Russia has announced that it has completed deliveries of the SA-15 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to Iran. Moscow signed an agreement to sell 29 SA-15 fire units to Iran in late 2005; training of Iranian crews began last summer, and actual deliveries commenced in November of last year. Compared to past arms deals, the delivery of the SA-15s (which the Russians call the TOR-1M) seems a bit accelerated; Moscow delivered the full order in about two months, reflecting the urgency that Tehran assigns to the air defense purchase.
We've written extensively about the SA-15 deal in the past, beginning in December 2005. Deployment of this modern SAM system can certainly improve the short-range defense of key installations, including Iran's nuclear facilities. But this purchase will not solve Iran's serious air defense problems, which require billions for additional equipment and traning. Among other issues, Tehran's air defense network is beset by gaps in radar coverage, limited automation of its air defense "picture," an ineffective command and control (C2) system, aging equipment and limited training, just to name a few.
In other words, while the SA-15 is capable of defending key targets against aircraft, cruise missiles and even precision-guided munitions, the new SAM system must operate within an air defense structure that often fails to detect potential threats, or notify the right air defense sector for possible action. Without effective early warning or C2, the SA-15 crews will be forced into an autonomous operations mode, where on-board systems identify and target detected threats. Operating without independent confirmation and confirmation of targets, the SAM crews will run an increased risk of false alarms, wasted shots and even fratricide.
As we observed last April, one of the critical issues regarding this deployment is the basing scheme that Iran selects for its SA-15s. The TOR-1M is a highly mobile system, best suited for conducting operations on the move, typically in support of advancing ground forces. Iran, however, prefers to place its SAMs in fixed positions around high-value targets. While that scheme enhances local defenses, it also makes it easier for adversaries to locate, fly around--and target--individual SAM batteries. The SA-15s would be much more effective in establishing mobile ambush points, along likely ingress routes for inbound strike packages.
But that sort of operational scheme would mean more time in the field, and (potentially) higher transporatation and maintenance costs. And, given Iran's penchant for doing things on the cheap, it's unlikely that Tehran will keep its SA-15s on the move, complicating our ability to detect and target them. Many will eventually move to existing I-HAWK sites, replacing the venerable U.S.-made SAM that's been the backbone of Iran's air defense system for more than 30 years. At that point, the U.S. and Israel can dial in their location, and Tehran can expect to lose a portion of its SA-15 force in potential engagements with its adversaries.
Readers may recall that Russia has indicated its willingness to sell other "defensive" systems to Iran. That raises the question of whether Moscow and Tehran will conclude a deal for an advanced, long-range SAM system (say, the SA-20) that could have a greater impact on air operations against Iran. Tehran has had the opportunity to buy the SA-20 in the past, but has typically balked at the cost ($300 million per battery).