Wednesday, December 09, 2009

More Air Defense Woes for Iran

When Tehran conducted a highly-publicized air defense exercise last month, we expressed doubts about the hardware on display--and its potential effectiveness against an Israeli attack.

In fact, video footage of the drill (which aired on state-run TV) appeared to be recycled from previous exercises. Air defense systems highlighted in press reports were the same antiquated surface-to-air missiles (I-HAWK, SA-5) and anti-aircraft artillery pieces (40 mm) that have defended Iranian installations for decades. There was no mention of the modern, short-range SA-15 missile system--acquired from Russia just three years ago--or the state-of-the-art S-300, which Tehran has reportedly purchased, but Moscow hasn't delivered.

In other words, the capabilities demonstrated by the Iranians hardly matched their rhetoric. That's hardly a surprise; there has long been a significant gap between Tehran's military claims and what it can actually deliver. But Iranian officials have cranked up their propaganda over the past couple of years, declaring their air defenses could repulse any Israeli (or U.S.) air strike.

Turns out, our suspicions about last month's exercise were well-founded. Strategy Page reports that Iranian generals in charge of the drill were "surprised" at how "uncoordinated" and "ill-prepared" their forces were for such an attack.

The air defense evaluation revealed a litany of serious problems, including poor communications and weaponry that failed to perform. From an intelligence standpoint, those findings are hardly surprising. Western analysts have long described Iran's air defense system as the military equivalent of a Chinese fire drill (with apologies to the Chinese). Despite investments in more modern equipment since the early 1990s, Tehran's air defense network remains a hodge-podge of antiquated systems and newer hardware, linked with a command-and-control network that is suspect, at best.

Advanced air defense systems rely on sophisticated radars and other sensors, relaying information to automated C3 nodes that can process (and analyze) literally hundreds of tracks at once, and assist commanders in assigning valid targets to missile batteries, AAA sites and interceptor aircraft.

Iran has been trying to make that transition for years, but it's been an uphill struggle. At last report, Tehran's air defense network was only partially automated, with a Chinese-built, automated C3 system functioning alongside the existing model, built on manual reporting and tracking.

Making matters worse, Iran's radar coverage is poor, with significant gaps below 15,000 feet. To compensate for that problem, Tehran built hundreds of visual observation (VIZOB) posts along its borders, manned by members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the "regular" military, local militias and even the police. The spotters often report anything they see or hear, so Iranian air defense C3 nodes are often saturated with sightings of bright lights, mysterious sounds, and unidentified aircraft.

And, because commanders (typically) lack effective decision aids, air defense systems are sometimes assigned to engage phantom targets, or--even worse--civilian aircraft. A few years ago, the Iranians came dangerously close to shooting down a Saudi jetliner, bound for Tehran. Apparently, the Saudi flight crew had changed their flight plan (and coordinated it with Iranian air traffic controllers), but the revision was never passed to air defense officials.

To be fair, confusion and the need for split-second decisions can affect the most sophisticated air defense systems, as evidenced by the destruction of an Iranian passenger jet by the USS Vincennes in 1988. But, to borrow a German general's description of the U.S. Army in World War II, Iran's air defense system practices chaos on a daily basis, and the potential for error remains especially high. Factor in the intensity of an exercise--and fears of an impending Israeli attack--and it's little wonder that the Iranians performed poorly during that recent drill.

As Strategy Page observes, Iran's most effective weapon is bluster. But even that tool has its limitations. While it works with the media and the general public, military analysts know better. Tehran's air defense network is anything but effective and that may be one reason the generals described its failure in such blunt terms. They know that Iranian politicians won't tone down their comments about "advanced" military capabilities, but they can do something more useful--like pressuring Moscow to deliver the S-300.

The availability of that system would greatly bolster Iran's air defense capabilities, and force Israel to alter its attack plans. Without the S-300, Tehran must rely on antiquated weapons and command systems to protect its nuclear sites from attack. Such marginal capabilities won't keep the Israelis up at night, but from an Iranian perspective, they are a cause for concern.