Senior Israeli defense sources tell Reuters that Iran is set to receive the advanced S-300 air defense system from Russia, with the first batteries arriving as early as September. However, it could take six months to a year for the system to become fully operational, creating a possible window for potential strikes against Iranian nuclear sites.
Tehran--which previously purchased the short-range SA-15 air defense system from Moscow— announced plans to acquire the S-300 last winter. But that claim was denied by Russian officials, and to date, the long-range air defense system has not been observed in Iran.
But an Israeli official told Reuters’ reporter Dan Williams that Tehran’s contract requires delivery of the S-300 by the end of the year. A second Israeli source claims that the first shipments of S-300 equipment would arrive in Iran by September.
If that timetable is correct, it suggests that Iranian crews and technicians have been in Russia for several months, learning to operate and maintain the state-of-the-art SAM system. Once their training is complete, the Iranians will return home to establish initial operating sites for the S-300, and train additional personnel.
The S-300 designation actually represents a family of surface-to-air missiles, an outgrowth of the original SA-10/GRUMBLE system of the 1980s. The latest version is the S-300PMU2 “Favorit,” which has a maximum range of 200km, versus 150 km for older variants.
It is unclear which model will be delivered to Iran. Previous export customers (including China and Cyprus) bought the S-300PMU1, better known by its NATO designator, SA-20. Nicknamed “Gargoyle,” the SA-20 has the same range referenced in the Reuters article. It is the most likely variant to be exported to Iran, although sales of more advanced versions cannot be ruled out.
Acquisition of the S-300 would complicate U.S. or Israeli planning for possible attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Tehran is expected to deploy the SAM system in its western provinces, providing protection of the nuclear sites and other key installations. The deployment pattern would also cover air corridors used by hostile aircraft entering Iranian airspace.
At more than $300 million per battery, the S-300 is one of the most expensive air defense systems in the world. But Iran apparently views it as a worthwhile investment, offering a major upgrade to its defenses against air attack, along with ballistic and cruise missiles.
Currently, Tehran’s “primary” surface-to-air missile is the U.S.-built I-HAWK, acquired by the Shah in the early 1970s. In later years, Iran also purchased the Chinese-made CSA-1 (a clone of the 40-year-old Soviet SA-2), and the long-range SA-5, also developed by the Russians. With dwindling supplies of spare parts, the I-HAWKs are gradually falling apart; the CSA-1 and SA-5 have marginal capabilities against tactical aircraft, and they pose no threat to cruise missiles or ballistic systems.
Iran’s efforts to get the S-300 operational could be accelerated through the use of Russian contractors, who could supplement the initial cadre, or fully man the system until Iranian operators attain required proficiency.
While the S-300 represents a significant boost for Tehran’s air defense network, it is not a panacea. All modern SAM systems have vulnerabilities, ranging from long-range standoff weapons and electronic jamming, to cyber attack.
In Iran, S-300 crews must also overcome the obstacle of a semi-automated air defense network that is subject to saturation and confusion. Against that backdrop, S-300 operators would probably revert to their autonomous mode, selecting and engaging targets at their own discretion.
Unfortunately, that increases prospects for fratricide—and remember, Iran is a country that’s come dangerously close to shooting down civilian airliners, during normal “peacetime” operations. We wouldn’t want to be on the Bandar Abbas-Tehran shuttle when some Iranian S-300 crew decides those unknown blips represent a U.S. or Israeli attack.
ADDENDUM: Israeli officials who spoke with Reuters admitted that the S-300 in Iran poses a “learning curve” for them. But we’d also guess that the IAF already has some ideas about overcoming that challenge, when it finally materializes.