assortment of weaponry arranged on deck during its unveiling, at least in the initial photos that have been released by the Iranian state media. 

In a similar vein, it may also represent a further development of the concept explored by Iran with its covert operations ship MV Saviz, a modified cargo vessel that has reportedly been used for offshore surveillance, command, and liaison duties in the Red Sea in support of the Houthis in Yemen. You can read more about that ship in this previous War Zone piece.  

There’s also a possibility that this new warship could serve as a “mother ship” for various kinds of discreet or asymmetric operations by the IRGC or other Iranian forces, such as the high-profile attacks launched against tankers in the Gulf of Oman in 2019. These included the use of limpet mines, presumably delivered by combat divers of the type that could be launched on raids from a vessel like the Shahid Roudaki

More generally, there is a noticeable trend toward navies looking to introduce special operations “motherships”. The British Royal Navy, for example, is eyeing a vessel in this class that would be able to support a wider range of operations, including crisis response and disaster relief. The whole idea of leveraging roll-on, roll-off type ships and adapting them to become multi-mission naval platforms is clearly a growing trend, one that Iran has taken note of. 

MV Ocean Trader packing special operations fast-boats while docked in Norfolk, Virginia. , DAVID KOZDRON

Overall, the utility of a floating platform able to accommodate different weapons and surveillance assets as required, depending on the mission, is clear, especially for Iran, whose surface combatants otherwise mainly comprise warships dating from pre-revolutionary times or smaller, indigenous vessels. The versatility of the Shahid Roudaki lies in its modular design, in which weapons and sensors, or other equipment, can be installed as required, potentially at short notice.

The value of an Iranian expeditionary sea base, forward-deployed to the Red Sea, could include supporting the Iranian-backed Houthi militia operating in Yemen. It could also serve as a platform for more directly challenging the country’s regional opponents, including Saudi Arabia.

It’s worth noting that the exact point of origin for the strikes on Saudi Arabia, which Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed, remains unclear. The United States subsequently accused Iran of carrying them out directly.

A question mark remains, however, over how viable the Shahid Roudaki actually would be for any kind of long-endurance, high-seas operation. A cursory examination of the vessel doesn’t seem to reveal drone-launch equipment, missile reloads, helicopter maintenance/refueling facilities or hangarage, or even an obvious means of rapidly deploying and recovering the four speedboats. 

Furthermore, as currently configured, the various weaponry is all simply placed on deck, seemingly not even lashed down. As such, it is exposed to the elements and potentially at risk from the effects of a deck pitching and rolling in rough seas. In an operational environment, much of this kit would instead have to be stowed in the hold below deck. 

There’s also the very real problem of the survivability of this type of vessel in a conflict scenario. It’s unclear how resistant the design might be to hostile attacks and, at least in the configuration that Iran has displayed so far, it appears to have limited air and anti-ship defenses. 

This would hardly be the first time that Iran has made questionable boasts about the capabilities of its warships. Prime examples are the Sahand “stealth destroyer,” a missile corvette type vessel that has no stealthy features, and the Kharg, a fleet tanker with a helipad that has been repeatedly and credulously described as a “helicopter carrier.” 

None of this is to say that the Shahid Roudaki might not still offer a useful platform for conducting the kinds of asymmetric and otherwise limited operations that Iran regularly engages in, directly or through proxies, in the Middle East, at least in littoral scenarios. At the same time, until the ship is actually employed on a real-world operation, or in a realistic exercise scenario, it’s hard to know to what degree it is a genuinely capable “oceangoing warship,” or whether it is more of a propaganda exercise intended to show off the IRGC’s missile and drone technologies and to provide an enhanced presence in the littorals near Iranian shores. 

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