TEHRAN, June 19 (UPI) -- Iran's defense ministry claims that it has reverse-engineered the MIM-23B Hawk surface-to-air missile manufactured by the Raytheon Corp. and is producing the system to bolster sits defenses against possible US or Israeli air strikes.
Iran's state-run media reported that the defense minister, Gen. Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, formally inaugurated the production line on June 6. The Iranians call their new missile the Shahin, which means Hawk in Farsi.
Shahin missiles on display for the event, seen on Iranian television, appeared to be identical to the Hawk missiles that the U.S. supplied to the Iranian military in the years preceding the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But Jane's Missile & Rockets, published in London, reported that "it was not clear if the missiles on show were new production rounds or refurbished missiles from the existing stock of U.S.-supplied rounds."
Still, the Iranians have been making major advances in missile technology in recent years, with considerable assistance from Russia, China and North Korea, and it is quite probable that they have mastered the required reverse-engineering.
The capabilities of the Shahin that Mohammad-Najjar described were more or less the same as those of MIM-23B -- a range of just less than 25 miles against high-altitude targets, 12 miles against low-flying targets and a maximum ceiling of around 30,000 feet.
The United States provided Iran's pre-revolutionary forces with hundreds of MIM-23Bs and 120 launchers, enough for 12 battalions of air defense troops. During the 1980-88 war with Iraq the Hawks were believed to have downed at least 40 Iraqi aircraft.
Air defense was for many years one of the Iranian military's major deficiencies and Tehran has gone to considerable lengths to fill that gap, essential if it is to get anywhere near the ability to counter the high-tech air forces of the United States and Israel.
In 2006, Iran took delivery of 29 Russian Tor-M1 low- to medium-altitude surface-to-air missiles under a $700 million contract with Moscow. These were deployed in early 2007 and are believed to ring key installations in Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
The Iranians have been pressing Moscow to provide the more advanced truck-mounted S-300PMU-1/2 missiles (NATO designation SA-20). The S300 is considered to be one of the world's most advanced air-defense systems.
It is able to shoot down cruise missiles and aircraft from 90 miles away and can intercept aircraft or ballistic missiles at altitudes ranging from 30 feet to 16 miles.
However, there have been conflicting reports about whether the Russians have agreed to do provide these weapons, which would make any air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities extremely hazardous and costly.
Russians news agencies reported earlier this year that Moscow had signed a deal on the S-300s. On March 19, the agencies quoted a senior defense official in Moscow as confirming that an $800 million contract for five S-300 units had been signed in 2007 but that no weapons had been delivered.
Israel has claimed that some units have reached Iran but there has been no independent confirmation of that. U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to improve ties with Moscow may have encouraged the Russians to stall any deal involving S-200s for Iran.
In the meantime, The Iranians have been hardening their missile silos against airstrikes and restructuring their military forces to improve air defense.
Gen. Ahmed Mighani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the main Iranian military force which controls Iran's ballistic missiles, announced Feb. 16 that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered the formation of a separate air-defense command within the armed forces to coordinate operations to repel airstrikes.