By Ed Blanche
Iran is expected to receive the first advanced S-300 air defence missile systems it is buying from Russia by the end of the year. The Islamic Republic’s adversaries view the systems’ deployment as a major game changer that will significantly alter the regional military balance and make any air assault on its nuclear facilities far more hazardous.
But what is probably more alarming to the Americans, Iran’s Arabian Gulf neighbours and to Israel is that the version of the missiles Tehran will be getting has a range of 200 km, meaning the Islamic Republic will be able to project its power well beyond its borders.
“We will acquire a large portion of the systems by the end of the year,” Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan told Iranian state television on November 10th. It is understood that Moscow agreed to provide Iran with at least five S-300 batteries under a long-delayed $800 million contract signed in 2007. But the Russians, under pressure from the United States and Israel, shelved the deal, supposedly to comply with a UN arms embargo.
Then in April, shortly after a framework agreement between US-led global powers and Iran that would curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting tough economic sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to revive the sale.
A final nuclear agreement does not impede arms sales to Tehran. Israel sees that accord as Iranian manoeuvre that will free billions of dollars in frozen accounts to fund Iranian military expansion and its ambition to become the region’s paramount power.
In this regard, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is pressing the administration of US President Barack Obama to compensate Israel with a massive increase in military aid from the current $3.1 billion a year to $5 billion.
This includes up to 50 radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and advanced precision guided munitions to ensure the Jewish state’s “qualitative military edge” — QME — over its regional rivals that the United States has pledged to maintain. The F-35 is considered the only combat jet capable of countering the S-300.
The S-300 is a mobile surface-to-air missile system that couples powerful radar with high-speed, long-range missiles. It can track dozens of targets simultaneously and can shoot down aircraft or missiles over an area up to a range of 200 km and an altitude of 27,000 metres.
US and other Western forces have trained to counter the S-300 for years and developed a healthy respect for what they deem to be a lethal and accurate weapons system.
In May, Israeli Air Force F-16I jets, which Netanyahu has threatened to unleash in pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, tested evasion tactics against Greek S-300PMU-1 systems on Crete during joint exercises with the Hellenic Air Force.
The S-300 will plug a dangerous gap in Iran’s air defence network, which since the early days of the Islamic Republic following the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a long-time US ally, has steadily eroded due to Western arms embargoes, as has the potency of its air force, now largely composed of ageing or obsolete aircraft.
This has allowed the United States and its allies considerable freedom of action in Gulf skies, leaving Iran extremely vulnerable to attack and, just as important, observation from the air. The S-300 will change that.
The United States, in particular, is capable of defeating the S-300 in combat, but such operations will be more difficult and will require much larger air, sea and land forces than hitherto, and will undoubtedly be more costly in terms of losses in aircraft and aircrew than they would have been before.
The S-300s will likely be deployed as the first line of defence for Iran’s nuclear facilities spread out around the vast country and which have close-in air defences that include Russia’s short-range TOR-M1.
This system is highly effective against precision-guided weapons such as cruise missiles. According to a June assessment by military analyst Patrick Megahan and Iranian researcher Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, “Along with the S-300, the TOR-M1 is mobile, making it difficult to both locate and destroy.” Once the S300s are deployed, US or Israeli support aircraft in any attacks such as aerial refuelling tankers, electronic warfare aircraft for jamming defence systems and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft would become vulnerable for the first time.
The S-300s, therefore, will give Iran “much more than just deterrent capabilities”, Megahan and Taleblu noted. “Should an S-300 battery be placed on Iran’s southern coast, Tehran could quickly detect American or allied aircraft taking off from local bases” in the Arab monarchies. “Not only would most modern strike aircraft be vulnerable to detection and engagement far before reaching Iranian shores, the S-300 would allow Iran offensive capacities beyond its air space, which could include harassing non-hostile aircraft flying over neighbouring countries.”
This article by Ed Blanche originally appeared in The Arab Weekly