Iran's plan to buy at least 30 SA-15/TOR-1M air defense systems from Russia is one of the headlines in today's edition of Powerline. However, this blog first reported on the deal last December, and we've been waiting for the first SA-15 fire units to show up in Iran. At the time, we speculated as to whether the air defense deal would ever reach fruition; over the years, the global arms market has been rife with rumors concerning potential Iranian arms deals. Virtually none have panned out; in terms of air and air defense forces, Tehran likes to do things on the cheap, preferring to patch up its aging, U.S. built F-4 fighters and I-HAWK surface-to-air missiles rather than investing billions in new hardware and training.
According to press reports, Iran plans to deploy the mobile SA-15s around high-value targets, including its nuclear facilities. In that assessment proves accurate, it would represent a major upgrade of the short-range air defense assets protecting those sites. Currently, Iran relies primarily on the I-HAWK (maximum range: 21 miles) for short-medium range SAM coverage of key installations and facilities. However, the I-HAWK is a well-known threat, and both the U.S. and Israel have effective measures for negating the system.
By comparison, the SA-15 is a much more modern system, with an advanced radar, electronic countermeasures and missiles, giving it improved capabilities against tactical aircraft, cruise missiles and even precision-guided weapons. But the SA-15 is hardly an unknown threat. The U.S. also has a good handle on its capabilities and weaknesses, so we would not enter a conflict with Iran at a tactical disadvantage against the SA-15. Additionally, the SA-15 system (while quite capable) has a relatively short range, less than half that of the I-HAWK. Parking an SA-15 TELAR (Transporter Erector Launcher and Radar vehicle) next to the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor or the centrifuge building at Natanz would actually decrease the effectiveness of the system. In that mode, they might have some success in knocking down incoming bombs, but attacking aircraft could remain out of their tactical range, lobbing enough PGMs to eventually overwhelm the system. I'm guessing that Iran might place its SA-15s on the outer defense ring around its nuclear sites, attempting to negate the "stand off" advantage for U.S. or coalition aircraft.
While acquisition of the SA-15 is a major upgrade for Iran, it represents something of a bandaid approach to serious air defense problems. Older SAMs will remain a part of the air defense network for years to come, offering only marginal defensive capabilities. And, Tehran's command-and-control system for its air defenses is antiquated in some sectors and prone to problems, including poor communications, limited automation, and saturation. In that environment, those SA-15s may well find themselves operating on their own. The SA-15 is certainly capable of autonomous ops, but without a C2 network, its effectiveness will be reduced.
There is also the question of when the SA-15s will actually show up, and how soon they'll enter operational service in Iran. These days, Russia operates on a "production for pay" system; in other words, you don't get your hardware until the manufacturer has been paid. Tehran has a long history of dragging out payments, which would further delay receipt of the SA-15. In a best case scenario--Iran makes a down payment this week--the hardware wouldn't arrive in Iran for more than a year. Russia does have the option of selling SA-15s from its own military stocks, but in today's arms market, customers generally prefer the newest models with the latest upgrades, rather than acquiring "used" equipment.
If Tehran is serious about modernizing its air defense networks, it would pursue additional upgrades in automation, radars, aircraft and other SAMs, notably the SA-10/20 system. The SA-10/20 is comparable to the U.S. PATRIOT (and actually, superior in some respects). Addition of the SA-10/20 would be a more significant upgrade and fill in some of the medium-to-long range coverage gaps that now exist. But buying the SA-10/20 would be an even more expensive proposition--a single battery (acquisition radar, engagement radar, C2 vans and missile launchers) runs $300-400 million. And Iran would need a number of SA-20s to provide an adequate level of protection.
The SA-15 will represent a major upgrade for Tehran's air defenses. But it's not capable of single-handedly stopping an Allied air offensive against its nuclear sits. And, to be most effective, the system needs some "help," in terms of other SAMs, better surveillance radars and a more effective C2 network. So far, Iran's record in those upgrades is spotty, at best.