by Galen Wright.
Recent imagery showing Iran’s use of underground facilities (UGF) to house ballistic missiles highlights the continued importance of hardened shelters to Tehran’s military doctrine. This can be seen, not just among ballistic missiles, but also with the infrastructure designed to protect naval equipment. This post examines two examples of these coastal shelters.
In mid-October the Iranian broadcasting corporation (IRIB) aired an interview with Brigadier General Hajizadeh – commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force (IRGC-ASF) – showing off one of the force’s subterranean complexes. The complex consists of a long cavernous tunnel with some turns and a handful of side passages. At one point around 132 crewman are visible, which translates to 18 transporter erector launchers (TEL). This is consistent with the strength of a brigade-sized formation.
Additional comments by Hajizadeh suggest that the garrison functions as a high-readiness ‘alert’ base. The combination of cover & concealment afforded by an underground facility and a hair-trigger launch posture directly subordinate to the Supreme Leader is designed to preserve retaliatory capability in the event of an attack. 
Known in Iran as ‘passive defense’, Tehran believes that these force preservation techniques – particularly when geared towards countering western advantages in airpower, surveillance, and deep strike – are essential to deterrence. (Fars News)
The reason for this is the importance of second strike capability, similar to the same concept in nuclear deterrence theory. By making their missiles difficult to locate and destroy, Iran is decreasing the probability that an air interdiction campaign could knock them out before they could be used, lowering the appeal of a first strike.
Ballistic missiles aren’t the only piece of equipment getting the passive defense treatment though. Equally important to deterrence is Tehran’s ability to threaten maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf. This responsibility falls mainly to the IRGC’s Navy (IRGCN) and their fleet of small attack boats, minelayers, and coastal anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCMs). These can be found protected by the same sort of hardened underground shelters described by Hajizadeh.
At least one example of just such a facility – a covered harbor at Qeshm island, near the Strait of Hormuz – is well known to western analysts (John Reed, “Meet Iran’s Persian Gulf Base for Spy Drones and Midget Subs“, Foreign Policy, August 23, 2013 ). There are at least two more examples worth pointing out. The first is a modest earth-sheltered garage for small boats at Bandar Lengah. The second is a more complex underground facility for anti-ship missiles dug into the side of a mountain north of Bandar Abbas.
The first facility at Bandar Lengah is part of the IRGCN’s fifth naval region, which is responsible for securing the handful of nearby islands controlled by Iran, but contested by the UAE. Created in 2012, the base remains relatively underdeveloped and dependent on pre-existing infrastructure. Part of this infrastructure includes an earth sheltered garage dug into the side of a shallow hill, which provides access to a nearby harbor.
According to DigitalGlobe imagery, construction began prior to May 2005 and was completed before June 2012. One of the reasons this site is notable is that the internal layout is visible during construction. The facility features two entrances, which are joined together by a tunnel that meets in the middle to form the garage itself. From 2012 onwards small structures are visible above the garage, which may house air circulation equipment. The first signs of operational use are found in DigitalGlobe’s 02/24/2013 imagery, which show several small patrol boats parked outside the western entrance.
The second facility is found inland, north of Iran’s primary naval facilities in Bandar Abbas. Far better protected than the garage at Bandar Lengah, this UGF is broadly similar to missile sites around the country, including the one featured in IRIB’s Hajizadeh interview.
Although the IRGCN’s small boats are their most visible asset, much of the force’s area-denial capability comes from their land-based cruise missiles. At least one brigade (known in Iran as a ‘group’) is assigned to each of the force’s five geographic regions. This site is associated with the first region’s 116th ‘al-Hadid’ Missile & Rocket Launcher Group. 
The site is located in a narrow valley on the eastern side of Genu Mountain, about 30 km north of Bandar Abbas. A collection of hardened shelters – in a style typically associated with munitions storage – is located nearby along with a small garrison.
The UGF itself comprises two tunnels dug into the base of the north-facing valley wall. This provides nearly 300 m of overhead protection from any penetrating munitions, similar to the 500 m quoted by Hajizadeh. Unfortunately, there are no reliable means to gauge its internal configuration. The two entrances suggest it may be similar to the basic garage at Bandar Lengah, or it may contain side passages with living facilities or command & control centers like those observed in IRIB’s Hajizadeh interview.
The earliest available imagery of the site, dating from 08/05/2004, show the UGF under construction. Excavation spoils are visible outside the tunnel entrances, and engineering equipment is visible in a frenzy of activity nearby. In the interceding decade, however, there is little visual activity of note.
The use of such UGFs by missile & rocket groups forces was confirmed in fall 2014 when IRIB aired a documentary about the IRGCN called “Face to Face with the Devil” (Part 1 / Part 2). It included footage of the force’s artillery rockets and ASCMs being driven in large numbers through the sort of tunnels documented around Genu.
 The exact phrases used by Hajizadeh are:
- In relation to cover and concealment: “I do not have the smallest concern in confronting the enemy’s newest and most modern satellites, and their spy & attack equipment.“
- In relation to launch posture: “Missiles of different ranges on TELs in all of the bases are ready for launch and hands are on the triggers, we are only waiting for the command of the Supreme Leader.“
 Although Foreign Policy describes the site as a potential harbor for submarines, the IRGCN is not known to operate any sub-surface craft, suggesting this harbor is meant for small attack boats.
 In March 2014 the author identified another IRGCN garrison with a similar UGF. This site belongs to the 26th Missile Group, which is assigned to the second naval region headquartered in Bushehr. A description of the site can be found at the author’s blog, The Arkenstone.