Iran flaunts a new ship-fired missile, but analysts say it's no game-changer

  • Iranian commandos recently fired missiles from a ship at a mock-up version of an Israeli base.

  • It’s the first time Iran has launched a ballistic missile from a ship.

  • The container ship that fired it has some severe vulnerabilities, however.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitary recently demonstrated the capability to strike land targets with ballistic missiles fired from a ship, but it is hardly the wide-ranging threat Iranian officials claimed it to be.

The IRGC fired two missiles, believed to be from Iran’s Fateh family of short-range ballistic missiles, from launchers on the deck of the Shahid Mahdavi, a container ship modified to carry helicopters and drones, on Feb. 12. IRGC naval forces fired missiles at a mockup of Israel’s Palmachim airbase inside Iran during the exercise.

“Iran likely wants to demonstrate a growing diversity of options to attack its rivals in the region to reinforce the US administration’s concern that attacking Iran directly could result in a wider and more intense regional conflict,” Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert on naval operations, told Business Insider.

Iran already has warships that can fire guided missiles, and the container ship is a large platform that rivals like Saudi Arabia or Israel can track and target.

IRGC commander-in-chief Hossein Salami lauded the launch, declaring it “increases the range of our naval influence and power to any desired location because our ocean-traversing warships can be at any point in the oceans.”

“There will be no safe place for any power that wants to create insecurity for us,” he said.

Since the test, Iran has expressed its aim to expand its naval power in the Indian Ocean to challenge the US and launched two new indigenous Shahid Soleimani-class missile corvettes.

IRGC boats and corvettes like the Shahid Soleimani-class, along with other warships in Iran’s regular navy, can fire an assortment of anti-ship, cruise, and surface-to-air missiles – many of indigenous Iranian designs. The launch from the Shahid Mahdavi was, however, the first time Iran launched a ballistic missile from a ship.

“Iran is attempting to showcase that it’s expanding its naval reach of its ballistic missiles, something that is designed to reinforce its overall deterrence strategy of expanding the geography of its ballistic missile range to ward off Israeli, US, or GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) moves against Iran,” Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told BI.

Clark similarly believes Iran aims to “shape the security dynamic with its rivals” through this test.

“By showing it can project power and hold targets at risk throughout the region, Iran’s regime shows how it could respond if the US or its allies attack Iran directly, rather than only striking its proxies in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon,” Clark said.

Iran already has ballistic missiles that can reach Israel from its territory, as Tehran demonstrated in its Jan. 15 strike against Syria’s northwestern Idlib province; Israel is roughly 1,000 miles from Iran and has downed ballistic missiles in the conflict since the 10/7 Hamas terrorist attacks. The Fateh missiles have a maximum range of about 300 miles.

Clark noted that a missile attack against Israel directly from Iran could be “highly escalatory” since Israel could interpret it as a “potential nuclear strike” and retaliate in kind.

“If instead Iran strikes Israel with smaller missiles launched from sea, the attack would be viewed by Israel as escalatory but not existential,” Clark said. “The other benefit to Iran of this kind of weapon is it could attack Israel from axes that are less well-protected by Israeli missile defenses.”

While the IRGC’s head unsurprisingly touted this capability, it’s hardly unprecedented.

“There are dozens of versions of containerized launch systems for sale and in operation around the world. This technology is proven and widely available,” Clark said, citing the Klub family of missiles developed by Russia and “copied by many others” as one of many examples.

Deploying SRBMs instead of cruise missiles on the Shahid Mahdavi and similar vessels could also have advantages. For one, the ballistic missiles Iran test-fired on Feb. 12 appear relatively small, around the same size as a cruise missile. In Clark’s estimation, these missiles are probably guided to their targets by satellite navigation rather than just using a seeker, potentially making them cheaper than cruise missiles.

“A cruise missile would require targeting, which could be provided on a container ship, but would require bringing onboard extra gear that would then be stuck with the ship and unable to be used elsewhere,” Clark said.

Despite these advantages, there are also some severe disadvantages. Bohl from RANE pointed out that the Shahid Mahdavi is a “big, bulky target” that probably would not survive long in combat against Israel or the US. Therefore, it should be thought of as a “one-use platform.”

“For that matter, should the US or Israel carry out a preemptive strike on Iran, the Shahid Mahdavi would probably be part of the first round of targets to ensure it couldn’t be used as a launching platform,” Bohl said. “But it allows the IRGC to claim expanding naval capabilities and deterrence against aggression, which matters in terms of its claim of defending Iran.”

If Iran attempted to deploy the ship in the Red Sea or, even less likely, the Mediterranean, it would likely be closely monitored by Israeli warships and submarines.

“Its presence can serve a deterring effect during periods of tension, but should we move into an open conflict, the Mahdavi would probably not alter Israeli behavior or military strategy,” Bohl said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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