Iran is in a muscle flexing mood. Iran told the world today that it refused to halt work on the recently discovered covert nuclear facility at Qom and then in a fit of anger vowed to build 10 new nuclear enrichment plants. International condemnation predictably followed, along with skeptics who said Iran was having trouble building out its current centrifuge plants (the Qom facility has been under construction for 3 years and is still a year away from completion) and that building 10 more would take decades.
Last week, Iran held what it touted as its largest ever air defense drill. Their intent was to send a message to Israel that an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would not be a repeat of the fairly effortless Israeli destruction of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility two years ago. Earlier this month, Israel and the U.S. held its largest ever joint anti-ballistic missile exercise intended to show Iran that it couldn’t easily rain ballistic missiles on Israel like it did during 1991’s Gulf War.
This is all part of the action-reaction dynamic and escalating regional arms race revolving around Iran’s nuclear program that has been going on for years now. Yet, close watchers of the looming showdown, such as Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, see plenty of signs that Israel is edging ever closer to what is likely to be a multi-pronged strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He writes in a new paper that one of the reasons Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981 was that inaction on the part of the Carter and Reagan administrations left Israel feeling cornered and forced to act unilaterally. Pentagon sources tell us that, at least on DoD's behalf, they have been scrambling to reassure Israel that it doesn't stand alone.
Interestingly, in light of Iran’s air-defense exercises, Simon writes that of the many factors that might increase the likelihood of an Israeli attack, one that would almost guarantee Israeli air strikes is delivery of a missing piece to Iran’s air defense network, the long talked about sale by Russia to Iran of the S-300 (SA-20) surface to air missile (SAM) system.
Why would delivery of a SAM system be so destabilizing? Because Iran’s current air defense system is so weak and the S-300 is considered so good that if the system became operational it would greatly raise the costs of any Israeli strike. Most of Iran’s SAM systems are leftovers from the Shah days, such as their large inventory of U.S. built Improved Hawk (pictured above), a medium range, mobile SAM system, delivered in the late 1970s.
Beginning in the 1990s, Iran invested heavily in beefing up its ground based air defenses, seeing SAMs and radars as a more cost effective means of defending Iranian air space than trying to build or buy a modern jet fighter fleet. It bought anywhere from four to ten SA-5 batteries from Russia along with around 35 missiles, according to a new, unclassified Office of Naval Intelligence analysis. In 2006, Russia delivered around 29 TOR-M1 (SA-15) systems to Iran. A short-range SAM system, the TOR is considered very capable and highly mobile, which, because of Iran’s sizeable and mountainous terrain, could make for a very difficult weapon to find, that can “pop-up” most anywhere
What’s missing from Iranian air defenses is a modern, long-range SAM. That’s where the S-300 comes in. Iran announced in December 2007 that it had contracted to buy an unspecified number of the systems from Russia. The high-altitude, long-range S-300 is considered by some accounts to be comparable to the U.S. built Patriot air defense missile. Israel views it as such a threat that in early June 2009, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, went to Moscow to try and convince Russia to halt the sale. According to all reports, the deal has not gone through
I asked former RAND analyst David Ochmanek (some time ago before he went to work for DoD where he is now assistant secretary for force development) whether the S-300 was really a game changer. What makes systems such as the S-300 so dangerous, he told me, is that they have high-powered radars that are difficult to jam and more powerful, faster missiles. The S-300 threatens even stealth aircraft. “Everything is visible at a certain range,” he said, a jet that would essentially invisible to a 1970s era SA-2 will not be invisible to the newer models at the same distance.
Barry Watts, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, DC think tank, and a Vietnam era fighter pilot, told me that if pilots could spot the smoke trails of the earlier generation of SAMs then they could outmaneuver them, because of the G-force limitations of older missiles. With the new SAMs, outmaneuvering doesn’t work anymore, “those missiles went from 10G missiles, to about 30 or 40 Gs,” which means the missile’s turn rates are vastly improved. Coupled with the latest powerful radars, “if the missile is locked up on you and its guiding, the only thing you can do is pull the ejection handles and get out of the airplane.”
Photo credit: Mehr News Agency