Thursday, December 11, 2008

Iran Closes the Deal for the SA-20

After years of rumors and false reports, it appears that Iran will soon receive the SA-20 air defense system.

A senior U.S. defense official tells David Fulghum of Aviation Week that Tehran is "on contract" to obtain the advanced surface-to-air missile system in the coming months. And when it achieves operational status in Iran, the SA-20 will present serious challenges for U.S. and Israeli planners.

We’ve been lulled into a false sense of security because our operations over the last 20 years involved complete air dominance and we’ve been free to operate in all domains,” he adds.

Other Pentagon officials have also confirmed the deal, despite Kremlin claims to the contrary. One official suggested that Moscow might use Byelorussia as a trans-shipment point, allowing the Russians to deny any direct involvement. Analysts believe it could take the Iranians up to 22 months to become proficient on the system.

But, as we've noted in past posts, any SA-20 contract between Moscow and Tehran will include training support, including the option of using Russian contractors to operate the system while Iranian crews undergo training. That could give Iran an initial capability with the system, well before the projected operational date. At that point, both the U.S. and Israel will have to re-visit potential air campaign plans for hitting Iranian targets. As Mr. Fulghum describes the problem:

The SA-20, and even more so the SA-21 Growler (S-400) which is now entering service, pose an increasing problem for mission planners using conventional strike aircraft. While low observable aircraft offer greater latitude for operations, they are not totally immune to air defenses.

The Lockheed Martin F-22 with its all-aspect, -40 dBsm radar cross-section signature can operate within the engagement envelope of the SA-20 and SA-21. But the Lockheed Martin F-35 with its -30 dBsm signature, which is not all-aspect stealth, is at greater risk. The rear quadrant of the F-35, particularly around the tailpipe area, is not as stealthy as the F-22.

The Northrop Grumman B-2, because of its aging stealth design, also has limitations in the amount of time it can spend within the range of double-digit systems since small signature clues can become cumulative and offer a firing solution. The U.S.’s next-generation bomber program is aimed at developing a low-observable platform capable of operating irrespective of the threat from systems of the SA-21 class.

Unfortunately, the next USAF bomber won't enter service for another decade--if it's actually built. Until then, American planners will have to make do with the B-2. F-22, F-35, and scores of legacy aircraft. And, since older fighters like the F-16 and F-15E are extremely vulnerable to double-digit SAMs, any air campaign against Iran will require lots of additional cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles, and much better intelligence The SA-20 is a mobile system and those suppression weapons need accurate intel to neutralize advanced SAMs, ahead of manned aircraft.

The air defense environment in Iran is about to change--forever. Put another way: confirmation of the SA-20 deal puts Israel that much closer to a strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities.


Ed Rasimus said...

As an operator in a SAM environment and one who specialized in SEAD during the great SEA unpleasantness (Society of Wild Weasels #2488), I'll confess that I've always been properly petrified of SAMs. Yet, history has shown that each generation of Soviet (now Russian) product has offered incredibly potential and disappointing employment results.

Evolving tactics, weaponry, spectrum management and targeting philosophies have continued to allow manned tactical systems to prevail. It would be foolish to conclude that this is the inevitable pattern for the future. Yet, we've got fifty years of consistent outcome speaking to that conclusion.

I would not like to be in the first wave against these systems, but so far we've seldom seen Russian technology meet the levels of hyperbole in Russian marketing or even in Allied intelligence estimates.

Unknown said...

Ed--You raise excellent points. As a community, those of us in intel were sometimes guilty of creating the proverbial "10-foot tall Russian," based on the technical capabilities of new systems.

Using the holistic approach you describe, we can still penetrate airspace defended by double-digit SAMs. But, as I observed in the post, it's going to take more cruise missiles, UAVs and better intel, to locate these systems and take them out--or at least, suppress them sufficiently, so that the strike packages can reach their targets.

It's a tall order. Throw in dedicated D&D measures, and tracking down the SAMs in a place like Iran becomes even tougher. But it can be done. The only tradeoff is that we must be prepared to accept higher losses among our pilots and crews, because no SEAD campaign is 100% effective.

Against the SA-20 and similar systems, the days of flying hundreds of sorties with negligible losses may be behind us. We won't see losses on the scale of Schweinfurt or Nuremburg in WWII, but the numbers will go up. And one reason is our own short-sightedness. By all accounts, there won't be any more F-22 buys, despite the fact that it can operate and survive in a double-digit SAM environment.

Ed Rasimus said...


I've often used some statistics when doing speaking engagements promoting my books on my SEA experiences. I note that the combat tour survival percentage of an F-105 pilot during Rolling Thunder was about 40%. An F-105 pilot was shot down once every 65 missions (on a 100 mission tour). Three out of five that started a tour wouldn't complete it.

During Desert Storm the fixed wing loss rate dropped to about one per 3500 sorties. A significant improvement.

With Iraqi Freedom we saw one fixed wing lose for 116,000 combat sorties.

That's about the same as peacetime, local flying accident rates. A rise based on upgraded defenses is almost inevitable when your combat loss rate for the last two decades has been so low.

I'll always favor buying technology to keep the loss rates low, but how's a guy ever going to become a hero if he/she doesn't face incredible odds and overcome them?

BigFire said...

Wait, they actually ponied up the cash, even in this economy? Wow, or is Russia so desperate for a sale that they'll finally book one even for a notoriously bad customer as Iran?