The Strange Lives of a Fake Iranian Carrier

A brief history and satellite imagery exploration of what shipsearcher staff like to call the USS Potemkin Maru!

Carrier of dreams or carrier of nightmares? In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s fake aircraft carrier, that depends on your perspective. It might be as simple as which side of the Strait of Hormuz you are looking at it from.

FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2014-02
The “thing” nears completion, with aircraft and the island superstructure being added. The shipsearcher name for this will be explained below.

Building an aircraft carrier is no easy task, and few countries in the World are able to marshal the necessary resources, technologies, and shipbuilding capacity to do this. Since the end of World War Two, the US Navy has commissioned about 30 large carriers, each class of which surpassed the last in terms of size and capability.  The current Nimitz-class supercarriers routinely patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf, and transit the Strait miles away from the Iranian coastline.

The real deal: USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69, USNS Arctic and the destroyer USS Nitze transit the Strait of Hormuz, July 2016, as part of maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. US Navy Official 160721-N-OR652-449 (PO3 J. Alexander Delgado)

As one response to what Iran sees as constant provocations, it built its own unique carrier: a massive fake target ship. A floating target could be as innocuous as a floating barge or a platform with some markings, but this 670-foot long mock-up, completed in 2014, looks like somebody’s idea of a US supercarrier! Unlike the training aids or amusement park attractions we feature on other pages, such as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (China), this fake carrier is unique: It can be towed out from its home-port, Bandar Abbas, and attacked to test the strike capabilities of the surface units of the Iranian Navy, missile technologies, and the swarm tactics of the fast attack boats of the Revolutionary Guard’s maritime component, in a massive display of carefully staged pyrotechnics.

The thing about the Iranian military displays is that they are not staged in some out-of-the-way backwaters. On one side of the Straits are the United Arab Emirates, on the other is Iran, with Bandar Abbas the major Iranian naval port in the area. Loaded super-tankers transit this tight gauntlet, lined up like a vast convoy. Annually, over 20% of the World’s petroleum pass by here, on the way to facilities across the World – a massive choke-point for oil. During the Iran-Iraq War the supply of oil through the straits was threatened during the so-called “Tanker War.” In 1988, the US Navy’s Operation Praying Mantis struck Iranian targets here, and sank several warships, in part for retaliation against Iranian mine-laying activities. Since 2015, the Iranians have twice pushed the giant target out into the Strait, to stage large attacks against it.

Strait of Hormuz general view 2020
On any day, much of the traffic through the Straits of Hormuz consists of super-tankers.

What follows is a satellite imagery survey of the unusual career of what, for want of a better name, Shipsearcher Identification Staff (SIS) dubbed the (fake) USS Potemkin Maru. The staff naval historian assigned to write this post is not certain if those twinkie-eating wiz-kids at SIS came up with this name as a reference to fake Russian villages, Japanese merchant ships, or the simulation that James T. Kirk cheated in Star Trek…or all of these. The SIS hasn’t yet set up a page for the Iranian Navy, so, for now, it makes an “honourable mention” in the USN currently-serving Aircraft Carriers page.

FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2013-08
If it looks like the girders of a bridge, and acts like scaffolding…then it must be a fake carrier! Tubular idea, dude!
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2013-10
Here we would normally say the vessel is starting to take shape…but it really isn’t.
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2014-03
Near the bows the deck numbers “68” stand out clearly, which is a provocative reference to the USS Chester Nimitz (CVN-68), unless it is a case of hero-worship. We wouldn’t speculate. The numbers were painted out before the first attacks.
USS Nimitz Puget Sound refit 2018
And here is a capture of the authentic USS Nimitz, CVN-68, undergoing a refit at the Puget Sound shipyard. You can see that the 2/3 scale model-makers in Iran may have taken a few “liberties!”
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2015-02
Here the fake carrier is at a real dock, with its fake air complement embarked. We can’t speculate on the fake power system, but would say that, at this size it could well be fake nuclear-powered, with fake conventional also an option.
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2015-03
The carrier after the February 2015 staged attacks, which clearly voided the warranty, and may have even twisted the frame.
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2015-06
This shows the “thing” seemingly abandoned outside the port after the first attack.
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2019-06
Still abandoned outside the breakwater, there are now new holes in the deck, near the port trailing edges. Presumably discussions would have centered around the worth of repairing, vs. final disposal. How many workers – how many Allen keys to fix this?

We made the mistake of writing the Potemkin Maru off after it was “battle-damaged” the first time, on 25 February 2015. It lay abandoned outside of the Bandar Abbas restricted naval port breakwaters. But this fake carrier is nothing if not resilient. She was brought back into the port in August, 2018, and was repaired, only to be attacked again. Was there some type of mid-life upgrades? The only visual difference we could see was that the leading edges of the flight deck were slightly modified to be less “curvy.” This made the mock carrier appear less silly.

FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2019-11
Work is underway repairing the first battle damage. The carrier seems to have virtually no draft (depth in the water) so can be hauled up and worked on by regular construction cranes.
FakeUScarrierBandar Abbas2020-03
This is how she looked before the latest attacks. With the sharper deck edges, she is starting to look better. If they would just broaden the deck over the bows, or have it taper outwards to meet the wider midships sections more, their fake could start to look like a masterpiece.

For the 28 July 2020 attacks, an assault team rappelled down rope from a hovering helicopter. We imagine this would be useful for training on landing a team on a merchant ship like a tanker, not a carrier surrounded by its screen of escorts, and air complement brimming with attack aircraft. Next up, a missile attack was staged: land-based anti-ship missiles and helicopter-fired rockets damaged the target. In the days after the attacks, press reports have not yet revealed what the ultimate fate of the Potemkin Maru is, with some indicating the carrier was “blown up,” and others claiming it was slightly damaged in an underwhelming display of military incapability. Will there be another rebirth of the great simulated ship? In his eloquent commentary on the use despots can make of propaganda victories vs. the actual reality, we can’t improve on poet Robert Graves’ closing lines in The Persian Version: “what repute the Persian monarch and the Persian nation won by this salutary demonstration: Despite a strong defence and adverse weather, all arms combined magnificently together.”

-2020/10/13 Update! Recently released imagery dating from this summer now shows the fake carrier pulled to the side of the breakwater, in the most wrecked condition it has yet looked.FakeUScarrierwreckBandar Abbas2020-08

-2020/08/08 Update! The fake carrier is now still on it’s side outside of the entrance to Bandar Abbas.

Bandar Abbas Sentinel-2 L1C image on 2020-08-06
The fake carrier is creating a disturbance in the current, and is the large oblong grey shape to the SE of the breakwater entrance. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2020] processed by Sentinel Hub

-2020/08/03 Update! More is now known (one day later) on the fate of the fake Iranian Carrier after the 28th of July exercises. It appears in recent imagery waterlogged, capsized onto its starboard side just outside of Bandar Abbas. Fake target carrier to real danger to navigation:

This earlier view from July 31st shows the carrier listing severely, with simulated aircraft hanging on.

New page – Scrapping the Supercarrier

If you have ever had questions about how the World’s largest warships are dismantled, this new page may help answer some of these: Scrapping the Supercarrier. Shipsearcher staff have gone into more detail than the world navies pages, and we hope you’ll find this interesting!

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