Monday, April 03, 2006

Russian Roots for Iran's "Underwater Missile"

Defense Tech: Russian Roots for Iran's "Underwater Missile" - The Shkval

I have observed in the recent past that Russia is becoming quite aggressive with renewing its ties as the arms supplier of the Middle East. This has been particularly evident with its supplying of nuclear technology to Iran, as well as playing softball with Iranian efforts to refine their own uranium. Then, to help Iran protect any legal (or illegal) efforts to refine uranium, the also sell Iran anti-ballastic missle technology.

And now it turns out, the Iranian weapons system that recently was tested has a Russian origin as well - the VA-111 Shkval.

Iran said Sunday that it had test-fired what it described as a sonar-evading underwater missile [video of the test here]...

The new missile is among the world's fastest and can outpace an enemy warship, Gen. Ali Fadavi of the country's elite Revolutionary Guards told state television.

General Fadavi said only one other country, Russia, had a missile that moved underwater as fast as the Iranian one, which he said had a speed of about 225 miles per hour.

That's because this Iranian weapon -- called the 'Hoot,' or 'whale' -- is based on the Russian Shkval, according to former Naval Intelligence Officer Edmond Pope. 'I was informed in late 1990's by a Russian government official that they were working with Iran on this subject,' he tells Defense Tech. 'A cooperative demonstration/program had already been conducted with them at Lake Issy Kul in Kyrgyzstan.'

The Shkval goes so fast because it creates an air bubble around itself, essentially. The process, known as supercavitation, keeps friction to a minimum. 'Instead of being encased in water,' New Scientist noted, the weapon 'is simply surrounded by water vapour, which is less dense and has less resistance.'

As the AP notes, the Russian-Iranian cooperation could have major strategic consequences for the U.S. navy, possibly keeping American ships from operating freely in the Persian Gulf. 'The U.S. and Iranian navies have had brush-ups during the past.'

During the 'Tanker War,' when U.S. warships moved into the Gulf to guard oil tankers. In 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was badly damaged by an Iranian mine. In response, the U.S. Navy launched its largest engagement of surface warships since World War II. Two Iranian ships were destroyed, and an American helicopter was shot down, killing the two pilots."

Given that the only significant military navy in the world belongs to the US, it is easy enough to see what the intended target is for these missles. I think it certainly makes it more difficult for Russia to deny that it is moving at strong cross-purposes to US intentions. I also doubt that very many Russian citizens would suggest that arming Iran is a good idea.

Update (April 5, 2006) I see on RIA Novosti (and I am sure it is reported elsewhere) that Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has flatly denied that Russia had any involvement with helping Iran develop their new torpedo. Of course, it very much seems like hollow and empty words - in order for a torpedo to develop that kind of speed, it has to use cavitation technology of some kind, and the Russian Shkval torpedo is absolutely unique (and carefully guarded) in that regard. Photographs of the front of the Shkval torpedo have never been permitted, in an attempt to guard exactly how the cavitation process of this torpedo is formed.

So it is either a very remarkable case of reverse engineering by a close weapons ally of Russia - or Russia helped Iran build it. In truth, real reverse engineering rarely exists - most cases of military "reverse engineering" were actually heavily supplemented by espionage.

It should be explained that a torpedo like this really only has one purpose - to sink large military vessels that are capable of defending themselves from more conventional torpedoes. Despite Iranian claims of the torpedo being "guided" it is likely that it has only the most rudimentary guidance system. Conventional torpedoes work quite well against most smaller military ships and non-military ships. So you develop something like this basically to sink a large submarine or an aircraft carrier. From Wikipedia:
The United States has the majority of aircraft carriers with a dozen in service, and its aircraft carriers are a cornerstone of American power projection capability.

Nine countries maintain aircraft carriers: United States (12), United Kingdom (3), France (1), Russia (1), Spain (1), Brazil (1), Italy (1), India (1) and Thailand (1). In addition the People's Republic of China's People's Liberation Army Navy possesses the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, but most naval analysts believe that they have no intention to operate it, but instead are using Varyag to learn about carrier operations for a future Chinese aircraft carrier. Canada, China, Japan, Pakistan, Australia and Chile also operate helicopter-carrying vessels.
Any kind of extensive deployment of the Iranian torpedo in the area of the Persian Gulf would eliminate the use of large portions (if not all) of the Gulf for use by aircraft carriers. This becomes especially likely if the torpedo is outfitted with a nuclear warhead, as aircraft carriers are typically the center piece of a larger deployment force of ships or aircraft carrier group.


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