Iran is currently conducting a highly-publicized air defense drill, aimed at demonstrating its ability to defend nuclear sites from Israeli (or U.S.) attack.
But from what we’ve seen, the exercise won’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of IAF planners, or their American counterparts.
Video from the war game, aired on state-run TV (and picked up by western news organizations), looked remarkably similar to past air defense exercises. In fact, it was hard to tell if the footage was new, or just recycled from past drills.
Recycled or not, the air defense systems on display in Iranian TV coverage were decidedly dated. In one snippet we viewed, air defense crews were shown removing camouflage netting from an I-HAWK radar. The I-HAWK (or, if you prefer Improved Homing-All-the-Way Killer) is a surface-to-air missile system purchased from the U.S. in the 1970s.
Readiness levels among Iran’s I-HAWK units have declined in recent years, the product of the system’s increasing age and declining availability of spare parts. Still, the I-HAWK remains an integral part of Tehran’s air defense network, despite the fact that both the U.S. and Israel have effective counter-measures for system.
The Iranian TV report also featured live-fire footage of what appeared to be optically-guided AAA (of marginal value against cruise missiles, or aircraft dropping smart bombs at medium altitude), and interestingly enough, the launch of an SA-5 Gammon long-range SAM.
Purchased from Russia more than a decade ago, the SA-5 is a huge, lumbering missile designed for use against non-maneuvering platforms like AWACS aircraft or tankers. Against fighter-sized targets, the Gammon has virtually no capability, but with its large size and strap-on boosters, the SA-5 does look impressive at lift-off–probably one reason it was highlighted by Tehran’s military censors.
The Gammon launch caught our attention because Iran’s SA-5 sites have been (traditionally) maintained at low readiness levels. That isn’t likely to change, even if the live-fire was staged for the cameras. Tehran’s few SA-5 sites suffer the same readiness and maintenance issues that are affecting I-HAWK units, with no remedies in sight.
Iran has been trying to upgrade its air defenses, most notably through the recent purchase of a Chinese-designed C3 system and the Russian SA-15 mobile SAM. Purchased from Moscow more than three years ago, the SA-15 (NATO nickname: Gauntlet) has supposedly been integrated into Tehran’s air defense system. But footage of the Gauntlet was noticeably absent from Iranian TV coverage.
There could be a number of reasons for that omission. Perhaps the Iranians didn’t want to provide clues about potential basing or field operations, although the U.S. and Israel are well-acquainted with the system and how its employed. It’s also possible that Iran’s propaganda ministry simply wanted the most impressive visuals, or simply cobbled something together from stock footage, without incorporating the SA-15.
There’s also the chance that Iran is experiencing integration problems with the short-range SAM system. As we’ve noted in previous posts, Tehran has a history of buying weaponry “on the cheap,” without making the large-scale (and necessary) investments in training, spares and maintenance. Consequently, Iran’s learning curve on new systems tends to be a bit longer–and steeper–than other nations.
It’s also worth noting that video of Iranian fighter aircraft was also missing, at least in the report we saw. While fighters remain a key element of Tehran’s defense plan for nuclear facilities, there are critical weaknesses in that area as well. Despite the availability of some newer airframes (most notably the MiG-29 Fulcrum), Iran’s fighter fleet is still built around aging, U.S.-built F-4s, F-5s and a handful of F-14 Tomcats that are still operable.
Not exactly a threat that keeps the U.S. or the Israelis up at night–no matter how Tehran tries to spin it.
ADDENDUM: As always, we try not to read very much into Iranian claims–or TV coverage of their military. But this exercise appears very similar to past events, with no discernable improvement in air defense capabilities. No wonder Tehran has been pressing Russia on delivery of the S-300 SAM system. Arrival of that advanced missile system in Iran would greatly complicate potential air strikes against nuclear facilities and likely force an Israeli attack before the S-300 becomes operational.