The AP reports from Tehran that Iran has concluded a deal to purchase the S-300 long-range air defense system from Russia. Iran’s defense minister, Mostafa Najjar, said that the system will be “delivered to Iran on the basis of a contract signed in the past.” The Iranian official did not say how many S-300 batteries had been purchased by Tehran, or when deliveries would actually begin.
Reports about Iran acquiring the S-300 have been making the rounds for years, and there have been past discussions on the subject between Tehran and Moscow. However, the deal usually fell apart over such matters as price and follow-on support. Not only is the S-300 exceptionally expensive–$300 million per battery–customers also have to pay more for service “after the sale.” As we’ve noted in other posts, Iran likes to buy defense hardware on the cheap (whenever possible), and broke off past negotiations on the S-300.
If Najjar’s claim is true, then Tehran apparently decided that the advanced SAM system was worth the asking price. What changed? Several factors. First, with world oil prices still above $80 a barrel, it’s easier for Iran to buy expensive military systems. Secondly, Tehran is quite aware of deficiencies in its existing air defense network, and has been looking for a system that can defend against aircraft, cruise missile and ballistic missile targets–at extended ranges. And finally, Iran believes that deployment of a state-of-the-art SAM system could provide a deterrent against potential attacks, particularly those from an adversary (think Israel) with a limited long-range strike capability.
True, the S-300 alone might not dissuade the Israelis, but its presence would force Tel Aviv (and the IAF) to re-think their strategic calculus. With only a limited number of attack aircraft to mount an attack on Iran (and a handful of aerial tankers to support the operation), the Israelis would face a tough choice: would they be willing to risk their most sophisticated fighters (F-15I, F-16I) against nuclear facilities defended by the S-300?
Iran’s expected deployment of the system around high-value targets would increase the risk faced by Israeli aircrews, while lessening their prospects for success. Unlike the U.S., Israel doesn’t have hundreds of cruise missiles to saturate enemy defenses ahead of an air strike, further increasing the danger faced by IAF crews. The S-300 isn’t unbeatable, but it’s light years ahead of the aging I-HAWKs, SA-2s and SA-5s that currently defend Iran’s airspace. Against the S-300, the relatively small Israeli strike package (probably no more than 24 aircraft) could face potential losses that could make the attack prohibitive.
The S-300 also poses potential problems for the U.S. Newer missiles associated with the system can engage stand-off targets at ranges of up to 200 km. If some of the batteries are posted along Iran’s western coast, they could potentially threaten stand-off platforms like AWACS, J-STARs, RIVET JOINT and tanker aircraft, all vital to any U.S. air campaign. The system would also have some capabilities against smaller targets, including strike and reconnaissance drones.
So far, Moscow has refused comment on Iran’s claims, suggesting (perhaps) that the deal hasn’t been finalized. But Najjar is a senior member of the Iranian government, and clearly in a position to know about such matters. That means his remarks can’t be dismissed out of hand (like prior reports of an Iranian S-300 purchase). If the reports prove accurate, Tehran has taken a major step towards upgrading its air defense system, and created new challenges for its regional foes.
ADDENDUM: If the recent SA-15 purchase is any indication, Iran could receive its first S-300 batteries within a year of the announcement. Full integration/deployment of the system will depend on a number of variables, including the training of Iranian crews and the “source” of Tehran’s S-300 equipment. If Iranian personnel have already trained on the system–and Moscow makes deliveries out of existing inventories–then a 2008 arrival is quite possible. On the other hand, if Iranian crews have not received training (and Tehran wants “new” equipment fresh from the factory), first deliveries might not occur until sometime in 2009.
Readers will also note that one element of the AP story is wrong: the S-300 isn’t really an “improvement” over the SA-15 (also known as the Tor-M1). The long-range system is designed to complement the SA-15, providing broad, area coverage, while the short-range SAM performs point defense of high-value targets. Together, the two systems will provide overlapping coverage against low, medium and high-altitude threats–potentially correcting a major deficiency in the Iranian air defense network.
Both the SA-15 and the S-300 (NATO designation: SA-20) are highly advanced systems. The real challenge for Iran will be integrating them into their archaic (and often chaotic) command and control network. Tehran has spent billions on an automated, Chinese-built C2 system, designed to bring some degree of coherence to air defense efforts. But results of that effort have been mixed. While the SA-15 and S-300 are capable of operating autonomously, they are more effective as part of an integrated air defense system (IADS). Without major improvements in Iranian command-and-control, the potential effectiveness of the new systems may be limited, or even result in fratricide incidents.