These Are the Entirely Crappy Warships Iran Says It’s Sending to the U.S. Coast

A 45-year-old destroyer and Iran’s only big tanker ship


A senior admiral of the Iranian navy said on Feb. 8 that Tehran is sending two warships near American waters in retaliation for U.S. naval deployments around Iran.

“Iran’s military fleet is approaching the United States’ maritime borders, and this move has a message,” Adm. Afshin Rezayee Haddad told Iranian state media, according to U.S. news reports.

Haddad called the deployment “Iran’s response to Washington’s beefed up naval presence in the Persian Gulf.”

Never mind that the U.S. Navy has actually reduced its forces in the Persian Gulf. Today the Navy has just one nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, in the Gulf along with the amphibious assault ship Boxer. Two years ago the Americans had two carriers near Iran, but budget cuts ended that that practice.

Haddad’s claim is mostly bluster. Iranian admirals periodically insist they’re going to send warships across the Atlantic to American waters, but nothing meaningful ever comes of it. North America is a long haul from the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean across potentially rough seas. And an Iranian force would undoubtedly receive a chilly welcome if it did make it across the Atlantic.

Haddad said his ships sailed from South Africa, which means he was referring to the Iranian navy’s 29th Flotilla, composed of the destroyer Sabalan and the logistics ship Kharg, which Iranian media persists in calling a “helicopter carrier.”

They’re pretty crappy ships by anybody’s standards. Sabalan is a British-built Vosper Mk. V frigate launched in 1969, making her 45 years old today. Displacing just 1,500 tons—around 15 percent the weight of the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers—Sabalan has a crew of around 125 and is armed with four anti-ship missiles and some guns. A far cry from the 100 or so missiles that most American surface warships carry.

Sabalan is most famous for almost getting sunk by the Americans 26 years ago during naval skirmishes in the Persian Gulf. The destroyer and other Iranian vessels had been harassing tanker ships—Sabalan’s skipper even earning the nickname “Captain Nasty.” After Tehran mined international waters, the U.S. Navy attacked.

Sabalan fired on an A-6 bomber from the carrier USS Enterprise. In retaliation, the A-6 dropped a laser-guided bomb on the Iranian ship. “As darkness fell, the Sabalan was down by the stern with tugs fore and aft,” a U.S. official told the Chicago Tribune. “We do not intend to renew attacks on the Sabalan unless she exhibits further hostile intent.”

She did not—Captain Nasty had apparently had enough. Repaired and returned to service, Sabalan was upgraded with new Noor missiles last year. But even new missiles don’t change the balance of power. Sabalan is smaller than—and about as heavily armed as—some U.S. Coast Guard cutters.

Tanker ‘Kharg,’ as seen from the USS ‘Donald Cook.’ David Axe photo

And her companion on the supposed trip to American waters, the tanker Kharg, is no more impressive. Built by the British in 1977 and displacing 33,000 tons, Kharg is by far Iran’s biggest warship and its only large tanker. Armed with guns, she can support three helicopters, making her the closest thing Iran has to an aircraft carrier.

But forget the copters. Kharg’s real utility is her ability to refuel and resupply smaller ships such as Sabalan. It’s doubtful the 29th Flotilla will make it very far across the Atlantic, but whatever distance it does achieve will be thanks to Kharg’s supplies.

It’s for that reason that Kharg with her 250 sailors is among Iran’s busiest warships. In 2010, I sailed with the destroyer USS Donald Cook on a counter-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden. One quiet evening we ran into Kharg in international waters, presumably accompanying a destroyer or frigate that was somewhere over the horizon.

Kharg unsettled Donald Cook’s crew. Unlike even Russian warships in the area, the tanker did not maintain radio contact with nearby ships, instead sailing silently through crowded waters. “It’s a mystery,” Derek Granger, the American skipper, said of the Iranians’ behavior.

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