Satellite imagery shows that Iran is expanding a drone base on the Persian Gulf island of Qeshm that sits next to the narrow strait through which 20-percent of the world's oil was shipped though in 2012. It's all part of a broader effort by Tehran to beef up its military facilities around the strategic Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most important waterways.
The air base's main runway was recently doubled in length to 1,600 meters, according to Jane's IHS, a private defense analysis firm. This new length would allow the facility to be used for launching Iran's Shahed-129 drones that could track, and possibly attack, ships passing through the strait. Said to be able to fly for up to 24-hours, the Shahed drones are reportedly able to carry missiles capable of hitting ships and ground targets.
In addition to its freshly lengthened runway, the Qeshm site features two new hangars and what Jane's thinks may be building where the drones are controlled remotely from.
There's also a new mobile radar unit at the facility, that "probably provides information that helps [drone] operators avoid collisions with civilian airliners using the nearby Qeshm International Airport," reads Jane's analysis of the site. This radar may also be used to guide drones armed with anti-aircraft missiles to targets flying over the strait, speculates Jane's. Photos have emerged showing Iran's new H-110 Sarir drone armed with small anti-aircraft missiles, though it's unknown if these missiles actually work.
(The U.S. tried to shoot down an Iraqi MiG figther jet with a Predator drone armed with Stinger missiles in 2002; the engagement didn't go well for the American drone.)
The drone base isn't the only military site on Qeshm. If you look at the island on Google Maps you can see an Iranian naval base less than two miles from the drone facility.
In addition to hosting a number of small, armed speedboats that military experts say could be deployed in a swarm to overwhelm the defenses of large ships, the site appears have an underground dock that may hide midget submarines. These small subs could be used to try to torpedo American warships in the area.
Part of Iran's plan for dealing with any conflict involving the United States in the Persian Gulf is to use a mix of high-speed anti-ship missiles, small UAVs, sea mines, and swarms of small boats and midget subs to make it difficult for large American ships built to fight other large ships to operate in the confined space of the gulf. Iran would also try to target nearby American air bases that sit on the shore of the Persian Gulf with its ever expanding missile arsenal.
It's already been confirmed that Iran was operating several different small drones at the Qeshm airstrip before its expansion. As the satellite imagery analysis website OSIMINT notes, the presence of newer drones at Qeshm may have been a factor in the U.S. Navy's decision to equip its floating base in the gulf, the USS Ponce, with an experimental laser cannon designed to shoot tiny drones or swarms of fast moving small boats.
Still, the sites on Qeshm are pretty tiny and it would be relatively easy for the U.S. to take them out with cruise missiles or B-2 stealth bombers. Iran's going to have to have quite a few such sites if it really wants to control the Strait of Hormuz for more than a few days.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.