Air Defense: Iranian Secrets And Lies

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October 29, 2021: In October 2021 Iran announced they had tested two new air defense systems; Joshan and Khatam. Also tested was a new long range (500 kilometers) Quds radar that can spot targets as high as 28,000 meters (90,000 feet). The two air defense systems were apparently capable of detecting and destroying low altitude intruders, like cruise missiles of manned fighters. No details were given on the Khatam system but it was revealed that Joshan was an update of the 2019 Khordad 15 system that included a passive (no transmissions) radar that could detect low level intruders, like an Israeli F-15s. These claims could not be verified because the tests, using live fire against target drones, were held in central Iran, far away from air space where hostile (American) SIGINT (Electronic Signals Intelligence) aircraft (manned or UAVs) might be operating.

Iran does not like anyone verifying its claims of impressive new technology because the claims tend to be exaggerated or completely bogus. SIGINT aircraft can also determine where the new Iranian tech came from, because it is based on older Russian, Chinese or American tech. The Iranians have some great engineers and scientists but lack the capacity to build many new systems, especially if they require components that sanctions on Iran make difficult to obtain. This sort of thing has been going on since the 1990s and demonstrates that Iranian propagandists tend to outperform Iranian engineers and weapons manufacturers.

For example, less than a month after Khordad 15 entered service, Iran shot down an American Triton maritime surveillance UAV (an aircraft based on the 14-ton RQ-4 Global Hawk) operating in international airspace off the Iranian coast. The RQ-4 carries out a wide variety of missions, including SIGINT. When the RQ-4 was downed there was also a U.S. Navy four-engine EP-3 SIGINT nearby, with 35 people on board. Iran later admitted they deliberately did not fire on the manned aircraft. Just as well, because the manned aircraft have some defenses against attack while the UAV does not. Both aircraft were over international waters, as is normal and at high altitude, so they could scan deep into Iran for whatever visual, radar and electronic data they could obtain. Iran insisted, without any evidence, that the two aircraft were over Iranian territory. Inside Iran it was implied that the new Khordad 15 system took down the RQ-4 and could have handled the EP-3.

This downing of an expensive (over $100 million) American UAV was meant to be provocative and, for the domestic Iranian audience, evidence that all the Iranian air defenses can get the job done. They can’t and Iranian leaders know it and sometimes admit that openly. For example, the new Khordad 15 uses an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array). This is currently the most effective technology for military radars and has been around since the 1950s. In 1960 the U.S. put its first AESA type radar into service as part of an air defense system and Russia followed by the late 1960s. The development of cheaper, faster and more reliable microelectronics made it possible for AESA to become compact enough for use in ships by the 1970s and in combat aircraft by the 1990s.

Cut off from importing AESA military radars since the 1980s Iran has sought to develop the technology itself. The basic principles are not difficult and Iranian engineers and scientists were aware of how it worked from the beginning but the religious dictatorship of the 1980s stifled the development of a commercial electronics industry necessary to support the design and production of things like AESA systems. While Iran has always produced many engineers and scientists, most of the best ones migrate to the West for better career opportunities.

Iranian military AESA had to be developed and built as a laboratory type system because legal access to foreign tech was illegal and difficult to obtain legitimately. It wasn’t until Iran showed off its first locally developed and built AESA radar that anyone could evaluate how far Iranian AESA tech had advanced. Iranian tech like this was built in workshops, not factories because the domestic market was small and there was no real export market for older models of this or much other Iranian military tech. Iran has had an easier time developing military software as there was a lot of stolen code available on the Internet (or passed on by helpful Chinese and Russian developers or hackers). But designing and building a fire control system that makes full use of AESA radar is not exactly a hobbyist hack and requires time, talent and determination, even with access to the more advanced stolen code. Iranian engineers and scientists are admired for how many high-tech military systems they have built. While admirable, Iranian systems are often decades behind what is available from commercial and military producers in the West. China has been catching up, developing modern AESA tech in the last two decades because they have large domestic and export markets for the stuff.

What it comes down to is that Khordad 15, using the Sayyad-3 missile, is basically equivalent to the Russian S-200 systems, which are Cold War systems with some upgrades. Syria still uses a lot of S-200 systems, which are seen as a hazard, not an obstacle to Israeli air strikes. The S-200 is good at hitting high flying aircraft lacking any defenses at all. Syria has already downed (by accident) a four-engine Russian maritime reconnaissance aircraft flying off the Syrian coast using an S-200 missile. The Triton is the size of a small airliner (or large business jet) and not difficult to hit.

The Joshan passive radar upgrade to Khordad 15 required another major leap in Iranian military tech and Iran would rather not have their claims challenged in a realistic fashion.

For over a decade Iranian air defense commanders has been aware of its serious deficiencies when it comes to their equipment and nothing done so far has made a major difference. Outsiders began paying attention to this problem in 2009 when the Iranian Supreme Leader separated most missile-based air defense systems from the air force and organized them into a separate air defense command. Despite vigorous efforts by the new Air Defense Force, the reorganization did not produce air defenses that could keep up with the potential threats from the many enemies Iran has acquired. This was especially true with new American and Israeli systems. The U.S. had sold many of these new systems to Arab oil states. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was reported to be visibly alarmed at the inability of Iran to defend itself against the many enemy aircraft and missiles that could be used in wartime, especially for a surprise attack. Iran has been promising to destroy Israel and the United States since the 1980s and is now trying to take control of Syria and further threaten Israel. In response to that Israel has been fighting back and Iran is uncomfortable about how this is playing out. In response, Khamenei replaced the commander of the air force in August 2018, the fifth senior military commander replaced in a year of searching for solutions. The new air force commander has not improved the situation, except to escalate the claims of new tech and make it more difficult for foreigners to verify the claims.

The current sense of urgency by Iran appears to have been triggered by a 2017 study of Iranian vulnerabilities to air attack. The study was published in an Iranian military journal that everyone could see and hopefully generate some useful suggestions for solutions. The list of vulnerabilities was basically a compilation of how Iran is generally defenseless against fifteen systems, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, smart bombs, ground penetrating bombs and other specialized air delivered guided weapons, like bombs that use lengths of carbon fibers (to short out electrical transmission lines) or monster bombs like MOAB or bombs that can create an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that destroy electronics over large areas.

Then there are the specialized defensive and offensive electronic systems carried by many aircraft, UAVs, and missiles. The Americans and Israelis have surveillance satellite systems that monitor Iranian activity and can assist in attacks on Iran. The United States and Israel have most of these scary systems but many of these advanced weapons have been obtained by the Arab Gulf states and since 2015, the Arabs have proved in Yemen that they really have learned how to use them. That includes the Arab operated Patriot anti-missile systems which have intercepted over a hundred Iranian made ballistic missiles fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian Supreme Leader apparently monitors Iranian progress, or lack of progress in this area and demands that senior commanders come up with solutions. That has apparently not been happening and if more senior commanders get replaced it will indicate continued failure.

The Supreme Leader is also aware of the fact that many Iranian air defense systems are fake or “press release” systems that were announced but never got into production or developed to the point where they work. The Supreme Leader seems to have been upset over the 2018 IRGC press release about the new Iranian stealth fighter. You don’t have to be an aviation engineer to understand the critiques of this new aircraft. These detailed descriptions of why the new stealth fighter won’t (or cannot) work as described. Many of these critical reports have appeared in overseas Iranian language media and the Internet. These critiques are no secret, especially from the Supreme Leader.

On paper Iran has formidable air defense forces, in practice, most of this stuff is too old or too few to collectively make a big difference. Current Iranian air defenses consist of several hundred Cold War era warplanes in various states of readiness. None are seen as anything approaching a serious threat to aircraft the Americans, Israelis and Gulf Arabs possess. The Iranian ground-based air defense systems are not much better off.

The key Iranian air defense system is the Russian S-300 PMU2 or Iranian systems based on similar Russian and Chinese technology. For example, 2013 Iran announced it had built a factory to produce the Sayyad-2 anti-aircraft missile. This is an upgrade of the Sayyad-1, which was based on the old (1950s) Russian SA-2. Sayyad-1 entered service in 1999. Both Sayyad 1 and 2 copied much from the Chinese HQ-2, which is itself an upgrade of the Russian S-75/SA-2 system. Sayyad-2 appears to have incorporated technology from the American HAWK and SM-1 SAMs inherited from the pro-American monarchy in 1979.

Sayyad-2 is a two-ton, two stage anti-aircraft missile with a maximum range of 80 kilometers and max altitude of 20,000 meters (65,000 feet). The Sayyad-2 has better electronic countermeasures than Sayyad-1 but it is still dependent on the ground radar for guidance to a target and is vulnerable to electronic interference. Sayyad-2 is believed to have a more effective warhead. None of the Sayyad missiles has been in combat and test firings have not been impressive.

The Chinese HQ-2 has been in use since the late 1960s, been upgraded several times with modern electronics, an improved warhead, better rocket motors, and more maneuverability and became much more effective early in the 21st century. Iran has been getting military technology from China since the 1980s. This apparently included the tech for the solid fuel rocket motors used by the Sayyad-2 and possibly some of the electronics. If an attacker does not have good electronic countermeasures the Sayyad-2 could be quite effective. China also has lots of S-300 and may have sold or leaked technical data on that system to Iran.

Iran claims to have kept several other older Russian SAM systems in working order. These include over a hundred launchers for SA-5 and SA-6 SAMS along with radars and fire control systems. These may exist in some usable form but appear to be more “press release” systems. The same applies to more than a dozen “press release” systems revealed since 2010 that seem to exist only as a few prototypes.

The new Khordad 15/Sayyad-3 missile system is described as having a search radar that can detect targets 150 kilometers distant and hit these targets when they are 75 kilometers away. Iran also claims the new system can detect and hit stealth aircraft. That sort of thing is easier to claim than accomplish. This was remedied by claiming a new passive radar for Khordad 15 that is better able to detect low altitude stealth aircraft and cruise missiles.

Iran announced it sent some of its most modern air defense systems to Syria to provide protection from the relentless and accurate Israeli airstrikes. There have been no Iranian claims of these new systems working against the Israeli airstrikes. There has been an escalation in claims of new Iranian air defense tech but no movement on putting those systems to the test against modern Western aircraft. UAVs have a known weakness, compared to manned aircraft, when it comes to self-defense against SAM systems. Even large UAVs like the RQ-4, which have the carrying capacity for such self-defense systems, lack the complex and rapid decision-making pilots are capable of. The solution to that is better AI (artificial intelligence) software, which is still a work-in-progress.

 


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