Monday, February 16, 2009

Iran's New Plan for Air Defense

Still worried about a potential strike by Israeli--and looking for ways to integrate equipment more effectively--Iran has announced plans for a separate air defense force.

According to the Associated Press, the new branch will integrate air defense assets previously assigned to other organizations, including the "regular" Air Force and the Revolutionary Guards. Under the new organizational structure, the air defense command will become the "fourth" branch of the military, joining Iran's Army, Navy and the Air Force.

Gen. Ahmad Mighani announced over the weekend that Iran's supreme leader ordered a new branch be split off from the air force to deal specifically with any threats to the country's air space. The order rearranges the regular military into four branches — the ground force, the navy, the air force and the air defense force, he said.

The commander of the new force will oversee radar, military intelligence gathering equipment and anti-aircraft missile units, Mighani said. He did not elaborate.

We put the "fourth" designation in quotation marks because in reality, Iran has dual ground forces, navies and air forces. Since the Iranian Revolution, the ruling clerics have been suspicious of the "regular" military and lingering concerns about its "western" influences. Until 1979, Iran's armed forces based on the U.S. model--and largely equipped with American hardware.

We also provided training for hundreds of the Shah's officers, some of them remained on active duty well into the 1990s. Try as they might, the revolutionaries couldn't completely purge the western influence, since U.S.-trained officers were generally the most capable in the Iranian military.

Unable to completely eliminate its American-trained cadre, Tehran did the next best thing, creating ground, naval and air units within the Revolutionary Guard. While those elements were decidedly loyal to the regime, they were also less proficient than members of the "regular" armed forces. As Revolutionary Guard units slowly gained experience, "regular" forces still played a key role in defending Iran.

As you might imagine, the competing militaries were a nightmare in terms of training, equipment and control. Regular units and their RG counterparts competed for funding, resulting in a dual units that were often resource-starved. While the Revolutionary Guard gained the upper hand over the past decade (receiving most of the new equipment and the lion's share of funding), the regular military soldiered on, and will apparently be a part of Iran's military for some time to come.

By melding regular and RG air defense units into a single command, Iran believes it can eliminate many of those problems. Tehran also hopes the new structure improve the often-contentious relations between the two organizations. In recent years, there have been reports of AAA guns, manned by "regular" air defense personnel, firing on aircraft and UAVs assigned to the Revolutionary Guard. And as you might imagine, RG crews have returned the favor, shooting at "regular" Air Force jets, or failing to report track data to SAM batteries operated by the "senior" air defense service.

Iran's new air defense organization also reflects a growing Russian influence. Tehran has already taken delivery of the SA-15 advanced mobile SAM, and is expected to receive the long-range S-300 system later this year. Russian advisers recognized the folly of the old Iranian system, and we expect they lobbied hard for Tehran to put those state-of-the-art SAMs in a more workable operational structure.

There is, of course, a Russian precedent for this type of organizational scheme. Students of the former Soviet military may recall that Moscow had its own, separate air defense branch (PVO Strany) for many years. It ranked third, in terms of importance, behind the Strategic Rocket forces and the Red Army. However, the budget crunch of the late 1990s forced consolidation of the air defense mission into the Russian Air Force. And despite Vladimir Putin's efforts to restore prestige--and funding--for Russia's military, air defense forces have not reemerged as a separate branch of the armed services.

Will the Iranian version prove more successful? We'll be charitable and say the jury will be out on that one for several years. While getting rid of the "dual" service structure is a step in the right direction, old habits, hatreds and rivalries die hard. It will be interesting to see who winds up in charge of the air defense forces, and who dominates the senior command structure. Our money is on the Revolutionary Guard, which is slowly gaining the upper hand on its rivals from the regular military.

But even if it's dominated by the RG, the new air defense branch will still depend on regular units that operate some of the older SAMs and radars. Achieving cooperation and integration between regular and RG elements will be Job #1 in making the new air defense branch a viable military organization. But don't hold your breath. Iran has been trying to crack this nut for 30 years, with only marginal success.

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