Saturday, November 25, 2006

Questionable Delivery

Perhaps we should have added a question mark to yesterday's post about the purported arrival of the SA-15 SAM system in Iran. Since those reports began making the rounds, at least two Russian spokesmen have denied that the first SA-15 fire units have been delivered to the Iranians. However, a Defense Ministry source in Moscow told the AP that deliveries are underway, and that may be our most word on the subject--at least, until SA-15 launchers are detected on satellite imagery in Iran, or we detect emissions from the SCRUM HALF (the missile's associated radar), via electronic intelligence (ELINT).

While Iran will definitely get the SA-15 (at some point), there are reasons the first deliveries might be yet delayed. Egypt signed a deal for the system before Iran, and various Russian sources have indicated that those deliveries would be completed before the first fire units are transferred to Tehran. Additionally, the SA-15 is a complex system, and Russia's production capability is limited. Unless production is ramped up--and apparently, that hasn't happened--Iran will have to wait its turn. If Tehran is now taking delivery of the system, it would indicate that Egypt has received its complement of SA-15s. Incidentally, reliable reporting suggests that both Iran and Egypt will receive "new" equipment, and not hardware originally built for the Russian military. In today's global arms market, most customers don't want hand-me-downs, so the launchers and missiles heading to the Middle East are fresh off the assembly line.

While Iran has been touting its military "advances" as of late, it has not commented on the reported SA-15 delivery. Tehran would prefer to keep the transfer low-key, hoping to begin field deployments before they are detected by western intelligence agencies. The SA-15 is a highly mobile system, effective as an "ambush" weapon along ingress routes for attack aircraft, special operations platforms and attack helicopters. Masking the whereabouts of SA-15 fire units would make them even more effective, although Iran can only hide their location for so long. Not long after arrival, the Iranian SA-15s will require radar calibration (probably at an electronics depot), providing an initial indication of where the system will undergo periodic maintenance.

After that, it's a question of whether Tehran will employ the SA-15 from fixed sites, or use it in a more mobile role. From static locations--such as existing I-HAWK sites--it will be relatively easy to track them. Shifting between field sites (and supplemented by effective camouflage, concealment and deception measures), the SA-15 would be more difficult to detect. Iranian crews that were trained by the Russians were almost certainly trained in field operations; the question is whether Tehran will follow that doctrine, or resort to their favored method of employing SAMs, from well-known, static locations. Iran would probably disperse its SAM assets under combat conditions, but such skills are rarely practiced by Tehran's air defense crews, and the lack of training could prove deadly in wartime.

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