The Iranian military accidentally sunk a target barge used as a mockup U.S. aircraft carrier in recent exercises while towing it back to port, according to a report by Forbes, causing a major sea-lane hazard.
The barge in question was built around six years ago and originally explained as a prop for Airbus, a never-released film about the 1988 destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 with all 290 people on board by the USS Vincennes. (The film was supposedly being directed by Sean Stone, but apparently never came to fruition.) In 2015, decked out to resemble a much smaller version of a U.S. aircraft carrier complete with mock aircraft on board, it was barraged with missiles as part of an exercise titled “Ninth Great Prophet.”
According to the Drive, the derelict vessel then sat in port for years at Bandar Abbas, the headquarters of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the naval forces of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. More recently, it was repaired and sailed into the Strait of Hormuz, a key regional shipping route that connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, for IRGC exercises last month on July 28. There it was circled by speed boats, boarded via helicopter by Iranian commandos, and subject to heavy fire, including missiles launched from land, sea, and air. A video of the wargames released by state media also features divers, suggesting Iranian forces planted limpet mines on the barge’s hull.
The actual military value of the exercises is questionable, according to Naval News, because the barge is not a particularly accurate reproduction of a real carrier and thus would not hold up to damage in the same way.
Nothing appears to have gone particularly wrong during the exercises, but Forbes reported on July 31 that satellite imagery captured by open-source intelligence researchers Aurora Intel and Chris Biggers appeared to show the mock aircraft carrier in the middle of capsizing—right outside of Bandar Abbas, where it was probably being returned. The situation got worse in subsequent days. As seen above, PLEIADES satellite imagery released by Shadowbreak earlier this month shows that the carrier is now more or less facing 90 degrees in the wrong direction (starboard up).
According to Forbes, perhaps more irritating than the loss of the target barge is the fact that it was stuck in waters just 45 feet deep in the approach to the port. If it was further out to sea, they could just leave it to sink, but in that location, it is an unacceptable hazard to passing ships and will have to be somehow recovered. At the very least, no one was killed, unlike a May 2020 friendly fire incident in which an Iranian destroyer accidentally fired missiles at a support vessel, killing at least 19.
The Iranian exercises sparked a routine reaction from the U.S. Navy, which labeled them “reckless and irresponsible.” Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have remained elevated beyond their typically hostile levels in recent years. Donald Trump’s administration tore up a Barack Obama-era nuclear deal designed to ease economic sanctions in exchange for disarmament, and Iran has responded by upping their uranium enrichment program (which may have been sabotaged in July 2020) and saber-rattling exercises. This is particularly alarming as hardliners in the U.S. have been pushing “regime change” in Iran, which any plausible assessment shows would result in a military and humanitarian catastrophe far worse than even the Iraq War.
Earlier this year, the prospect of open war between the U.S. and Iran came into the open after Trump ordered the assassination of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani, sparking mass outrage in Iran. The Iranian military retaliated by bombarding joint U.S.-Iraqi bases with missiles. The attacks caused no direct fatalities, but dozens of U.S. troops were treated for traumatic brain injuries afterward. Iranian air defenses also shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines passenger jet, killing 176 people, in what the government characterized as the result of “human error” while its military was on high alert.