Iran’s war games are an often entertaining look at antiquated and repackaged military technology presented like it’s the latest gear. Here’s a great example of it. In the latest round of Iranian exercises being carried out this week, the Mullahs are showing off a new attack hovercraft that can launch drones and missiles, or so Tehran claims.
The hovercraft, called the Tondar (or Thunder), kicked off the exercises, which reportedly includes drones, fighter jets and around 8,000 troops sprawled out across eastern Iran. According to Iran’s state news agency, the hovercraft is for ”offensive reconnaissance operations, mid-range amphibious missions” and “asymmetric defense,” said Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi at the hovercraft’s unveiling on Monday. There’s also a version for transporting troops that hasn’t been revealed, Vahidi said. And Tehran claims the hovercraft is indigenously produced.
Tehran is also testing its Russian-made S-200 air defense systems, which the U.S. would have to destroy in case President Obama ever attacks Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is testing another missile defense system called “Mersad,” or Ambush, which Iranian state media claims can lock on to enemy aircraft at 50 miles and destroy them from 30 miles; along with two other new missiles, including a low-altitude missile called the “Ya Zahra 3″ that “is completely indigenous and Iranian and has been designed and produced to suit internal needs,” said Farzas Esmaili to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
But there’s no telling if any of the new weapons being trotted out this week are really all that new, or just a little new-ish. Iran’s military likes to proudly assert its hardware is domestically produced, even though Tehran is in fact reliant on decades-old equipment and sanctions-skipping arms imports from Russia and China. Iranian state media regularly boasts about 100 percent Iranian-made weapons, but the bravado is always worth treating with a great deal of skepticism.
Tehran wants to the world to believe its military is self-sufficient, and that sanctions directed towards Iran’s nuclear program are no biggie. And last week, Iranian pilots shot at and missed an unarmed U.S. MQ-1 Predator drone. But it was Tehran’s chance to boast about its ability “to give a crushing response to any enemy aggression in the shortest time and most powerful form possible.”
Case in point behind all this bravado is the Thunder.
Perhaps it is domestically made. Outwardly, the Thunder resembles the British Hovercraft Corporation SR.N6 — first acquired by Iran when the Shah was in power — capable of traveling at 58 knots and weighing in at about 10 tons. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Iran to have upgraded the SR.N6, added a missile launcher and a new coat of paint, and then called it domestically produced. But the design principles behind 1970s-era hovercraft are not too difficult to figure out if Iran wanted to build a copy of its own.
Iran’s hovercraft force is also tiny — perhaps no more than 14 vessels — even when compared to North Korea, which has an estimated 130 Kongbang-class hovercrafts, enough to potentially launch an invasion of several South Korean islands. Iran’s hovercrafts would also be doomed in a confrontation with the well-armed U.S. Navy, and any attack would have to be quick and rely on the element of surprise to have a chance of doing damage. At the same time, it’s a creative and low-cost alternative compared to new submarines. Iran has even taken to basing some of its old British-made BH.7 hovercraft — spotted on Google Maps — a short hop away from the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Meanwhile, while Iran is boasting about the latest in 1970s tech and playing war games, China is showing off its latest drones. At an airshow near Macau, China’s aerospace industry is showcasing several unmanned flying robots, including the Wing Loong, which strongly resembles the U.S. Predator but with longer range. Several drones displayed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation had a “striking resemblance to existing Western aircraft,” noted defense trade group Shephard Media. Among them include a small drone called the Auspicious Bird and an unmanned helicopter called the Ptarmigan.
Compared to China, the hardware on display by Iran this week ranges from yesterday’s junk to not-terribly-impressive. But don’t let Tehran hear you say that.