Friday, October 17, 2008

Iran's Latest Air Defense Exercise

Iran has launched a major air force exercise in its northwestern provinces, near the Turkish border. But (so far) the drill appears to be a repeat of previous exercises, and will do little to improve operational readiness or long-range strike capabilities.

According to an AP dispatch from Tehran, the exercise includes U.S.-built F-5, F-4 and F-14 fighters, along with newer, Russian-made Sukhoi jets (most likely the SU-25 Frogfoot). Iran's small inventory of domestically produced (read: re-manufactured) Saegheh aircraft are also participating.

But, as we've noted before, the Saegheh is nothing more than a refurbished F-5 with a second vertical stabilizer and minor avionics upgrades. It is not Tehran's answer to F/A-18 Hornet, as some Iranian officials have claimed.

Equally specious are Iran's claims that the drill will "test the Air Force's ability to fly to Israel and back without refueling," and feature electronic combat events, aimed at jamming U.S. and Israeli electronics system. That latter comment is a clear reference to the new, high-power anti-missile radar, currently being installed at an Israeli Air Force base in the Negev Desert.

The new radar is a key component of Israel's missile defense system. While the system will operated by American technicians, the Israelis will have full access to its tracking data. The radar can reportedly identify small objects at ranges of up to 1,900 miles, improving detection of missile launches and other military events inside Iran.

Obviously, the Iranians would need a lot of power to jam the radar, applied at a relatively close quarters. Call us skeptical, but we don't see the Iranian Air Force mounting that type of mission during this exercise, unless they want to lose the assigned aircraft and provoke a war. There's also the matter of how the Iranians would actually get to the Negev. Tehran's claims that its aircraft can now reach Israel without refueling are downright laughable.

And, complicating matters even more, Iran has no more than two aerial tankers to support long-range missions. One of those aircraft, a KC-707, participates in Iranian exercises on a limited basis; Iran's other tanker, a modified Boeing 747, has not been active in that role, and there is some speculation that its refueling equipment was removed. That means that Tehran would have only one tanker to support a long-range mission against Israel, limiting the size of the strike package to no more than 4-5 aircraft.

Additionally, most Iranian Air Force units don't train for long-distance missions. Even in the GPS area, finding your way to a target 1,000 miles away still requires a certain degree of navigation skill, and practice in executing long-range missions. In recent years, just one Iranian fighter unit --the F-4 wing at Hamadan Airbase--has practiced that type of profile, and only on rare occasions. Most western analysts believe that Iran currently lacks the training program (and requisite aircrew skills) to mount a successful attack on Israel.

What is significant about the exercise is its geography. The area around Tabriz represents the northwest gateway to Iran, and the nuclear facilities located in the western portion of that country. The most likely routes for an Israeli attack would carry strike aircraft across northern Iraq or southern Turkey, entering Iranian airspace in the Tabriz sector. Tehran clearly understands that, and the current drill is clearly aimed at testing defenses in that area.

But the region's rugged geography presents severe challenges to Iran's air force. Mountainous terrain means numerous gaps in radar coverage, particularly at low to medium altitude. Detecting an inbound strike package in that area is difficult, a task made more difficult by expected Israeli deception efforts.

Following established air corridors and using IFF "squawks" reserved for commercial aircraft, IAF formations could reach Iranian airspace without detection. At that point, Iran's aging F-4s (which remain the backbone of their interceptor fleet) would face the daunting task of intercepting better aircraft, flown by better pilots, operating under the cover of darkness.

And, if that's not enough, the Iranian F-4 crews would face a fratricide threat from their own surface-to-air missile batteries. As we've observed in the past, Iran's air defense network is a patchwork of outdated technology and more advanced equipment, cobbled together with a Chinese command-and-control system. Confusion sometimes reigns supreme, with fighters launched in pursuit of mysterious lights and even UFOs. In one instance, the Iranians came dangerously close to shooting down a Saudi airliner that misidentified by the air defense system.

If Tehran believes it is under Israeli air attack, much of the country will instantly become an enormous "free fire zone," with I-HAWK, CSA-1 and SA-15 batteries shooting at anything that resembles a target. The Israelis will likely contribute to the confusion, with their own jamming and the introduction of false targets into the Iranian air defense system. In that environment, Iran's F-4 crews will be essentially on their own.

While Iran understands these deficiencies, many still remain, and they would impair Tehran's ability to defend its airspace. The current exercise will almost certainly highlight the air defense problems, though you won't find any mention of them in mainstream media accounts or "official" statements from Tehran. Unfortunately, the few western press organizations in Iran have become little more than stenographers for the mullah's military, reporting their grandiose claims without any measure of confirmation.


Some observers say that Iran's exercise is a response to the large-scale drill conducted by the Israeli Air Force in June. But Tehran's war game is a far cry from the Israeli exercise, particularly in terms of complexity. Unlike Iran, the IAF actually tested its long-range strike capabilities during the June drill, flying across the Mediterranean to ranges in Greece. At least 100 Israeli aircraft took part in the operation.

By comparison, most of Iran's long-distance missions consist of 1-2 F-4s, flying a closed-loop circuit south of Tehran, with only limited air refueling to support the mission. That is not adequate practice for a potential long-range mission to Israel.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

Insightful, informed analysis - thanks. While the Iranian air force represents no threat to Israel, its shortcomings make it all the more probable that Iran will choose to launch missiles at Israel. How would you rate the following scenario, percentage-wise?

Ahmadinejad finally starts to crack under internal pressure for reform, while retaining Khamenei's support and tacit encouragement for the nuclear program. A. launches a missile attack unilaterally, accompanied by a hoax warning of Israeli attack, in order to bring the masses back under the tent with a patriotic call to arms. When Israel does respond, they're attacking depleted launch sites and only the tunnel entrance to the nuclear sites, returning to a decimated nation.