Friday, July 02, 2010

State of the Art?

An early-model Pulse Acquisition Radar (PAR), part of the HAWK surface-to-air missile system. A PAR radar was featured on a recent Press TV report on the nation's air defenses, which aired as U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed the transfer of an advanced radar from Iran to Syria. Information on that system remains vague, but the radar clearly wasn't a PAR, which remains in service with Iranianair defense units (U.S. Army photo via Wikipedia)

It's hardly a secret that Israeli is contemplating an air strike against Iran's nuclear weapons program. As Tehran draws closer to getting the bomb, the likelihood of an Israeli attack increases. Many analysts believe it's not a matter of if, but when.

In response, Iran has been predictably bellicose, threatening to "erase Israel from the map," if the IAF heads east. At the operational level, Tehran has been trying to beef up its air defenses, pressing Russia for delivery of the advance S-300 surface-to-air missile system, and upgrading its limited inventory of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters.

And, there are signs that Iran is attempting to expand defenses beyond its borders. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported Tehran has deployed a "sophisticated" early-warning radar to Syria, in an effort to improve detection and reporting of a potential Israeli attack.

The radar could bolster Syria's defenses by providing early warning of Israeli air-force sorties. It could also benefit Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group based in Lebanon and widely believed to receive arms from Syria.

Any sharing of radar information by Syria could increase the accuracy of Hezbollah's own missiles and bolster its air defenses. That would boost Hezbollah defenses, which U.S. and Israeli officials say have been substantially upgraded since 2006, the last time Israel fought the southern Lebanon-based group.

The mid-2009 transfer was described in recent months by two Israeli officials, two U.S. officials and a Western intelligence source, and confirmed Wednesday by the Israeli military. Though they didn't name the system's final recipient in Syria, these and other officials described it as part as a dramatic increase in weapons transfers and military coordination among Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

Officially, both Syria and Iran deny that the transfer took place. But U.S. and Israeli officials, citing intelligence reporting, say the radar arrived in Syria in mid-2009. Still, no one in Washington or Tel Aviv has identified the radar system publicly. Tehran is believed to have acquired a small number of advanced surveillance radars from China in recent years, part of a major upgrade of Iran's air defense system, long beset by problems with coverage, track saturation and target identification.

While the addition of an advanced radar would improve surveillance for Syria, Hizballah (and even Iran), there would be significant problems associated with its integration and operation. For starters, a single radar can't operate continuously--there has to be downtime for system maintenance--so inevitable gaps in coverage would occur. And, since many nations schedule maintenance at predictable intervals, it wouldn't be difficult for the Israelis to figure out when the radar would be switched off, and plan accordingly.

Additionally, a single radar would prevent a tempting target for the Israeli Air Force. There are plenty of IAF fighters that carry anti-radiation missiles, which home in on the radar's signal, or fly to its last reported location (in the event the radar shuts down). Israel also pioneered the use of defense suppression drones like the Harpy, which loiter in hostile airspace for extended periods, then strike when radars are switched on. The Israelis have also been working on a more advanced "killer" UAV (the Harop) which can more easily attack non-emitting ground targets, including ballistic missile sites.

To attain some degree of effectiveness, the Iranian radar must be integrated into existing air defense systems. There are a number of options for linking a radar to command-and-control nodes, including microwave towers, "landline" cables, satellite links or--the most likely option--fiber optic connections.

However, all of those systems are vulnerable to intercept and exploitation, at least to some degree. In the past, western intelligence agencies have succeeded in penetrating adversary air defense systems, allowing them to "see" the air surveillance picture and even introduce false targets, jamming or other deceptive techniques. It is widely believed that the IAF used some (or all) of these measures during a 2007 raid against a Syrian nuclear complex near the Iraqi border. During that mission, an Israeli strike package penetrated Syrian airspace, bombed the target and departed--all without being detected. That stunning Israeli success is one reason that Iran decided to send the radar to Syria.

If properly integrated, the new radar would allow Iran to more closely monitor IAF flight activity and provide early warning of a potential attack--assuming the signal is being transmitted to Tehran. But it's also a safe bet that the U.S. and Israel have long since identified the radar type, signal characteristics and its operating location. With that information, the IAF can easily compensate for the threat, by destroying the radar, jamming it, or leveraging information operations to negate command-and-control systems.

While public details on the "new" radar remain sketchy, one thing is certain: the radar in question is not the system highlighted on Iran's Press TV, and in this article from AFP. The unit shown in the accompanying screen capture (from Iranian television) is a Pulse Acquisition Radar (PAR), an ancient system used with early versions of the I-HAWK surface-to-air missile. The PAR is anything but state-of-the art; one reason it's still in service with Iran's air defense system is because of Tehran's difficulty in gaining upgraded HAWK equipment, or more modern air defense radars.

1 comment:

ck said...

Unfortunately I think Israel blew it's window of opportunity. With our Navy in the Gulf, they may have a successful strike on Iran but Barry will order a strike on the IAF on their return home.