As expected, Russia has begun deliveries of the TOR-M1 air defense system to Iran. Tehran and Moscow signed a deal for the TOR-M1 (NATO codename: SA-15) more than a year ago, and many analysts (including your humble correspondent) predicted that the air defense system would begin arriving in Iran in late 2006 or early 2007–if it arrived at all. As we noted last year, Iran had a long history of initiating arms deals, only to back out at the last moment. The SA-15 sale went through for a variety of reasons, including the continued deterioration of Iran’s air defense system.
Putting in bluntly, Iran’s air defense network is overdue for a new, medium-range missile system. Despite a long-standing arms embargo, Tehran still relies on the U.S.-built I-HAWK as its primary surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. While the I-HAWK was highly effective in the war with Iraq, the Iranian SAM batteries are now hampered by aging equipment, limited spare parts, poor maintenance, and ineffective training. As the number of available missiles, launchers, radars and support hardware continues to dwindle, Tehran was forced to look for new systems to provide SAM defenses.
However, the number of SA-15s is not equal to the I-HAWK inventory that will eventually be phased out. As a result, Iran’s medium-range SAM arsenal will be a mixed bag of I-HAWKs, SA-15s and SA-6s, which are also being acquired from Russia. While collectively, these systems can provide protection of key targets, gaps in overall coverage will remain, and can be exploited by potential adversaries, including Israel. Beyond that, Iran’s primary foes already have a detailed understanding of the SA-15, and comprehensive knowledge of both the I-HAWK and the SA-6. That technical expertise translates into effective counter-measures, including jamming programs for fighter aircraft that might be used to strike targets in Iran.
Tehran’s air defense upgrade is also hampered by other factors, including gaps in early warning radar coverage, lack of an automated, nationwide command-and-control system, and the traditional rivalry between the “regular” Iranian military and the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Most of Iran’s recent military upgrades have gone to the IRGC (including the SA-6), and the SA-15 is likely to wind up in that arsenal as well. But IRGC air defense units still rely heavily on the regular military (specifically, the Iranian Air Force) for early warning radar coverage and an air defense picture, used to assess possible threats, and (if required) assign targets to specific SAM batteries, fighter units, or AAA sites.
Despite recent upgrades–including the SA-15–Iran’s air defense network is still beset by confusion on a daily basis. Significant gaps in radar coverage, limited automation, and a lack of cooperation between the regular military and the IRGC have resulted in missed assignments and near-fratricide on numerous occasions. Comparing Iran’s air defense system to a Chinese fire drill isn’t an exaggeration. Faced with a massive, U.S.-led attack, the Iranian C2 network would quickly crumble, leaving air defense units largely on their own.
While the SA-15 is more than capable of autonomous operations, it works better as part of a fully-functioning air defense system, relying on external sensors for target detection and cueing. Left on their own, the effectiveness of an SA-15 battery would depend largely on the skill of the operators, and (unfortunately for the Iranians), their crews are still inexperienced. More realistic training would remedy that problem–to some degree–but Tehran has always been cautious in that arena, limiting life-fire exercises and other drills that require the expenditure of ordnance.
As we noted last year, the SA-15 is a major upgrade for Iran’s air defense system. But, on its own, the system is not a world-beater, and would not provide sufficient deterrence to prevent a U.S. or Israeli attack. If Tehran is genuinely serious about bringing its air defense network into the 21st century, we would see deals for additional SAM systems (like the long-range, lethal SA-20), significant upgrades in early warning radars (with emphasis on equipment with capabilities against LO/VLO targets) and full integration of a nationwide, automated command-and-control system.
A few days before the SA-15 delivery was announced, Iran’s president announced that “Israel was unable to attack his country.” If he was basing that assessment on the availability of the new SAM system, it was a gross miscalculation. U.S. and Israeli air planners have a healthy respect for the SA-15, but it is not a show-stopper, particularly if Iran operates the system from fixed sites (like the I-HAWK), making it easier to track key components–and target them.