The USA exported WWII Sumner and Gearing class destroyers around the globe during the Cold War. One of the most unique examples were two sold to Iran, which ended up being the only ones ever to end up with a “hostile” regime.
(USS Zellars – the future Iranian IIS Babr – at sea during WWII.)
(Left: The flag of Iran prior to the 1979 revolution. Right: A logo used by General Dynamics for the RIM-66 Standard missile export program during the 1970s.)
The Allen Sumner class was the first 58 ships of the overall Gearing family. They are sometimes called “short-hull Gearings” as they were identical except being shorter and having less secondary armament.
As built during WWII, these destroyers measured 376’6″x41’x15’8″ and displaced 2,200 tons. The steam propulsion plant used four boilers, two geared steam turbines, and two shafts. They were exceptionally fast, with a sprint speed of 36 ½ kts and a sustained top speed of 33 kts. The WWII complement was 20 officers and 325 enlisted sailors.
(USS Stormes – the future IIS Palang – during WWII showing the original configuration of the Sumner class.)
By WWII standards, the Sumner class was well-armed. The main armament was three Mk38 twin 5″ guns, the best destroyer gun of WWII and one of the best naval firearms of all time. These guns fired 55 lbs projectiles of a variety of types (HE, AP, AA).
(Mk38 twin 5″ gun)
The secondary gun fit, which increased during WWII as the kamikaze threat grew, was twelve Mk2 and Mk4 40mm guns, about a dozen 20mm guns, and some light machine guns.
The anti-submarine armament was two Mk3 depth charge racks each holding eight Mk9 depth charges. These were backed up by six Mk6 K-Gun depth charge projectors, and two Mk11 Hedgehogs. The Hedgehogs fired a volley of unguided ASW projectiles; the advantage being that the ship could attack a submarine in front of it (which the depth charges obviously could not do) and also, the “spread” of fast-sinking projectiles increased the odds of a hit.
Finally, there were two quintiple Mk14 torpedo tubes firing Mk15 ship-to-ship torpedoes. These unguided torpedoes were straight-running and could not be used against submarines.
The Imperial Iranian Navy in the 1970s
In the early 1970s, the Imperial Iranian navy was small and weak, centered around IIS Artemiz, an ex-Royal Navy destroyer of WWII, and Bayandor gun corvettes built in the USA in the 1960s. The rest of the fleet was old minesweepers or small patrol boats.
(Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the final Shah, in uniform as CinC of the Imperial Iranian navy.)
The Shah decided that he wanted a navy superior to any other middle east country, and at least comparable to what the Soviets might deploy to the Persian Gulf. The decision was part prestige, and part necessity, as by 1970 oil was the mainstay of Iran’s economy. From WWII through the 1960s, the large Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf was de facto protection for tanker traffic to and from Iran, but the 1968-1971 British naval withdrawal left a gaping hole in Iran’s economic security. The expanded Imperial Iranian navy was to guard merchant traffic north to the border with Iraq, west to the Horn Of Africa, and east as far as India.
Although it seems unbelievable today, in 1973 Iran was one of the USA’s closest military allies. Joint military exercises were common, and all of the major American defense contractors had ties to Iran.
(An image of the doomed alliance: a CH-53 Sea Stallion of the Imperial Iranian navy approaches Manhattan in July 1976. The helicopter had just been readied for export by Sikorsky in Connecticut, and was shuttling Iranian military officers to NYC to join in the USA’s Bicentennial celebration.)
The Shah’s naval expansion was to be carried out in three phases:
♦Phase 1: The two SAM-upgraded Sumner WWII destroyers, a WWII-era drydock, and three used Tang class submarines from the USA; four Saam class frigates, four Hengam class amphibious ships, and six Wellington hovercraft from Great Britain; two small supply ships from West Germany; and P-3 Orion ASW planes from the USA plus naval helicopters from the USA and Italy. This was to be completed by 1980.
♦Phase 2: Six (later reduced to four) Kouroush class guided-missile destroyers (a powerful upgrade of the Spruance design) from the USA, a dozen La Combattante II missile boats built in France but armed with American RGM-64 Harpoon missiles, a large Kharg class oiler from Great Britain, and construction of a massive military base at Chah Bahar. This was to be completed by 1990.
(USS Kidd (DDG-993), the never-delivered IIS Kouroush. These four powerful warships were loved in the 1980s/1990s US Navy and later sold to Taiwan, where today in 2016 they are equally well-admired.)
♦Phase 3: A small aircraft carrier to be built in either the USA or Great Britain; and six Type 209 submarines from West Germany. This was to be completed before the end of the millennium and would have rounded out the Shah’s naval project.
This was a very ambitious and expensive plan. At the same time, the rest of the Imperial Iranian military was modernizing; with F-14 Tomcat and F-16 Falcon fighters, MIM-23 Hawk land-based SAMs, and M-60 tanks either delivered, ordered, or planned. This military spending spree adversely affected the Iranian economy, which would come back to haunt the Shah at the end of the decade.
(Compared to the WWII-built destroyers, most of the 1970s arms sales to Iran were of a more advanced nature. Left is an Iranian F-14 Tomcat with AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, and right an Iranian MIM-23 Hawk SAM battery.)
As the Shah envisioned it, the Phase 1 ships would begin to be retired as the Phase 3 vessels were accepted into service. For the two WWII Sumner destroyers, it was loosely planned to retain them through the first refits of the first two Kouroush class vessels, most likely in the 1986-1987 timeframe. As such, they were only viewed as temporary “place-keepers” at the time of transfer.
The Phase 1 expansion was rushed probably faster than it should have been. The Shah observed how several nations embargoed naval deals with Turkey following that country’s July 1974 invasion of Cyprus, and wanted to get as much hardware in the country as fast as possible, even if the Iranian military was not ready to use it without outside technical help.
The situation was not helped by the woeful state of Iranian society; in the 1970s it was still 40%+ illiterate and had an acute shortage of engineers and electronics technicians, let alone ones who wanted to join the navy. The personnel shortage was one of the reasons the Phase 2 plan was cut back. An elaborate network of instructors and specialists from American companies was needed to keep these two destroyers going.
The Sumner class upgraded for Iran
The refits were done together at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Besides the systems below, the hulls were cleaned and refurbished. All systems related to the defunct DASH project were deleted. The air conditioning system was greatly improved and expanded, and dust filters were fitted. The crew berthing arrangements were slightly altered to suit Iranian organization. The crew was now 14 officers and 276 enlisted.
(IIS Babr and IIS Palang in drydock at Philadelphia, PA during 1973; in the midst of the pre-transfer conversion.)
For these WWII-veteran destroyers, their new mission was to be air defense. Iran was not the only country to mount “SAMs-in-a-box” aboard WWII-veteran ships, but it was certainly not a common set-up as it had many limitations.
The RIM-66 Standard surface-to-air missile (SAM) entered US Navy service in the late 1960s as a replacement for RIM-24 Tartar. The RIM-66 weighed 1,558 lbs and was 15’6″ long, flying at Mach 3.5. The version supplied to Iran had a maximum range of 18NM and a minimum range of 2NM. The Standard had a Mk51 137 lbs fragmentation warhead.
(The RIM-66 Standard surface-to-air missile (SAM) as exported to Iran with the refit WWII destroyers. In the foreground is the nose of a RIM-24 Tartar which Standard replaced in American service, and in the background is a RGM-64 Harpoon ship-to-ship missile which was also sold to Iran for use on other warships.)
The coffin-style Mk32 Mod2 launcher system weighed 11 tons and consisted of a one-round launcher 17′ long and a one-round reload box of equal length in front of it. This very simplistic launcher had few parts and was a “bolt-down” item requiring few alterations to the ship itself. The “coffin” door took several seconds to open prior to firing, and to reload it from the box the door had to be closed then re-raised. Once both the launcher and box were empty, they could only be refilled pierside in port.
(IIS Babr showing the four Mk32 Mod2 launchers, two amidships and two in front of the bridge. The pairs were oriented opposite directions with their reload box in front of them.) (photo via navsource.org website)
(The port-side forward launcher on IIS Palang opened and elevated with a missile ready.)
Compared to a normal swinging, elevating missile launcher with below-decks magazine, there was no real advantage to the Mk32 Mod2 other than it was the only arrangement which would work on the WWII-era hulls.
The Standard SAMs did not have to be pointing dead-on towards the target at the moment of launch, however, they had to be reasonably oriented towards it. Normally with a regular naval SAM system, the launcher would just rotate towards the threat direction, but with Babr and Palang, the whole destroyer might have had to maneuver.
The biggest handicap was the fire control system. The SAMs were guided by one Mk25 radar. (This radar was also the aiming system for the 5″ guns.) The Mk25 was seated atop the WWII Mk37 director and as such, to point the dish in a certain direction the whole physical steel structure had to be rotated, wasting precious seconds. The Mk25 could only guide one RIM-66 at time, and even if the SAM missed, the Mk25 was occupied with it during it’s entire flight. The fire control system was a hodge-podge of WWII-era and Cold War-era components originally intended for aiming WWII guns and not for guiding a modern missile.
One issue was that Iran’s future foe, Iraq, was modernizing at a much faster pace than envisioned in the early 1970s when Iran began studies on obtaining these ships. At that time, the Iraqi air force was still flying mediocre-performance planes with basic free-fall bombs. But by the early 1980s, the Iraqi air force had moved up to the supersonic Mirage F.1 and MiG-23 “Flogger”. At 800′ altitude, a Mirage traveling Mach 1 moves about a quarter-mile every second. The time between the plane entering the RIM-66’s envelope and it being right on top of the destroyer was only about eighty seconds. Given all the issues with the coffin-launcher arrangement and director, most likely the destroyer would only be able to get off one, maybe two, missiles.
(The scourge of merchant sailors in the Persian Gulf during the 1980s, an Iraqi Mirage F.1 with AM.39 Exocet anti-ship missile.)
There was (and to a degree, still is) a lot of confusion about the missiles on these two Iranian ships. The 1976 edition of Combat Fleets Of The World incorrectly listed them as RIM-24 Tartars. Other sources in the 1980s incorrectly claimed they were AGM-78 Standard-ARM weapons, an anti-surface radar-homing version of the RIM-66.
Despite all these issues, the introduction of RIM-66 into the Imperial Iranian fleet was a milestone and gave it at least something of a long-range anti-air ability, at a time when most of the other Arab navies were still limited to obsolete manually-aimed guns. Additionally, the missiles could be fired (at short ranges) in a ship-to-ship mode.
The gun armament remained the original WWII Mk38 twin 5″ guns, of which only two turrets remained. Despite it’s age and obsolescence by the 1970s, in the right circumstances this could still be a punishing gun. Even in the 1970s, the USA still retained huge stockpiles of WWII and Korean War era ammunition for this gun, so at the time that was not viewed as a problem. Each destroyer carried 422 rounds of 5″ ammunition.
The Mk38s were the only gun armament specified by Iran. All WWII-era 40mm, 20mm, and .50cal weapons had already been removed during the FRAM II project and quite frankly, the Iranians didn’t envision much need for gunfire given the destroyers new duty of SAM firers.
(The forward Mk38 mount on IIS Babr during the 1970s.)
Two triple Mk32 torpedo tubes were carried amidships. These fired Mk46 ASW homing torpedoes which had a range of about 2 ½ – 3 NM. The Mk46 torpedoes were expensive and also required American technical support to calibrate and maintain in storage. Aboard the destroyers, each of the six tubes had one reload however as the set-up had been shoehorned onto the WWII hulls, reloading required manual transportation of the torpedoes on deck and would have been difficult in combat.
Surprisingly, Iran ordered the shipyard to reinstall the old WWII-era Mk11 Hedgehogs. Now almost 35 years old, these old ASW weapons designed to fight German u-boats were of very limited use against modern submarines. The Hedgehogs were reinstalled in their original WWII location, beneath the bridge wings on the former “B” gun deck which now housed the forward two RIM-66 launchers and reload boxes.
Iran ordered removal of the DASH hangar. In it’s place, a Canadian-designed helicopter hangar with telescoping extension was installed and the helipad enlarged.
(IIS Palang showing the Canadian-designed hangar extension telescoped out.)
Before the 1979 revolution, the Iranian navy bought six AB-212AS anti-submarine helicopters in a deal separate from the destroyers. This was a twin-engine naval version of the UH-1 Iroquois license-made in Italy. This was the helicopter type Babr and Palang carried.
(AB-212AS of the Iranian navy in post-1979 era markings.)
The Westinghouse AN/SPS-29C radar was a key component to the Iranians. This radar had a 18’x11′ antenna, which was a cleverly-designed dipole folded in on itself. It had an instrumented maximum range of 270NM. Realistically, against a large plane at high altitude the maximum was 243NM. Against a modern fighter at medium or low altitudes, the typical detection range was between 50-100NM. Like most naval radars of it’s generation, performance fell off at very low altitudes and an incoming sea-skimming missile like Harpoon or Exocet could only be detected between 6-11NM, by which point it would probably be too late to do anything about it. Iran ordered installation of the AN/SPA-52 processor during the Philadelphia refit. This gave an added ship-to-ship function out to about 15NM. The AN/SPS-29C rotated a beam 25°x20°. A limitation was that it could not determine the detected plane’s altitude.
Besides the primary role of long-range warning for the destroyer itself, Iran envisioned the AN/SPS-29C as being an area asset, providing coverage for other nearby warships. In the western Persian Gulf, it’s coverage would reach into Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE; detecting warplanes from those countries before they even left their own airspace.
(Sensors aboard the two Iranian Sumner class destroyers: 1: combined broadband radio antenna 2: location for AN/SPS-59 not yet installed 3: Mk37 director 4: Mk25 radar 5: AN/SPS-29 radar 6: AN/SPS-10 radar 7: AN/UPX-12 IFF 8: AN/URC-32 radio antenna 9: AN/ULQ-6 jammers 10: AN/WLR-1 ESM 11: AN/SQA-10 VDS)
The AN/SPS-10 was a general-duty workhorse radar of the US Navy throughout the Cold War. It’s primary role was surface search.
The AN/SPS-59 navigation radar was added after the ships were already in Iran. This was a short-range radar based on the commercial LN-66.
The Mk25 radar was mounted on top of the WWII-era Mk37 gunnery director, where the old Mk12 radar had been during WWII. This radar was the “eyes of the guns”, calculating range and bearing. It was also the target illumination system for the RIM-66 Standard SAMs.
The sonar system was upgraded to Iran’s request. The WWII-era QGA hull sonar had already been replaced in US Navy service by the AN/SQS-4. By the 1970s this itself was obsolete and Iran ordered AN/SQS-43 on Babr and AN/SQS-44 on Palang. Both of these hull sonars were very similar and both had a range of about 4NM. Most likely, Iran was hedging it’s bets against one or the other having an unforeseen problem, which neither did. Both interfaced directly with the ASW torpedoes through a Mk105 targeting computer. These sonars were at least a generation behind the top-line American systems of the 1970s, but were better than most developing-country navies had, and much better than the mediocre sonars the Soviets were exporting to their allies at the time.
Both, but especially AN/SQS-44, could perform directional transmissions, blasting the “ping” out down a certain bearing instead of all around. These were (at that time) the most advanced sonars carried on any WWII-era Sumner or Gearing worldwide. None of the other Persian Gulf navies even had submarines so clearly the Iranians were looking to use these destroyers against the Soviets in the open waters of the Indian ocean.
Both destroyers carried the AN/SQA-10 variable-depth sonar. Carried on the stern, it towed an AN/SQS-31 sonar transducer behind the ship. A VDS allowed the destroyers to detect submarines beneath the thermocline, a layer in the ocean where temperature and pressure changes refracts sound. For the 1970s, this was a sophisticated sensor for a “third world” navy to have. In the shallow Persian Gulf, a VDS is useless so it was clearly intended for open-water use in the Indian Ocean.
(Scale model of the AN/SQA-10 with the towed transducer, as exported to Iran on these two destroyers.) (official US Navy photo)
(IIS Babr showing the VDS in it’s stowed configuration and the helicopter hangar extension retracted.)
Electronic warfare systems
The FRAM II electronic warfare suite, AN/WLR-1 ESM and AN/ULQ-6 jammers, were retained. The AN/WLR-1 system was a “quiet” sensor in that it did not emit any signal, rather it intercepted enemy radars and classified the source; and in certain circumstances could even determine the emitter’s bearing.
Iran installed the AN/UPX-12 IFF system, which automatically “interrogated” air or sea contacts to determine if they were friendly or not. This system would also allow the Imperial Iranian destroyers to operate alongside US Navy forces.
The radio fit included AN/GRC-27 and AN/URC-32, and the destroyers could easily communicate not only with other Imperial Iranian warships but also US Navy vessels.
(Crests of USS Zellars / IIS Babr)
IIS Babr was formerly USS Zellars (DD-777), a Sumner class destroyer commissioned on 25 October 1944. During WWII, USS Zellars participated in the Okinawa battle where the destroyer was hit with a bomb and a B6N “Jill” kamikaze. USS Zellars missed the rest of WWII as the damage was repaired. During the Korean War, USS Zellars participated in the Wonsan and Hungnam battles. In 1960, USS Zellars completed the FRAM II modernization. The old destroyer ended her US Navy career as a training ship, decommissioning on 19 March 1971 and then placed into storage at the Philadelphia inactive ships facility.
(USS Zellars after the FRAM II upgrade. All of the WWII light AA guns and WWII torpedo banks are gone. Less the changes described earlier, this was more or less the basic structural layout of the ships at the time of sale. The little object in the sky is the QH-50 DASH heli-drone.)
(IIS Babr in Imperial Iranian service.)
IIS Babr inherited the name of a gunboat sunk during WWII as part of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. The original pennant number was D-7, changed to D-61 after the 1979 revolution.
(The destroyer’s namesake, the original IIS Babr which was sunk in combat during WWII.)
(Crests of USS Stormes / IIS Palang)
IIS Palang was formerly USS Stormes (DD-780), a Sumner class destroyer commissioned on 27 January 1945. USS Stormes was hit by a kamikaze on her first war patrol and missed the rest of WWII as repairs were done. During the Korean War, USS Stormes participated in the Wonsan battle. In 1961, USS Stormes completed the FRAM II modernization. The old destroyer participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis and then made one gunfire support tour during the Vietnam War. USS Stormes decommissioned into reserve on 5 December 1970.
(USS Stormes during exercise “Frigid-48” in November 1948. Atop the main mast, AN/SPS-4 has replaced the WWII-era Type SC radar but otherwise the ship is unaltered from the original WWII fit.) (photo via US Naval Historical Center)
(USS Stormes in 1962, after the FRAM II refit. The destroyer is UNREP’ing (refueling at sea) and still carries the WWII Hedgehog ASW weapons, one of which is covered by canvas just to the rear of the “B” 5″ gun.) (photo via US Naval Historical Center)
(IIS Palang in Imperial Iranian navy service.)
Palang means “leopard” in Farsi. The original pennant number was D-9, changed to D-62 after the 1979 revolution.
(Recommissioning pamphlet for IIS Palang in 1973. That year was also the 2,500th anniversary of the ancient Persian empire which the Shah tried to draw modern Iran as a parallel of.) (photo by Ron Reeves)
Other ships in the project
The floating drydock USS Arco (ARD-29) was loaned to Iran in 1971. Built during WWII, USS Arco was 492′ long and had no propulsion, but a ship-type bow suitable for long-distance towing. During WWII USS Arco served in the southeast Pacific. After the war, USS Arco was briefly stationed at Okinawa and then moved to Pearl Harbor, HI; and finally to Guam before being loaned to Iran.
After the five-year loan ended, the US Navy did not want the vessel back and Iran bought the ex-USS Arco for a nominal sum. During the 1980-1988 war against Iraq, the drydock (simply numbered 400 by Iran) was quite busy repairing damaged ships. It turned out that the drydock meant to support the two destroyers ended up being more useful than the destroyers themselves. As of 2016, this WWII veteran is still in Iranian use.
The Gearing class USS Bordelon (DD-881) was commissioned in June 1945 but saw no combat during WWII. USS Bordelon served in the Japan occupation force, and later received the FRAM I update. On 14 September 1976 (above photo), USS Bordelon collided with the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). Because the US Navy was withdrawing WWII-era destroyers anyways, the ship decommissioned on 1 February 1977. The unrepaired hulk was immediately put up for disposal.
The hulk was undamaged beneath the weather deck. As the Sumner and Gearing classes had near-100% spare parts commonality, Iran saw a good opportunity and purchased the ex-USS Bordelon in July 1977. The hulk was towed to Iran, where parts from the boilers and electrical systems were torn out. What remained was then sunk as a gunnery target.
USS Kenneth D. Bailey
The Gearing class USS Kenneth D. Bailey (DD-713) commissioned several weeks before the end of WWII but saw no combat. In 1953, the destroyer was converted to a radar picket. In 1960, this was “un-done” and USS Kenneth D. Bailey received a FRAM I upgrade and reverted to being a normal destroyer.
The above photo coincidentally shows USS Kenneth D. Bailey next to USS Zellars, which was one of the two Sumner class destroyers later sold to Iran.
In 1970 the US Navy decommissioned USS Kenneth D. Bailey and in 1974 made it available for scrapping. With government funds, an Iranian company bought the ship as “scrap” via commercial contract and towed it to Iran in early 1975. Once there, the ship was meticulously stripped of anything useful to the two Sumners and left moored pierside. The remains of the hulk were not finally disposed of until 1993.
The Sumner class USS Gainard (DD-706) commissioned on 23 November 1944 and fought in the Saipan and Okinawa battles during WWII. USS Gainard decommissioned in 1971.
The ex-USS Gainard was supposed to have been the “original IIS Babr” but before the transfer, an Imperial Iranian navy inspection team found gross mechanical problems and USS Zellars was substituted. The unwanted destroyer was scrapped in Baltimore in 1974.
The transfer refits in Philadelphia started in 1971 and completed in 1973. After a brief orientation period, both recommissioned together on 14 October 1973 and departed for Iran. They were prefixed IIS (Imperial Iranian Ship). As the Suez Canal was still closed from the Yom Kippur War, they had to sail around Africa and back up through the Indian Ocean.
(IIS Babr at sea in the 1970s, giving a good view of the ESM and jammer systems, helipad, and VDS.)
(Official portrait of IIS Palang in the 1970s, giving a good look of the Standard missile launchers.) (photo via iinavy.org website)
Despite a shortage of trained crewmen, especially technical ratings, these ships were fairly popular in Iranian service. During the 1970s they were fairly active in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, and made a number of overseas deployments including port visits to Singapore and Pakistan.
(IIS Babr sailors next to the VDS during a September 1974 friendship visit to Singapore.)
(A US Navy SH-2 Seasprite helicopter lands aboard IIS Palang during a late-1970s joint American/Iranian military exercise, something that would be unthinkable today.)
The 1979 Revolution
By the late 1970s the Shah’s monarchy was unpopular and he was overthrown and exiled in February 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini’s islamic regime was violently anti-American. An Iranian mob sacked the USA’s embassy and held the staff hostage. Obviously, all military ties with the United States came to an immediate end.
The revolution ended the Shah’s vision of a powerful Iranian navy. Of the Phase 1 ships, the Tang submarines were never delivered. Of the Phase 2 ships, the four Kouroush missile destroyers were seized by the USA, never delivered, and eventually joined the US Navy as the Kidd class. The French-made missile boats were delivered, but each had an incomplete loadout of Harpoon missiles which were now embargoed. The Chah Bahar base project was greatly scaled back. The entire Phase 3 plan was cancelled.
The embargo hit all branches of the Iranian military hard, not just the navy. The air force’s entire orders of F-16 Falcon and E-3 Sentry planes were cancelled by the USA, as was it’s entire order of AGM-84 HARM missiles. Further deliveries of AH-1 Cobra helicopters to the army were cancelled.
The biggest hit of the embargo was spare parts. On the two WWII-era destroyers, obviously USA-specific things like RIM-66 missiles or sonar components were now essentially irreplaceable in Iran, and other items such as engine parts, pumps, boiler tubing, etc was limited to what the islamic republic could reverse-engineer or find on the worldwide arms black market.
(IRINS Babr, with the post-revolution pennant number, in the early 1980s.) (official US Navy photo)
The Iranian navy was crumbling by 1980. Many senior officers were monarchists and fled abroad, and those that didn’t were executed. The training program collapsed without American instructors, and upkeep of things like radars and torpedoes became nearly impossible due to the departure of American technicians and purges of “counter-revolutionary” sailors by the new regime. The shortage of spare parts because of the embargo caused the navy to restrict sea time, which was a vicious cycle of decreased sailing proficiency causing decreased readiness, reducing sea time more, and so on.
After a hiatus of a few months in 1979, enough semblance of order in the navy had been restored that the two ex-WWII destroyers could return to service in 1980. They were now prefixed IRINS (Islamic Republic of Iran Naval Ship).
The 1980-1988 war with Iraq
On 22 September 1980, Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein sought to take advantage of the chaos in post-revolution Iran by invading the country. The primary goals were to conquer and annex a province of Iran adjoining Iraq, to destroy Iran’s military, and to secure the whole Shatt-al-Arab waterway. The secondary objective was to destroy Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.
At the outset of the war, the two WWII-veteran destroyers were stationed in the far southern edge of the Persian Gulf, away from the main combat.
The naval part of the war took two parts. The first, which was limited to the conflict’s first year or two, saw traditional small naval battles in the extreme northern part of the Persian Gulf. After this, the so-called “tanker war” started. This ran from about 1982 until the end of the war in 1988, and saw both countries attacking neutral merchant tankers in the Persian Gulf; Iraq with air-launched Exocet missiles and Iran with mines and surface warships.
(IRINS Palang during the Iran-Iraq War.)
Throughout the whole war, the two Iranian Sumners took no meaningful part, which even today is puzzling. For certain, the coffin-launched Standard missiles would not have been able to fend off Iraqi Exocets, but the two destroyers would have seemed ideal candidates for tanker interdiction missions in the Straits Of Hormuz that were instead done by more modern warships. There is no real good explanation for the nearly complete absence of the two WWII ships throughout the conflict. One theory is that the Iranians figured that since the United States obviously had every single detail and parameter of their radars and missiles, this would have been passed on to Iraq. (After the April 1988 US Navy “Praying Mantis” operation, the Iranian navy was also concerned about a war with the USA itself.) Another theory is that they suffered from “risk aversion”, a logic flaw in many naval wars (Germany’s Tirpitz in WWII for example) where large warships are viewed as so irreplaceable that they are repeatedly not risked in combat, to the point that they lose any value in being in commission at all.
(IRINS Palang at sea during the mid-1980s, with a RIM-66 Standard SAM ready for firing. The helicopter is a SH-3 Sea King, another type supplied by the USA prior to the 1979 revolution.)
Although they did not see combat, the two ships continued to make sporadic patrols in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The embargo was really starting to bite by the end of the war in 1988. The US Navy estimated that many of the systems onboard might no longer be in working order.
The VDS was never observed being streamed from either Babr or Palang after 1979. Most likely, the two sonars broke down almost immediately after American technical help ended and were never again operational.
The non-operational VDS was stripped off of both destroyers during the 1980s, and in it’s place a Soviet-made ZU-23-2 twin AA gun installed. This land-based 23mm towed gun was used by the Iraqi army and captured in good numbers by Iran during the war. It was not really intended for naval use but Iran liked it, as it could pepper tankers with automatic fire at close ranges.
(The ZU-23-2, seen here on a small speedboat, is a common Iranian navy weapon which during the 1980s plagued civilian tankers in the Straits Of Hormuz.) (photo via FARS news agency)
By 1990 the maximum speed of both destroyers had fallen to 29 kts and even that would probably have been asking a lot out of the WWII steam turbines.
The radars were apparently kept in good order but the jammers were most likely out of repair by 1989. The hull sonars were probably non-operational by the end of the 1980s, starved of spare parts due to the embargo. The Mk46 torpedoes were problematic to service without support from Honeywell technicians, and probably dead by 1990. The 1997 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships stated that Chinese torpedoes had been substituted, but given the difficulty of grafting a foreign weapon into the Mk105 tactical system, this is questionable.
The Mk11 Hedgehogs were stripped off of both ships. The easy-to-maintain launchers were still functional, but the notion of using this WWII weapon against a modern Los Angeles class nuclear submarine in the 1990s was laughable, even to the Iranians. Another issue was that some of Iran’s Hedgehog ammunition dated to 1945 and handling the aging rounds was becoming a safety concern.
Neither ship was observed firing a RIM-66 after 1990. It’s possible the launchers were left empty. Around the turn of the millennium, Iran released a photo of what appeared to be a RIM-66 Standard modified for air-to-ship use underneath a F-4 Phantom II fighter (photo below). Since in Iranian service the RIM-66 was specific to these two destroyers, Iran may have just withdrawn the remaining missiles to use the airframes in new weapons development.
In March 2013, Iran launched a new frigate IRINS Damavand. Surprisingly it is fitted with a SAM the Iranians call Mehrab, which looks extremely similar to the RIM-66 Standard and is fired from what looks to be a near-copy of the Mk32 Mod2 coffin.
(Mehrab missile aboard IRINS Damavand.) (photo via FARS news agency)
After the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the helicopters were no longer embarked although the ships could and did still operate helicopters.
In 1988 and 1989, both destroyers were fairly active in the Straits Of Hormuz and northern Indian Ocean. In the early 1990s, their sea time began to drop off. IRINS Babr was last known to make regular patrols around the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. IRINS Palang was still occasionally on patrol as late as 1994. Thereafter, both destroyers were rarely seen. For a while in the mid-1990s, IRINS Palang was used as a service vessel for disused oil wells in the Persian Gulf which Iran utilizes as observation platforms. The WWII destroyer would moor at these platforms and provide general services and crew swaps. By this point, it’s doubtful that any of the systems other than the radios and guns were still fully operational. On one such mission, the destroyer was towed back to Iran by a tug.
(IRINS Palang in July 1988. The ZU-23-2 is visible on the stern where the VDS had once been. After the disastrous “Praying Mantis” engagement with the US Navy, the Iranian navy blacked out the last digit of all it’s pennant numbers to confuse American intelligence.) (official US Navy photo)
Murky final fates
Considering the unique background of these two ships, and the rarity of WWII combatants still in use in the late 1990s, the final whereabouts are a bit of a mystery. Iran has never answered any queries to their fate. There is no photographic evidence, or reliable reports, of them after 1996. One source stated that they were slowly broken apart in an Iranian shipyard around 2000. A different source states that the stripped hulk of at least one was still around as late as 2010. In 2012, a worker at a commercial scrapping company in Karachi, Pakistan said that in 1996 two “old destroyers” had been towed there, and that the supervisors instructed workers to dispose of them as fast as possible. If true, it’s possible that these were IRINS Babr and IRINS Palang.