Kharg, a tanker and supply ship that the Iranian fleet also used as a helicopter carrier, suffered an internal fire early Wednesday while she was sailing in the Gulf of Oman near the port of Jask. Efforts to extinguish the blaze were unsuccessful and it appears the vessel is a total loss.
It’s unclear whether there were casualties among the roughly 250 crew.
The loss is bad news for Tehran’s beleaguered fleet, which owing to sanctions and a lack of resources struggles to acquire new vessels.
Kharg was not new, but she was among the most versatile vessels in Iran’s regular fleet. And at 680 feet and 33,000 tons of displacement while fully loaded, she by far was the navy’s biggest ship.
A second Iranian fleet, the maritime arm of the Revolutionary Guard Corps militia, mostly operates armed speedboats.
Tehran acquired Kharg from British shipbuilder Swan Hunter back in 1984. Technically, Kharg was a replenishment tanker, a floating fuel depot for other ships. But thanks to her hangar and comparatively large flight deck—big enough to embark one of the Iranian navy’s antique SH-3 helicopters—she also was the closest thing Iran had to an aircraft carrier.
Kharg led some of Iran’s most ambitious naval adventures. In 2009, she sailed to the East African coast as part of Tehran’s campaign against Somali pirates. It was off the Somali coast that Kharg had a close encounter with the American destroyer USS Donald Cook, herself on patrol for pirates.
Battered by sanctions and the occasional lopsided shooting war with the Americans, the Iranian navy is struggling to maintain its strength. The service has managed to produce upgraded copies of its 1970s-vintage, British-made corvettes. When it comes to support ships, the fleet tends to induct and modify former commercial vessels.
Iran recently began operating the 22-year-old former merchant ship Saviz as a mothership for speedboats. Saviz, which displaces 16,700 tons while fully loaded, lately has been busy off the coast of Yemen, apparently assisting Houthi rebels in that war-torn country.
Saviz, a rough analogue of the U.S. Navy’s giant seabase ships, appears to lack aviation facilities. Kharg’s destruction leaves a significant gap in the Iranian fleet.