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.

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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.

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