Recent reports indicate that Iran is converting an old merchant container ship, Shahid Mahdavi, to a drone aircraft carrier at the Iran Shipbuilding and Offshore Complex Co. (ISOICO) at Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz. Satellite imagery and open-source intelligence reveal that the former container ship is being transformed into a warship that can carry fixed-wing drones and helicopters. The new drone aircraft carrier will substantially enhance Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) medium to long-range strike capabilities as it is reported to have the capacity to carry the wide array of drones that Iran has produced in recent years.
As per reports, in addition to the Shahid Mahdavi, another ship known as Shahid Bagheri could be converted as well. The former was earlier an Iranian-flagged container ship named Sarvin which has been non-operational in terms of commercial activities because of US sanctions. Sarvin was built in 2000 and is originally 240 meters long and 32 meters wide and has a gross tonnage of 36,014. Recent findings suggest that the transformation process of the old merchant ships includes the addition of a large cantilever flight deck on the left side. Various reports had earlier indicated that the Shahid Mahdavi was in the floating dock for the last several months and some of the images show the deck being removed for possible installation of a landing deck. The drones that have been used by Iran do not require long runways to take off which makes the carrier compatible with the range of drones it has in its arsenal.
Iran’s first drone aircraft carrier is an important development not only because of its exceptional capabilities but also because of its prospective role and use in the country’s unconventional maritime warfare. In this context, the following factors are crucial when assessing Iran’s maritime considerations. Firstly, the drone aircraft carrier will support Iran’s regional military strategy and its development reflects the important role of drones in the IRGC’s warfare stratagem. The fact that Iran has accelerated its development and use of explosive-laden drones further reflects the threats and dangers it poses to maritime security in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Iran has long relied on asymmetric warfare and guerrilla-style harassment of ships passing through strategic chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, Iran over time has amassed a wide range of drones that include both short-range and medium-range ones primarily deployed for the purposes of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In light of Iran launching its first drone aircraft carrier, it is important to note that Tehran in recent years has used suicide drones to target Saudi Arabia. Secondly, the development of the drone aircraft carrier needs to be viewed in conjunction with Iran’s growing interest in developing its drone fleet which is composed of short to long-range drones. The possibility of Iran deploying the aircraft carrier to supply missiles and drones to its proxies cannot be ruled out, especially to the Houthi militia in Yemen. The US Navy has seized lethal Iranian weapons on the maritime route between Iran and Yemen several times in recent years. Thirdly, Iran has been gradually shifting its military focus to unmanned and automated systems. Iran has revealed its plan to enhance artificial intelligence application in the military domain, particularly on the battlefield. Fourthly, the IRGC has been instructed to increase its presence in remote waters and enhance its pre-emptive and retaliatory capabilities by relying on the deployment of drones. The drone aircraft carrier allows the accomplishment of both goals, hence escalating the security threats posed by Iran, especially amid the lingering tensions between Tehran and Washington and the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna. Fifthly, Iran’s primary consideration is to counterbalance the US Navy by improving its guerrilla-style warfare capabilities. Hence, Iran in recent years has relied on sea mines, swarm boats, rocket launchers, and highly mobile speedboats to target foreign vessels. Now, it is adding drone aircraft carriers to its arsenal to offset the US Navy in the region. Despite the deep economic crisis, Iran has increased its defense budget consistently in recent years and a large share of the budget is allocated to enhancing the IRGC’s capabilities. The addition of the drone aircraft carrier reflects Iran’s consistent efforts to improve its naval power in a cost-effective manner to enhance its nefarious designs and plans in the region.