COLUMN | Upcoming tripartite naval exercise emphasises growing China-Iran-Russia alliance [Naval Gazing]

The Russian Navy frigate Yaroslav Mudry arrives at the Iranian port of Chakhbehar to participate in joint naval exercises in late December 2019. (Photo: Islamic Republic of Iran Army)

Recent news that China, Iran, and Russia are to hold a tripartite naval exercise in early 2022 has focused attention on the steadily strengthening de facto defence alliance between these nations. This alliance has already seen a number of Iran-Russia and Iran-China naval exercises in recent years.

The three countries have a common interest in keeping leading western nations off-balance, and analysts believe that the upcoming exercise is intended to send a message that the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean seaways, very heavily used by tankers and other commercial shipping, is not a comfort zone for the West. Littoral forces are of prime importance in this potential theatre of war.

Both military and trade links between the three nations are being enhanced, as Iran and China have signed a trade agreement, intended to secure a steady supply of Iranian oil, while trade between Iran and Russia is increasing exponentially.

Tehran has built up a substantial indigenous warship and submarine construction industry. In parallel, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) has earned respect from the international naval community, due to its ability to sustain regular long-range deployments. This is evidenced by the recent attendance of an IRIN task group at an international naval review in Russia, and the invitation extended to the service’s commander, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani (one of the very few Sunni Muslims to have achieved high rank in the Iranian armed forces) in the recent Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

The IRIN continues to add modern locally-built combatants to its order of battle: most recently Dena, the fourth heavily-armed Mowj-class frigate, and Saba, the first of a new class of surface-effect catamaran mine warfare countermeasures vessel (MCMV). Furthermore, Tehran’s other maritime force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), has this year added some 200 vessels to its already vast array of small high speed attack craft of various types, armed with guided missiles, cannon, and unguided rockets, and capable of laying mines.

The IRGCN, which is responsible for promoting Tehran’s interests in the Straits of Hormuz, and along the Iranian coastline by, in the event of hostilities, waging asymmetrical war upon rival navies, has also commissioned a new base at Sirik, a strategically-located port overlooking the strait.

The Russian Navy is well-placed to play a major role in exerting Moscow’s influence in the region, particularly as the service is now placing renewed emphasis upon mine warfare and littoral capabilities.

The Ivan Gren-class landing ship Pyotr Morgunov during sea trials in 2020 (Photo: United Shipbuilding Corporation)

Under construction are a pair of 40,000-tonne Project 23900 landing helicopter docks. These ships will be able to operate up to 16 large helicopters, as well as uncrewed aerial vehicles, and will have comprehensive command and control capabilities. Furthermore, the new Ivan Gren-class of amphibious warfare vessels, which are currently coming into service, reportedly have minelaying capability.

Also of note is the Project 12700 class of MCMVs, the seventh of which, Anatoly Shiemov, was recently commissioned.

China’s PLA Navy has been active in the Gulf region since 2008, and nowadays uses a forward operational base in Djibouti. Iran’s recent accession to the Shanghai Security Organisation should facilitate the further growth of military links between Beijing and Tehran, which include the provision of small Chinese warships and weaponry to Iranian maritime forces.

China’s first Type 075 landing helicopter dock at its launching ceremony on September 25, 2019 (Photo: China State Shipbuilding Corporation)

The PLA Navy’s third Type 075 Landing Platform Dock is currently undergoing sea trials. These 40,000-tonne warships can operate 30 helicopters, including land attack variants, as well as transporting troops and their vehicles. It has been reported, incidentally, that PLA maritime troops, which will operate from these vessels, are being substantially upgraded.

The PLA Navy has only one dedicated minelayer, but many Chinese surface warships are capable of laying mines, while newly-built Type 081A MCMVs continue to enter service.

Analysts will doubtless be watching the upcoming exercise closely. Factors of particular interest are the extent if any, to which the PLA Navy’s adherence to the “double headed command” system, which mandates the presence on board warships of senior political officers, affects efficiency, and how well the traditionally rivalrous IRIN and IRGCN are able to integrate their operations.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.