Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bragging Rights

The late, great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once observed that "it ain't braggin' if you can back it up." Over the past week, Iran has been bragging quite a bit about it's military capabilities. Those statements beg an obvious question: has Iran, in fact, significantly bolstered its military capabilities, or are the recent statements from Tehran just idle boasts?

Let's begin with the most recent comments, from a senior Iranian military official. According to the head of the "elite" Revolutionary Guards," Iran now has the ability to "confront any extra-regional invasion," an obvious reference to the U.S. The Iranian officer, General Yahya Rahim Safavi, made the comments after a test of the new "Kowsar" anti-ship missile. Tehran has released few details on the Kowsar system, saying only that its guidance system cannot be scrambled, and it is designed to sink enemy vessels.

From what I'm told, the Kowsar project has long been shrouded in secrecy. But there are some vague indications that Kowsar may have some relationship to Iran's I-HAWK missile system, purchased from the U.S. in the mid-1970s. If the Kowsar is actually based on the I-HAWK, there is little new or revolutionary about it--the system may be only another example of Iran modifying an existing, aging system for a new role. It is also worth noting that Iran already has an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, mostly of Chinese design. Development of the Kowsar may indicate dissatisfaction with these systems, or simply an effort to further expand coastal defenses, at minimal cost. Given Iran's penchant for doing things on the cheap, that possibility cannot be dismissed. Additionally, Iran's recently announced purchase of the SA-15 SAM system from Russia might lead to the retirement of some HAWKs (athough the SA-15 has a shorter range), or their modification for an anti-ship role. However, we need more info on the Kowsar to make any kind of definitive statement about the system and potential capabilities.

Iran has also touted its new, high-speed torpedo, which was also recently tested. But as we noted previously, this weapon has its own deficiencies, including an antiquated guidance system, and relatively short range. Against merchant shipping, both the torpedo and the Kowsar could be highly effective, but as an antidote for a U.S. Navy battle group or carrier group, these weapons are hardly world-beaters.

Tehran also claims that it recently tested a ballistic missile that is capable of evading enemy radar and (presumably) can penetrate missile defenses. According to Iranian spokesmen, the missile (designated the Fajr-3) has multiple warheads, suggesting is has a MIRV (multiple independent re-entry vehicle) capability, advanced technology previously associated with super-power ICBM programs. MIRV warheads allow the a single missile to hit several targets at once.

The Iranians aren't releasing any information on how they achieved this "breakthrough." But I remain unconvinced. There is the possibility that the Iranian missile simply carried a cluster warhead, rather than multiple warheads. A cluster warhead is simply a sub-munition mounted on a rocket or missile. Like a cluster bomb, a rocket or missile carrying sub-munitions dispenses a number of smaller bomblets at a pre-determined height, which fall (unguided) in a selected area. While MIRV warheads are capable of precision targeting, a submunition is not. Submunitions are an easier technology to develop or acquire than MIRV warheads. And so far, I haven't see the technical evidence that Iran has achieved MIRV technology.

Finally, there's that choice of words from General Safavi: confront. Being able to confront an invasion doesn't mean you can defeat it. In fact, Iran's plans for confronting a U.S.-led attack now hinge on asymmetric warfare, using missiles, WMD, terrorism, unconventional forces and strategic depth. In other words, Tehran would respond to a coalition attack by (a) attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, triggering a global oil crisis; (b) using missiles/WMD to inflict mass casualties among civilian populations in Israel and U.S. military bases in the region, (c) using terrorist proxies to attack the U.S. and its allies around the world, and (d) countering a ground invasion with insurgent warfare, similar to what we see in Iraq.

Unfortunately for Iran, they are poorly equipped for fighting the airpower campaign that would be our primary strategy against Tehran. Iran's air defenses remain weak, and it's ability to choke off the Strait of Hormuz is also doubtful. Iran's recent boasts about its growing military might are just that--exaggerated claims with only a limited basis in fact.

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