Let the record show that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be the next Hitler, but he is certainly not the next Napoleon. His recent pronouncements regarding the Iranian military are little more than false bravado, designed to paper over glaring deficiencies in Tehran's armed forces. Recalling General Norman Schwarzkopf's assessment of Saddam Hussein, it is apparent that the Iranian leader is not a military strategist, a tactician, nor is he schooled in the operational art. But obviously, that didn't stop him from offering a swaggering description of Iran's military capabilities.
In a brief speech before an Armed Forces Day parade in Tehran, Ahmadinejad described the Iranian Army as "one of the most powerful armies in the world, which will powerfully defend the country's political borders and the nation." He vowed that Iran's military would "cut off the hands of any aggressor," and "make any aggressor regret it."
Admittedly, it's not the job of any national leader to discuss weaknesses or shortcomings within his military. But it would be helpful to know "which" Iranian Army Ahmadinejad was talking about. As we've noted on numerous occasions, there are actually two armies in the Iranian military, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Regular Army. While the Revolutionary Guards have grown under Iran's theocratic government, the regular army has withered. It has a lower priority for new equipment and facilities, and suffers severe shortges of trained personnel, modern armor, artillery and communications equipment.
The Revolutionary Guards are better equipped, but their leadership is suspect. In an organization where political and religious "reliability" are paramount, many senior RG officers are little more than hacks who owe their loyalty to the mullahs in Tehran. The cadre of western-trained officers who once led the Iranian military (and helped save it from destruction in the Iran-Iraq War) are largely gone, the result of retirements and purges.
Beyond that, Iran remains poorly prepared to defend against a massive, coalition air and missile campaign against its nuclear facilities (Hat Tip: Blogospherical Ruminations). Tehran's air defense system is particularly suspect; its early warning radar network has significant coverage gaps below 10,000 ft, and its surface-to-air missile defenses consist mostly of 1970s-era U.S., Russian and British systems, including the I-HAWK, SA-5, SA-6 and RAPIER. In some cases (RAPIER) attacking aircraft can simply fly above the threat; with the other systems, current jamming programs are more than capable of defeating the threat. Compounding the problem, some Iranian SAMs (notably the SA-5) operate from fixed sites that are well-known and can be easily targeted. The I-HAWK and SA-6 are more mobile, but unfortunately for Iran, their SAM crews don't practice those skills on a consistent basis, and their camoflague skills are marginal, at best.
Command-and-control of Iran's air defenses is also problematic, despite the recent addition of Chinese-built equipment. There is little coordination between the Revolutionary Guards and the regular Air Force, resulting in missed tracks and (on some occasions) near-fratricide incidents. Against a massive air and missile attack, Iran's centralized air defense command and control would be quickly over-whelmed, forcing local SAM and AAA batterys into an autonomous mode, sometimes described as the "spray [the skies with lead] and pray" method of air defense. As we saw in Iraq and Serbia, de-centralized air defenses are more vulnerable to suppression, and far less likely to bring down an attacking aircraft or missile.
Iran's fighter force also has its problems. Despite recent acquisitions of Russian and Chinese aircraft, the interceptor squadrons still rely heavily on aging U.S.-built F-4E Phantoms (Iran also has a small number of F-14 Tomcats, but their operational reliability is doubt). Iranian fighter crews are no match for their U.S. (or Israeli) counterparts, and they have virtually no hope of detecting or engaging low-observable platforms. The same holds true for Iran's ground-based air defenses.
Against a U.S-led aerial onslaught, Iran would attempt to fight asymmetrically, relying on its naval forces to restrict navigation through the Strait of Hormuz, while employing ballistic missiles and rockets to attack U.S./Allied bases in the rear area. Ahmadinejad probably has no qualms about using chemical, bio, or (eventually) nuclear weapons against an American or Israeli target in the region, although the nuclear option is probably 2-4 years away--at the outside--and the accuracy of chem/bio delivery platforms is also in doubt.
Bottom line: organizing martyr "corps" and parading unguided, short-range missiles may impress the western media, but it does little to improve the combat capabilities of Iran's military forces. Tehran is making some progress in terms of acquiring better equipment and expanding its exercise program, but Ahmadinejad has done little to address the shortfalls in air and air defense forces. To have any hope of countering U.S.-led air and missile attacks, he would have to spend billions on "double-digit (SA-10/20) SAMs, modernize command and control systems, and rebuild his air force around more capable airframes, such as the SU-27/30 FLANKER. But acquiring hardware is merely the first step in the process; successful integration and crew training take years (and billions more in investment). So far, Iran appears unwilling to make that investment and as a result, it would be unable to stop an air campaign aimed at its nuclear program. And no amount of false bravado can hide that fact.