David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and founder of Strikepod Systems (strikepod.com), a provider of current and strategic fiction intelligence (FICINT) on global naval affairs, with an emphasis on unmanned maritime systems. He can be found on Twitter @Strikepod. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Alternative History: An Assessment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy Azhdar Unmanned Undersea Vehicle
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article presumes that the anonymous tanker attacks of May 12, 2019, were carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) using an indigenously-developed unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV), and that the United States subsequently uncovered evidence of an Iranian offensive UUV, the Azhdar. It is written from the perspective of the U.S. Intelligence Community for an audience of national security policymakers.
Date Originally Written: August 10, 2019.
Date Originally Published: October 28, 2019.
Summary: U.S. intelligence has uncovered evidence that Iran has repurposed its e-Ghavasi swimmer delivery vehicle (SDV) as an offensive UUV. This repurposing is a potentially game-changing capability for Iranian naval forces with grave implications for regional stability.
Text: On the morning of May 12, 2019, four oil tankers anchored off the coast of the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), sustained damage from what was alleged to be limpet mines placed by Iranian divers or fast boat operatives. However, scientific intelligence obtained from a clandestine source working alongside UAE investigators suggests that the blast damage was in fact inconsistent with the use of limpet mines. The source also reports that UAE investigators reached conclusions similar to those of an unnamed Norwegian insurance company (as reported by Reuters on May 17, 2019), namely that the IRGCN was behind the attacks, that these attacks were likely carried out using “underwater drones carrying 30-50 kg (65-110 lb.) of high-grade explosives,” and that the release of such information would cause significant alarm and exacerbate regional instability. Additional supporting evidence was not provided, but if confirmed, this type of attack would represent a deeply concerning development for the United States, its allies, and a potentially game-changing breakthrough for the IRGCN.
Despite years of crippling economic sanctions, Iran has managed to acquire a potent undersea warfare capability, including three Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, nearly two dozen Ghadir-class midget submarines, two domestically produced classes of attack submarine (Fateh and Besat), and an assortment of special operations vehicles and mines. Given the IRGCN’s experience with undersea operations, including offensive mining, and the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and IRGCN have historically been skilled early adopters of unmanned technologies, we anticipated that Iran would seek to acquire an unmanned undersea capability, either through illicit acquisition or indigenous manufacture. Even a crude UUV would provide a considerable asymmetric advantage to Iran and its nonstate proxies operating in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb Strait. As such, U.S. collection efforts expanded in 2010 to include monitoring for indications of Iranian procurement of UUV-related technologies.
In 2012, a report surfaced that Iran had managed to domestically produce a UUV, dubbed the Phoenix, that was capable of 18 knots while submerged. Given Tehran’s history of exaggerating or outright fabricating military capabilities, the veracity of this report was questionable. We were aware, however, that Iran had been attempting to acquire commercially available UUVs by tapping into the global defense marketplace via a complex web of front companies and smuggling operations. Iran was also attempting to acquire commercial off-the-shelf components, such as accelerometers and gyroscopes (used in inertial guidance systems), marine magnetometers, electro-hydraulic pressure sensors, and undersea modems. In the months leading up to May 12, 2019, we were well aware of Iranian materiel gains, but believed that the technical and operational challenges involved in deploying an offensive UUV were too great for Iran to overcome. However, given the UAE investigation, and intelligence recently provided by a highly placed source within the Iranian naval establishment, we no longer believe this to be the case.
We are now certain that Iran has repurposed its e-Ghavasi SDV as a weaponized UUV, and that four of these vehicles were in fact used to carry out the May 12, 2019 attacks. With its ready-made hullform and operational propulsion system, Iranian engineers successfully retrofitted a crude but effective onboard inertial guidance system. Coupled with its capacity to accommodate a large multi-influence mine, the weaponized, unmanned e-Ghavasi, dubbed the Azhdar, is now a highly mobile, stealthy, and lethal mine platform.
The weaponized UUV Azhdar is 533mm in diameter, which makes it compatible with standard heavyweight torpedo tubes. In order to fit, the vehicle’s forward diving planes and rear stabilizer have been recessed into the hull and are spring loaded to deploy upon launch. The vehicle’s cargo bay is large enough to carry a 480kg seabed mine, and it is likely, given the scale of the damage, that only a fraction of its ordnance capacity was utilized in the May 12, 2019 attacks. Approximately twelve units are currently in the IRGCN inventory. Assuming current Iranian defense industrial capacity and an uninterrupted connection to illicit supply lines, we believe Iran is capable of producing two to three weaponized UUVs per month.
The Azhdar is essentially a mobile mine that can be programmed to detonate at a particular time or place, or when influenced by specific sensory inputs. It can be deployed from surface or subsurface platforms, and is extremely hard to detect and neutralize. Although relatively slow and lumbering when compared to a torpedo or encapsulated torpedo mine, it is extremely quiet and stealthy, and, given its mobility, is largely immune to mine countermeasures. Azhdar undersea deployments would be far more covert than indiscriminate mining, which would take several days of highly visible surface activity. Also, the psychological effect of targeted Azhdar attacks could enable the Iranians to effectively close the Strait of Hormuz while enjoying deniability and maintaining a vital economic lifeline for oil exports.
The Azhdar poses a unique and significant tactical challenge for the U.S. Navy, as it would likely render traditional mine countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) tactics ineffective. In a manner consistent with Iranian torpedo tactics, we believe that Azhdars would be deployed from Ghadir-class midget submarines operating on the seabed in shallow, cluttered coastal areas where they would be effectively masked from sonar detection. But unlike a torpedo launch, which would expose the Ghadir to near-immediate counter-detection and counterattack by U.S. ASW assets, an Azhdar deployment would be extremely difficult if not impossible to detect. Once deployed, the Azhdars would proceed slowly and quietly, approaching their targets without warning and detonating on contact or from magnetic influence. The Ghadir could then rearm while surfaced or submerged using divers from an IRGCN surface vessel to facilitate the reloading process.
The Azhdar UUV is a force multiplier for the IRGCN, combining the sea denial capability of conventional offensive mine warfare with the stealth, mobility, and plausible deniability of unmanned undersea operations. It is a game-changer for Iranian seapower, with far-reaching implications for the United States and its regional interests.
 Reuters, (2019, May 17) Exclusive: Insurer says Iran’s Guards likely to have organized tanker attacks https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-oil-tankers-exclusive/exclusive-insurer-says-irans-guards-likely-to-have-organized-tanker-attacks-idUSKCN1SN1P7
 See Covert Shores, (2017, December 29) Iranian e-Ghavasi Human Torpedo http://www.hisutton.com/Iran_Chariot.html; Covert Shores, (2015, October 10) Demystified – new low profile Iranian SDV http://www.hisutton.com/Demystified%20-%20new%20low-profile%20Iranian%20SDV.html; Covert Shores, (2016, August 28) Nahang Class http://www.hisutton.com/Nahang%20Class.html; Office of Naval Intelligence, (2017, February) Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies https://www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel%20agencies/iran/Iran%20022217SP.pdf
 Navy Recognition, (2012, January 24) Iran reportedly designed an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) https://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php/news/year-2012-news/january-2012-navy-world-naval-forces-maritime-industry-technology-news/294-iran-reportedly-designed-an-unmanned-underwater-vehicle-uuv.html
 Covert Shores, (2017, December 29) Iranian e-Ghavasi Human Torpedo http://www.hisutton.com/Iran_Chariot.html
 Tasnim News Agency, (2016, January 30) Iranian Navy Forces Practice Off-Dock Torpedo Loading in Drills https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2016/01/30/985644/iranian-navy-forces-practice-off-dock-torpedo-loading-in-drills