The Countdown Begins
The head of Russia's state-controlled arms export company has announced that his country may sell anti-aircraft systems to both Iran and Venezuela, over U.S. objections.
According to the U.K. Times, the firm's general director told a Russian press service that negotiations to sell new air defense systems are on-going. Anatoly Isaikin, head of Rosoboronexport, made the announcement in South Africa, where he was attending an arms show. He suggested that the deals are likely to be finalized, despite American protests.
"Contacts between our countries are continuing and we do not see any reason to suspend them," he told Ria-Novosti news service.
Mr. Isaikin offered few details about the proposed exports. But the referenced "anti-aircraft" equipment is assumed to be the S-300, the latest version of the advanced SA-20 "Gargoyle" surface-to-air missile system. In terms of performance, the SA-20 is comparable to advanced versions of the U.S. Patriot system, capable of intercepting aircraft, cruise missiles and even ballistic missiles at extended ranges.
Iran has long sought a state-of-the-art SAM system to protect its nuclear facilities from air and missile attacks. While there have been past reports of a pending S-300 sale, none of those deals have ever panned out.
According to some analysts, Tehran has previously balked at the system's high price ($300-400 million per battalion, with six launchers assigned to each unit). However, with Iran's nuclear program approaching (or already at) an advanced stage--and the threat of U.S. or Israeli attack --Tehran's defense officials may have decided that the S-300 is worth the price. And, with oil revenues pouring in, Iran has the cash to fund the purchase.
Venezuela's interest in the S-300 is more recent, but it seems clear that dictator Hugo Chavez wants the system. Russia press reports have been hinting at a deal for several months, and in late July, the former head of the Russian Air Force suggested that Venezuela might buy as many as 10 S-300 battalions, to protect its oil fields, ports and military facilities.
Given Mr. Isiakin's comments, the obvious questions are: (A) How close is Russia to signing a deal with Iran and Venezuela, and (B) How soon could deliveries of the S-300 begin? The answers to those questions are critical, particularly in reference to a potential Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear program.
With S-300 batteries in place, attacking Iranian nuclear facilities becomes more problematic for the Israeli Air Force, which has long-standing plans for a limited, surgical strike against those targets. Flying against an air defense system that includes advanced SAMs, the Israelis would face higher odds of aircraft and pilot losses--calculations that must be squared against the resources that the IAF could bring to bear.
In terms of negotiations, it's almost impossible to know how soon a deal might be signed. But Mr. Isiakin and Rosoboroexport are certainly in a position to know, and his comments are the most credible (to date) on a possible S-300 sale to Iran.
Some potential time lines put the SAM system in Iran by the middle of next year. Assuming the referenced negotiations are concluded by year's end, then a cadre of Iranian operators could begin training on the system, in Russia, by early 2009. If their course lasts 6-8 months, that means the first wave of Iranian crews and instructors would return to their homeland by mid-summer, about the time S-300 batteries would start arriving in their homeland.
However, Tehran has options for acquiring the system even sooner. If they accept initial deliveries out of Russian military stocks and hire contractors to man their S-300 battalions, the Iranians could have a limited operational capability by early next year.
But completing scheduled deliveries in a timely manner will require that Russian manufacturing facilities are working exclusively on the Iranian contract. In the past, some S-300/SA-20 customers have been required to "wait in line" while the production line completes earlier orders. By most accounts, Moscow has delivered the last batteries to China, its biggest SA-20 export customer. That would put Tehran at the head of the line for upcoming production lots, and suggests initial deliveries will occur next year.
On the other hand, if Russia still owes significant quantities of SA-20 equipment to Beijing, then full exports to Iran might be delayed. That would also push back potential deliveries to Venezuela, which, presumably, won't receive the system until the Iranian sale is complete.
In any case, the clock is already ticking on a potential Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program. Attacking before the S-300's arrival would dictate a raid in the coming months, most likely before year's end. Beyond that, the IAF faces the growing prospect of confronting a more robust Iranian IADS, with the S-300 providing long-range coverage to complement the already-acquired SA-15, used for point defense.
That also means that the "decision window" is rapidly closing for Israeli leaders, as the country transitions from the Olmert regime to a new government. Making a "go" or "no go" call will likely be the first decision for the new prime minister. And the new leader won't have much time to make that call.
ADDENDUM: As we've noted before, the presence of the SA-20 in Iran is not necessarily a show-stopper for the Israelis. But attacking after its deployment will require better intelligence, optimal mission planning and more assets for suppression of enemy air defenses. That latter requirement, in turn, will further constrain the strike package, and (potentially) limit the munitions load for the nuclear facilities. Every additional HARM means one less hard point for the penetrator bombs needed to take out those nuclear facilities.
Still, there are other ways to attack an integrated air defense system. Some analysts believe that the Israelis used cyber-attack (to some degree) in last year's successful raid on that Syrian nuclear facility. When the SA-20s are wired into the Iranian IADS, they will become vulnerable to network attacks, from Israel and other potential foes.