Iran boosts air defenses, but holes remain

Sept. 24, 2012 at 2:48 PM   |   0 comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Iran's been showing off a new air-defense system designed to counter U.S., and Israeli, airstrikes. But Western military analysts say there are a lot of holes in the network that could prove costly for Tehran if fighting erupts in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' aerospace division, declared Friday when the new system was displayed for the first time in Tehran, "This system has been built with the aim of confronting American warplanes."

He said the system, dubbed Raad, which means "thunder" in Farsi, comprises surface-to-air missiles with a range of 30 miles capable of engaging targets up to 75,000 feet altitude.

The display took place as major U.S.-led naval exercises were conducted in the gulf amid growing tension with Iran over its refusal to abandon its controversial nuclear program.

Israel, which views that program and Iran's drive to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles as an existential threat, has repeatedly threatened to unleash pre-emptive attacks.

The Americans oppose unilateral Israeli action, fearing it will trigger a regional conflict, but have been moving naval and air forces into the region in a show of force.

Military analysts say Israel, which is capable of launching limited air and missile strikes on Iran, wouldn't be able to deliver a knockout blow against Iran's widely dispersed and heavily protected nuclear facilities.

The Americans, with far greater military resources, can mount a sustained campaign to destroy nuclear facilities, with key plants buried deep in heavily protected underground bunkers, air defense concentrations and ballistic missile launch pads that could be used for retaliatory strikes.

The U.S. campaign, which could last for weeks, would involve offensive operations dominated by air and naval forces.

"An initial U.S. strike will require a large force allocation consisting of defense counter-air and offensive counter-air operations, such as the main Bomber Force, the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense System, escort aircraft for the protection of the bombers, electronic warfare for detection and jamming purposes, fighter sweep and combat air patrol to counter any retaliation by Iran," says a Sept. 4 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Iran, reasoning that any major conflict with the United States, the gulf monarchies or Israel would be primarily an air and sea war, has devoted considerable time and treasure on upgrading its long-weak air defenses.

The Islamic Republic "has extensive surface-to-air missile assets but most are obsolete or obsolescent," said the report written by veteran U.S. analyst Anthony Cordesman of the CSIS and Abdullah Toukan of Jordan's Strategic Analysis and Global Risk Assessment Center.

"Iran's systems are poorly netted, have significant gaps and problems in their radar and sensor coverage and modernization and a number of its systems are vulnerable to electronic warfare," they observed.

The air-defense system, estimated at 41 active sites, was built around one overseen by the Americans during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

This system largely comprised 1960s-era MIM-23 HAWK and MIM-23B Improved-HAWK missiles. These mobile weapons, built by Raytheon, have a range of 25-30 miles and a ceiling of 58,000 feet.

Iran still has around 150, spread over 22 active sites around the country, including Tehran.

But, Cordesman and Toukan noted, the United States "never delivered integrated systems before the fall of the shah so Iran has never had a fully functioning air defense system."

Iran's only modern short-range defense system is the Russian Tor-M1, built by Almaz-Antei. Tehran bought 27 batteries from Moscow in a $700 million deal in 2005.

These weapons, designed to counter aircraft and cruise missiles at altitudes up to 6 miles, are believed to be concentrated around key nuclear sites.

Iran's strategic SAM air-defense weapons include the Russian S-200 system deployed at seven sites, including three at the nuclear facilities at Isfahan and Natanz.

The NPO-Almaz S-200, designed to protect large areas from strategic bombing, has a range of 150 miles and a ceiling of 65,000 feet.

The CSIS report says Iran's largely obsolete air force won't be a major obstacle to a U.S. assault.

Much of its fighter strength comprises rundown 1970s-era U.S.-built F-14 Tomcats. It most advanced jets are 30 MiG-29s from Russia "whose avionics lag far behind their Russian counterparts."

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