Iran against West: Air Defense Chance of Success

Russia returned a $167 million advance payment to Iran for S-300 air defense systems it didn’t deliver to this country and the story evoked serious response in the world. Was penalty paid – that’s what somehow interested media first of all, though quite a different question appears to be of much greater importance: could Teheran defend its air space without those deliveries? 

There are two possible options on the table in case Israel and the West attack Iran. One envisages a missile strike launched by Tel Aviv followed by an adequate Iranian response. Then Nato steps in playing its favorite role of a “peacekeeper”. The other presupposes a clash between the US 5th operational Fleet and Iranian Navy in the Hormuz Strait. In both cases it’s missiles and aircraft that will strike Iran. It means air defense will bare brunt of the burden repelling the attack. 

That’s the scenario the Nato countries armed forces have been trained for during numerous armed conflicts of the last decade. Missiles and aircraft strike enemy’s air defense systems to clear the way for knocking out strategic assets – command posts, communications, other infrastructure facilities.

The Libyan example shows the suppression of air defense by air borne precision guided munitions along with other up-to-date strike systems and consecutive knocking out enemy’s command, control and communications facilities make possible the achievement of complete victory without ground operations. Obviously the mission is not going to be that easy in case of Iran, still the very success of the operation depends to great extent on Iranian air defense capability to counter the first strike. 

Let’s put it straight – five batteries of S-300 PMU-1 air defense systems (the $ 800 million contract to deliver the weapons was signed between Russia and Iran in 2007) wouldn’t be enough to defend the whole territory of Iran, but rather some of the most important assets. Still the very existence of the S-300 in the Iranian inventory would initially have a powerful psychological effect influencing the Nato’s determination to start a fight. 

The Moscow’s reasons to renounce the deal were quite obvious: as is known the fourth UN Security Council’s resolution (N1929), imposing sanctions on Iran, was adopted in June 2010. For the first time conventional arms deliveries to Teheran were restricted, including missiles, tanks, attack helicopters, combat aircraft and ships. In September 2010 President Medvedev signed an executive order banning the S-300 deliveries to Iran to comply with the resolution.

What should Iran do under the circumstances? What are its chances to repel an air attack? The Iranian leadership started to strengthen its air defense. 

For instance, in November 2011 wide scale air defense exercises took place in the eastern part of the country covering 800 square kilometers under the leadership of Brigadier General of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Farzad Ismaili, Commander of Khatam-ol-Anbiya Airbase. The mission was to repel an aircraft and cruise missiles attack against the Islamic Republic. According to the leadership reports the armed forces accomplished the mission with success.

As the local media said the conditional adversary planned to destroy the Iranian strategic facilities. The strike was delivered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), fighters and cruise missiles. The air defense delivered “a powerful and effective counterstrike making the enemy retreat”. The new Iranian radars, aid defense missiles (including the new portable one) and electronic warfare systems were field tested. 

As media reports the newly developed portable air defense system was tested to “defend air space and nuclear facilities in case of foreign intervention”. It proved to be UAV effective. One of the major characteristics is the size that makes it possible to be operated by one man. 

 Before that the ministry of defense announced Iran produced Mersad air defense system to be commissioned. As Iranian FARS agency reported by the end of September 2011 the commission ceremony preparations were under way at Khatam al-Anbiya Air Defense Base. The system had been successfully tested before.. The Mersad system is armed with the Shahin missile that has a range of 

70 – 150 km. At the beginning of September the Shalamcheh medium range air defense system was commissioned at Khatam al-Anbiya too. It has M3 velocity. No other data about this new system is available. Ahmed Wahid, defense minister of Iran, says the Mersad has “great dynamics and is capable of hitting targets even in the intensive electronic countermeasures environment. The system will be constantly integrated with radars and other defense systems”.

 It’s not cleat as yet if Iran possesses the S-300. It has been said a few times that it had four systems. It was reported it bought two of them in Belarus and two more in a country unknown. In 2008 it was reported Croatia sold it four systems produced in Russia. Israel insists the information is correct (emphasizing the fact the Iranian military might is on the rise and so is the threat, no matter it’s a well known fact the air defense systems are defensive not offensive weapons). The USA and Europe put this information in big doubt. Anyway four systems don’t change much.

 Fighter-interceptors are also within the focus of Iranian leadership’s attention. In March 2011 it became known it launched a new fighter program. To some extent the Saeqeh combat aircraft technology will be used in the project. No details are known as yet. It is expected to have better characteristics than the Saeqeh. The Saeqeh’s first squadron was commissioned in September 2010, the design is based on the F-5E “Tiger II” also using the first Iranian combat aircraft Azarakhsh technologies. 

 Among other Iranian air defense assets the S-200 poses the major threat for a potential aggressor. There are about 10 launchers in the inventory (the system was acquired by the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s). As Mehr news agency reports Iran produced its own missile for the system that was successfully tested in November 2010. It’s not clear if the S-200 are combat ready and the personnel training is up to par. 

In 2006 Russia delivered the TOR-M1 tactical missile systems to Iran (29 systems and 800 missiles) designed for an infantry division air and missile defense. The range is 12 km (altitude – 6 km against air targets). The system can be used to protect individual ground assets. 

The other air defense systems are Rapier (30 systems at least, range – 6 km, air targets – 3 km), to great extent obsolete S-75 (30-40 systems, range – 34 km, air targets – 27 km). 

Over 150 US MIM-23 Hawk systems make up a major component of the Iranian air defense. They were delivered back in the 1970s. There are no more Hawks in the US inventory. The system went through three stages of modernization while in service but Iran has only the basic version (range -25 km, air targets –minimum 14 km). Iran says it has modernized the system on its own, but there is no information about the final specifications. 

Iran said in the spring of 2009 it started production of sea based Fath cannons to defend its shore from air threats like low trajectory cruise missiles and aircraft. The defense minister says the range is 12 km, rate of fire – 300 round/min. It’s not clear how effective the weapon is against cruise missiles and aviation. 

Thus, no matter Iran is optimistic concerning assessments of the state of readiness of its armed forces, it’s hard to say if it’s capable to defend the territory of the country against air and missile strikes. Personnel training is of great significance too. The same thing about the air defense aviation (fighters F-14 “Tomcat”, F-7M, “Dassault Mirage” F1, “Northrop” F-5 и Миг-29).

The Libyan experience is a sad story. It showed weak air defense allows Nato to rapidly establish a no-fly zone over the territory of a defending country hitting adversary’s aircraft on ground or while take off. That’s the case pilots training has little significance.

At the same time effective, clear and concerted air defense performance can frustrate a “blitzkrieg” of the enemy sparking a sharp reaction on the part of international community. It can influence events to great extent.


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