By Duncan Kellogg
The soft blue glow of the sonar terminal washed over Lieutenant Ahmadi’s tired face. He rubbed his eyes, trying in vain to stave off the waves of fatigue washing over him as he entered his thirteenth hour on watch.
“How has it come to this?” Ahmadi asked himself.
Truthfully, it didn’t matter. No one knew who had fired first and, at this point, no one cared. The Iranian government claimed that it was the Saudi Navy, the Saudis claimed that it had been an Iranian patrol boat. However, as soon as the bow of the Saudi Badr-class corvette slipped beneath the waves of the Persian Gulf, discussion of which side did what and when they did it became irrelevant.
The Saudis had been quick to engage, firing a salvo of American-supplied cruise missiles into the Iranian naval facilities at Hushehr and Larak, decimating a major portion of the IRGC swarm boat fleet which was in port following a major exercise. Simultaneously, Saudi air assets quickly sunk a pair of Iranian patrol vessels that were forward deployed in the Red Sea. Iran responded to the attacks in kind, launching anti-ship missiles against Saudi surface assets and saturating the Saudi city of Dammam with low-grade unguided rockets. Since then, the Persian Gulf had devolved into a churn of maritime rocket fire, missile launches, and air strikes. It had only been two days since the first attacks, and already Ahmadi hoped for an end.
“Lieutenant,” Ahmadi’s commanding officer said from behind him, “any new contacts?”
Ahmadi regained his focus and snapped his eyes back to the screen. The captain was a strict and harsh man, any daydreaming on the job would get him relieved of duty.
“Negative, Captain.” He responded, “Nothing on the scopes, but the American Ticonderoga-class moving away from us and a few merchant vessels.”
“Any indication that the American detected us?” The Captain asked.
“No, sir. He remains on bearing 337 at 18 knots.”
“Likely headed to Bahrain to meet up with their comrades. Cowards.”
Lieutenant Ahmadi tried not to show his concern at his superior’s attitude. Regardless of the Captains opinions of them, the Americans had not yet fired a shot. The new U.S. President had run on a platform of disengaging from the Middle East and, as such, seemed far more interested in resuming regular trade practices in the region rather than fighting a hot war over the Persian Gulf. American naval assets had been consolidated in Bahrain after the strikes began and a public announcement was made by the U.S. Navy that no U.S. vessel would fire unless fired upon. Ahmadi had even heard a rumor through one of the intelligence officer’s back on shore that the American president was planning on announcing that they would cancel all arms shipments to Saudi Arabia and sanction both the Kingdom and Iran until they ceased hostilities. Granted, that was just a rumor.
“Hopefully the order will come soon,” the Captain said, returning to his post on the other side of the cramped Fateh-class submarine, “inshallah.”
Ahmadi cringed at the Captain’s attitude. He knew that the Captain’s family was from the town of Chogadak near one of the naval bases the Saudis had destroyed. Saudi rocket attacks had been imprecise at best, and a handful of Iranian civilians were killed by the strikes. The Captain’s family, according to the shoreside rumors, had been among them. Ahmadi knew the Captain to be a stoic man, but he had become increasingly agitated in the days since the attacks.
The days, if one can call them that, since the sinking of the Saudi corvette had been grueling. Ahmadi had been called to his post at the Bandar Abbas Navy Base early on a Wednesday morning. By that evening, his submarine was already at sea with orders to quietly patrol the littoral areas off the coast of Iran and track, analyze, and categorize American and Saudi vessels as they rounded the Strait of Hormuz. The deployment of the Fateh had been rushed following the Saudi strikes on Hushehr, so the dockhands had only managed to pack enough supplies on board to last the submarine a week and a half. It likely wouldn’t matter though, Ahmadi thought, as the widely publicized five week submerged endurance of the new Fateh-class was simply propaganda from the IRGC. Ahmadi himself had never been submerged on the boat for more than two weeks, and even that was pushing the boat’s limits.
As he sat in silence, Ahmadi felt the faint vibration of the submarines diesel-electric engines increase. He watched his console readout as the Fateh ascended two meters and began crawling north along a series of rocky outcroppings, hugging the sandy seafloor. While the Captain was an aggressive man, he was not without caution. The Fateh had been slowly moving from point to point off the Iranian coast in order to remain undetected while it scanned American and Saudi vessels. To Ahmadi’s surprise, he had not yet seen any indication that the Americans had even the faintest idea that they were there. Just as this thought left his mind, Ahmadi saw a new contact appear on his passive sonar display.
“Captain, new contact directly ahead.” Ahmadi called across the central control room of the submarine, “Loose transient, sounds like a submerged vessel.”
“Finally,” The captain responded with a smirk, “engines, all stop.”
Ahmadi verified that the sound signature of the new contact matched that of an American nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, likely one of the converted guided-missile variants that the Americans referred to as SSGNs.
“It’s the Georgia,” The weapons operator sitting next to Ahmadi stated “I tracked it once before. Sounds exactly the same as it did then.”
Ahmadi raised an eyebrow, hesitating to protect his jurisdiction in case the weapons officer was right. As he did so, a loud metallic ping reverberated around the Fateh’s interior.
“Captain, active sonar ping from the submarine, likely American.”
A second ping.
“Scratch that,” Ahmadi said, “definitely American.”
The weapons operator chuckled. The Yankees loved to toss their weight around.
“Understood, Lieutenant.” The captain responded stoically from across the cramped control room and looked towards the weapons officer. “Ready the weapon.”
The entire crew inhaled sharply and Ahmed’s head snapped up as silence cocooned the vessel. The Captain was referring to one of the only operational models of Iran’s new Hoot supercavitating torpedo. Rather than using propellers to drive the torpedo through the water, the Hoot used rocket engines to propel a warhead towards its target. Small valves in the nose of the torpedo created a small pocket of air for the weapon to travel through, greatly increasing its speed. The Hoot had been publicly tested a few years earlier, much to the chagrin of American intelligence analysts, but had been shrouded in secrecy ever since. In truth, the weapon was one of Iran’s most valuable assets should conflict erupt with the United States. The weapon was simply too fast for American countermeasures, and both sides knew it.
“Sir?” The weapons officer said, his voice trembling in surprise and apprehension.
“You heard me.”
A brief moment of hesitation in the control room told the Captain all he needed to know. He cleared his throat and loudly addressed his crew.
“Men, you are sailors of the Artesh Navy. Your job is to protect the Islamic Republic and you will do so.” The Captain looked towards the weapons officer. “Ready the weapon.”
The weapons officer picked up a small headset which had been fastened to the bulkhead to his left. He spoke into it, instructing the sailors in the torpedo room to remove the rocket plugs and valve protectors for the Hoot torpedo. As he spoke into the headset, a third sonar ping echoed around the Fateh’s interior.
“Captain,” Ahmadi said, “the American is likely signaling for us to leave the area. I suspect he is clearing a path for a surface vessel.”
“That is exactly what he is doing, Ahmadi.” The Captain responded, “Likely one of their aircraft carriers.”
“Should we comply, sir?” Ahmadi asked, hoping the Captain would see what Ahmadi was trying to say. “We do not want to provoke the Americans, sir. We are too valu-”
“Do not instruct me on how to command my vessel, Lieutenant.” The Captain cut Ahmadi off as he spoke, his dark brown eyes boring a hole into Ahmadi’s.
“Of course, sir.” Ahmadi said apologetically.
Ahmadi turned back towards his console, hoping the entire situation would deescalate and the captain would see reason. It was clear to Ahmadi that the American submarine knew exactly where the Fateh was and it was suggesting that Iranian vacate the area. Ahmadi didn’t want to know what would happen if the American felt threatened. The Captain, however, appeared more interested in defying the Americans than maintaining their vessel’s survivability should fighting break out.
“The weapon is ready, sir.” The weapons officer reported.
“Good.” The Captain responded, “We may have to use it soon.”
Ahmadi held his tongue. He felt the need to object, as the American had not proven himself to be a threat, but he knew he would be berated for insolence. A fourth ping reverberated throughout the vessel. As it did so, Ahmadi felt the tension on board the Fateh increase again. The submarine’s executive officer spoke up.
“Sir,” the XO said, “it would perhaps be wise to move to a more favorable location, the Americans have not yet crossed into our waters.”
After a few seconds of tense silence, the Captain responded.
“You are correct, move us to grid reference 34 by 13.” The Captain pointed to a chart on the bulkhead of the submarine and the submarine’s helmsman replied, turning the ship towards his intended destination.
Ahmadi caught a flash of motion on his passive sonar readout, a new contact had just arrived within the submarines sensor range. It was a massive surface vessel, escorted by two smaller vessels. Ahmadi had seen this moment coming, but he had hoped that the Fateh would have complied with the American submarine’s suggestion before his friends arrived.
“Captain,” Ahmadi called out apprehensively, “we have a new contact. American surface group bearing 210, likely an aircraft carrier and escorts.”
The Captain acknowledged Ahmadi and turned towards the navigator. He held a up chart and pointed to a small rocky shoal just north of their current position.
“You are to make your speed eleven knots and traverse toward this location.” The Captain instructed, “Upon arrival, turn and face the American invaders bearing 210.”
The XO winced at the Captain referring to the Americans as invaders.
“Sir,” the XO said calmly, “is your intent to set a trap for the Americans? Even if it is not, they will see it as such.”
“How the American’s interpret our action is their business,” the Captain said sharply, “we will act as gatekeepers, remaining within Iranian claimed waters and allowing their fleet to pass into the Persian Gulf on our terms.”
“Your tactics are wise, Captain,” the XO responded, “though I fear the American submarine will see our loitering as a threat.”
The Captain gave a small grunt of understanding, though he did not issue further orders.
Ahmadi lost contact with the Americans as the Fateh turned, the baffles of the diesel electric obscuring any clear sensor image. He watched the Captain’s reflection in his sonar panel as he paced around the control room.
For the next twenty minutes, the Fateh remained on steady course toward its destination. Hardly a word was said as the crew aimed to avoid the ire of an increasingly agitated Captain. Ahmadi could hear the Captain mumbling Qur’an verses under his breath. As they approached their next patrol point, the navigator called out.
“Navigation point reached, sir” he said, “coming about.”
The submarine turned back towards the Americans and Ahmadi regained contact with the American submarine.”
“The Americans followed in suit, sir.” Ahmadi reported, “They are now 2,000 meters off the port bow. Currently tracking four vessels, one submerged, three surface. The surface contacts appear to match the signatures of a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier and two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.”
“Understood.” the Captain responded, “engage active sonar towards the Americans.”
Ahmadi begrudgingly complied, firing loud acoustic pings toward the American submarine. The Americans responded in kind, pounding the Fateh with active sonar. As they did so, the American submarine adjusted course, coming about to directly face the Fateh and holding still 1500 meters off the bow. Ahmadi reported this development to the Captain.
“Maintain position, disengage active sonar.” The Captain ordered, “The American knows we are here. We will now let them pass into the Gulf.”
The American waited momentarily, and then advanced a quarter mile. It again engaged active sonar in a screening operation for the carrier and a clear request for the Iranian to leave the area.
“Sir,” the XO said, “this could be seen as threatening. The American carrier is approaching.”
“We are in Iranian waters.” The Captain responded coldly.
The Americans continued their advance, making their way toward the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
“How far is the carrier?” The Captain asked Ahmadi.
“Three kilometers, Captain.” Ahmadi responded, “It remains behind the submerged contact.”
The American submarine inched closer, maintaining its sonar harassment of the Fateh.
“Sir-” the XO tried to speak but the Captain quickly cut him off.
Ahmadi’s mouth dropped open as he watched his sensor display.
“Sir, the American is opening his torpedo tube doors.” He told the Captain.
“We will do the same. We are in Iranian waters, we will not move.”
The XO tried again to interject, “Sir, we must vacate. We are not at war with the America-”
“You are relieved, Mohammed.” The Captain said coldly.
As he spoke, the Fateh opened its torpedo tubes.
“Plot a targeting solution for the Hoot,” the Captain instructed, “target the carrier.”
The weapons officer complied, quickly entering the correct settings into the supercavitating torpedo.
“Solution plotted.” He reported.
Ahmadi reported that the American submarine was moving closer again, increasing its sonar harassment. As the Fateh failed to vacate, Ahmadi feared what came next.
“Sir! The American has released a torpedo!”
“FIRE THE HOOT!” The Captain yelled, slamming his hand onto the table in front of him.
The submarine was soon washed with the sound of rocket engines as the supercavitating torpedo rocketed out of its tube and toward the American carrier. Ahmadi held his head in his hands, knowing what came next.
Duncan Kellogg is a developing naval analyst studying nuclear defense posture and maritime security at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Duncan has been writing about the intersection of deterrence theory and maritime security since 2015. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his fish Maverick.
Featured Image: “Submarine” by INS Kim