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Venezuela quietly acquires advanced Anti-Ship missiles from Iran via Hezbollah.

In the Spring of 2020 as the pandemic took hold of the world and the U.S. further tightened the sanctions on Venezuela, embattled regime strong man Nicolas Maduro dispatched his chief negotiator & bag man to Iran. Alex Saab had made the trip numerous times before but this time he wouldn't make it. Instead he was arrested when he landed in Cabo Verde, a nation comprised of a small chain of Islands off the west coast of Africa.

As the U.S. Treasury department sought to increase pressure on the Venezuelan regime, Saab had fallen into their cross hairs and was the subject of an Interpol Red Notice, which was the justification behind his detention in Cabo Verde. His role as a facilitator of financial transactions for the regime has up until now been assumed as the primary reason he was targeted by the U.S. Government but this was not the sole reason.

"Sources working with partner nations in the region informed U.S. Intelligence Hezbollah was in the process of transferring Noor Anti Ship Cruise Missiles to their allies in Latin America"

Back in the start of May a Panama registered general cargo ship named "Best Challenger" was sailing in the Mediterranean, for about 2 weeks prior there appeared to be an error occurring in the AIS data, a second ship all the way in Venezuela was using their unique ID number, making it appear as if the ship was jumping half way around the world and back in a matter of minutes. This is a known obfuscation technique used previously to evade sanctions on oil shipments from Iran and Venezuela. Then on May 10th while sailing between Lebanon and Cyprus the Best Challenger disappeared from AIS entirely and didn't reappear until the 25th.

When the AIS signal finally turned back on the ship was heading west past the south coast of Cyprus, which raises the question where had they gone in the missing days? The other ship using the Best Challenger's AIS ID in Venezuela made it appear like it was sitting in Puerto Cabello when really it was in Latakia Syria, where they were being loaded with Noor Anti Ship Missiles supplied by an Iranian backed Hezbollah network.

After reappearing the Best Challenger sailed west along the Cyprus coast with a stated destination of Spain but instead of stopping they kept going past Gibraltar and headed across the Atlantic. Then on June 12th while flying to Iran Alex Saab was arrested on a refuelling stop in Cabo Verde. On June 13th the AIS spoofing started again, and Venezuelan military officials, worried that their plans might be exposed called the captain of the Best Challenger and instructed him to once again turn the AIS transponder off, the ship at the time was just 225 nautical miles from Venezuela. 3 days later sources inform me the ship was unloaded in Puerto Cabello and the weapons integration was scheduled to take place in July & August however the restrictions due to Covid-19 forced the military to pause the deployment of the new weapons until recently.

Indications are that the missiles will be fitted to the 3 operational Guaiquerí-class patrol boats, Guaiquerí, Yekuana & Kariña but this will likely require several months to complete. The integration of the fire control system with the Thales TACTICOS combat information centre is necessary to allow the data produced by the ship's sensors to be used by the weapons system and will require extensive custom work without access to the manufacturers assistance.

In the Caribbean, Venezuela claims a large swath of water that is outside of the internationally recognized 12 nautical miles. Due to this the Uniter States Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations off the Venezuelan coast to challenge these illegitimate claims. Once operational the Noor Anti Ship Missiles based from Guaiquerí-class patrol boats will represent a significant increase in capabilities for the Bolivarian Navy of Venezuela and will raise the stakes for the U.S. Navy when conducting these operations in the future.

In the late 1990's Iran developed a locally produced copy of the C-802 Anti-Ship Cruise Missile after the United States pressured Beijing to cease sales. The C-802 was originally developed by China in the late 1970s early 80's and after purchasing several dozen Iran then developed its own variant, the Noor. As with much of Iran's military technology the Noor was ultimately transferred to Hezbollah, however Hezbollah’s C-802s are likely maintained and operated by IRGC personnel.

The Noor has a range of 120 km while carrying a 165 kg warhead. It has a length of 6.39 m, a body diameter of 360 mm, and a launch weight of 715-800 kg. The missile is turbo-jet powered, high-speed subsonic, and sea-skimming capable, making it significantly more difficult to defeat than other anti ship weapons possessed by Venezuela. It is unclear how many missiles were acquired as this time but as more information becomes available I will update this article.

Written By Simon Bolivar

Information and graphics from MarineTraffic.com & CSIS.org