Iran air defence improved but not game-changing, analysts say
Tehran’s military 'fully integrated' its new Russian-supplied S-300 missile systems into its air defence network this week
Iran this week showcased two new components of what it hopes will become a more effective air defence network - a development that might eventually have significant implications, and be key in its quest to weaken the conventional military superiority of the US and its regional allies.
Analysts said the announcements that Iran’s military has “fully integrated” its new Russian-supplied S-300 missile systems into its air defence network, and developed new air surveillance technology, are incremental steps that do not at the moment unravel the deterrent capabilities of the United States, GCC and Israel.
“Iran has a long history of overstated military performance … [and] the recent announcement of new military radar equipment could very much enter in this category,” said Marc Martinez, an Iran analyst at the Delma Institute. “Such announcements are designed to create fear, but they often don’t even raise any eyebrows among defence specialists.”
The new air tracking systems, unveiled on Monday, are reportedly intended for both military and civilian use, and appear to be aimed at consolidating and automating Iran’s ability to track aircraft and analyse data provided by its radar networks.
On Sunday, a senior officer at the Khatam Al Anbia air defence base told the Tasnim news agency that the long-range S-300 systems had been “fully integrated” into the country’s air defences and that they had been stationed at strategic locations across Iran. The Russian weapon primarily defends against aircraft, but can also provides some defence capabilities against cruise and ballistic missiles.
Iran purchased four of the S-300 platforms for US$800 million (Dh2.94bn) in 2007, but the the delivery was delayed in 2010 because of international sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. After the 2015 nuclear deal, an upgraded version, the S-300PMU2, was finally delivered to Iran last year.
Last month, IHS Jane’s reported that new satellite data showed that one of the S-300 units — which consists of four mobile launchers and separate radar units — has been deployed to the Iranian coastal city of Bushehr to protect the strategic nuclear power plant located there.
The defence weekly reported it also “significantly increases Iran’s ability to monitor and threaten aircraft flying over the northern Gulf”.
If Iran had received the longer-range 48N6E2 missile - which has not been confirmed - the missiles used by the upgraded S-300PMU2 system could have a range of 200km, and the radars have a range of 300km, Jane’s reported. This would allow Iran to monitor from Bushehr, air traffic over parts of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, it said.
The air force capabilities of the GCC, US and Israel are far superior to Iran’s and have until now outmatched the country's outdated air defences. But the S-300’s are a significant improvement that could, to some extent, deter air operations against Iran by its adversaries, according to analysts.
Iran has built up its own so-called “retaliatory deterrence” through its vast ballistic missile network that can launch from land and sea and can reach the UAE in under three minutes. It is designed to overwhelm GCC and US missile defences through its sheer numbers.
Crucially, Iran’s precision guidance technology has evolved significantly in recent years, as demonstrated by recent tests that have drawn new US sanctions, making the Iranian missile threat even more acute, especially to the smaller Gulf countries whose critical infrastructure is concentrated geographically.
If Iran were able to develop effective air defences to guard against advanced aircraft and cruise missiles, Washington and its regional partners would have to redraw their strategic calculations.
The S-300’s Iran now possesses already erode the conventional military edge held by Tehran’s adversaries. “It helped Iran reduce but not fully overcome its technological gap with other advanced nations such as Israel,” Mr Martinez said.
Alone, however, they are not sufficient.
“The acquisition of the S-300PMU2 is a big improvement, but Iran probably still needs a good short-range air defence system to protect those systems from cruise missiles that fly in under its engagement envelope,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Iran has not acquired the medium-range missile systems – such as the Buk-M2 – which countries that operate the S-300 typically use alongside them to create a “multi-layered defence umbrella”, Mr Binnie said. “It is unclear if the Iranian analogues of the Buk are up to the job and have entered service in significant numbers.”
Iran has announced the production of new indigenous radar and air surveillance technology every year since 2014, with the goal of building an integrated air defence system that centralises data collection and allows the military to more quickly and accurately use its air defences, particularly its most capable system, the S-300.
Despite the claims this week of full integration with the new system, Mr Binnie said “it is difficult to independently say how successful this process has been so far and whether they have been able to integrate the new S-300 batteries as yet”.
“That would require combining the data generated by the S-300 system with a mix of older Russian systems and the radars that Iran has been developing indigenously in recent years,” he added.
Another hurdle for Iran’s air defence ambitions is that it has spread its strategic military infrastructure and nuclear sites widely across the country, to make them less vulnerable. But this also means that the four S-300 batteries are not able to protect all of the critical sites.
“This is why they are willing to buy more Russian S-300 and would love to put their hand on the S-400,” Mr Martinez said. The S-400 is the most advanced Russian air defence system, and would pose a serious challenge to US and regional capabilities.
Updated: August 30, 2017 09:32 PM