In early June Iran announced that its new Khordad 15 radar and air defense fire control system had entered service. Three weeks later Iran announced it had shot down an American Triton maritime surveillance UAV (an aircraft based on the 14 ton RQ-4 Global Hawk). There was a manned navy four engine ELINT (Electronic intelligence aircraft) nearby with 35 people on board. Iran later admitted they deliberately did not fire on the manned aircraft. Just as well for Iran because the manned aircraft have some defense 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.
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 (for 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 well 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. So Iranian military AESA had to be developed and built in a laboratory type system because legal access to foreign tech was illegal and difficult to obtain legitimately. So it wasn’t until Iran showed off its first locally developed and built AESA radar. 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 of it 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. But while admirable, that stuff is 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.
Although Iran has been aware of its serious deficiencies when it comes to air defense for over a decade, nothing it has done so far has made a major difference. Outsiders began to notice this effort 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 that did not produce air defenses that could keep up with the potential threats from the many enemies Iran has acquired (especially the U.S., Israel plus the Arab oil states). Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been described as 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 current sense of urgency appears to have been caused by a late 2017 study of Iranian vulnerabilities to air attack. The study was published in an Iranian military journal so that everyone could see and this would generate 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 been proving 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 Supreme Leader apparently monitors Iranian progress, or lack of progress in this area and demanding that senior commanders come up with solutions. That has apparently not been happening and as long as 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 actually 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 actually 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. Also known as the SA-20C, deliveries began in early 2016 and two years later the four S-300PMU2 batteries were declared operational. Shortly thereafter, in May 2018 Russia quietly let it be known that Russia was not going to deliver S-300 systems to anyone in Syria. Israel has been publicly and privately urging Russia to institute such a ban and Russia decided Israel was a more valued ally. Israel made it clear in Syria that the Israelis have the upper hand in terms of tech and military capabilities. Russia needed those demonstrations so they could maintain their good relationship with Iran while also refusing to deliver S-300 systems to Syria. This was something the Iranians wanted and were willing to pay for. But the Russians were not willing to lose the good relationship they had (since 1948) with Israel. Nor were the Russians willing to risk having the S-300 defeated by Israeli SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) tactics and equipment. The Iranians may be willing to underestimate the Israelis, but the Russians prefer to be more realistic. Syria finally got its S-300s, but with Russian trainers, maintainers and advisors to make it work and limit when it could be used.
The S-300 has impressive credentials. Each battery has a surveillance radar (range 300 kilometers) and command center plus four launcher vehicles, each carrying four missiles The S-300PMU missiles had a range of 200 kilometers and were considered somewhat similar to the American Patriot systems. Later models of the S-300 missiles had some capability to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles but these SAMs only have a range of 40-120 kilometers. The SA-10/12 launcher vehicle also contains a guidance radar. The most recent version of S-300 (S-400) is supposed to be (according to Russia) superior to the American Patriot. But while the Patriot has over two decades of combat experience the S-300/400 has none.
Iran also bought four batteries of older (1980s) S-300PT SAMs from Belarus in 2008. These were being sold off by Belarus and replaced by more recent S-300 systems. The S-300PT has a max range of 75 kilometers. Before the S-300PSU systems were delivered Iran claimed to have cloned the S-300 tech and developed their own version, the Bavar-273. None of these have been seen and are apparently another “press release” system.
In 2011 Iran announced that it had test-fired the U.S. made Hawk anti-aircraft missiles they had refurbished. Iran has been manufacturing its own copy of the Hawk missile, called Shahin and was also upgrading the Hawk fire control and radar systems. Iran, like many American allies, bought American Hawk anti-aircraft missile systems in the 1970s (the current religious government took over in 1979). Although 1950s technology, the Hawk, with a range of 25-45 kilometers, is reliable and quite effective against targets lacking a lot of countermeasures. The Iranians had the 1970 version, but further improvements were made in the 80s and 90s and Iran tried, with some success, to get some of those upgrades.
Before the 1979 revolution, Iran had bought 150 Hawk launchers, and nearly a thousand missiles and other gear, sufficient to equip 16 Hawk battalions. While much of the original equipment has died of old age and many of the missiles were used against Iraqi aircraft during the 1980s war, there have been ample opportunities to keep Iranian Hawks alive. That's because there are still several countries using Hawk. Over 40,000 missiles were manufactured since Hawk entered service in 1960, and the U.S. only stopped using it in 2002. Since the Cold War ended in 1991, a lot of Hawk equipment has been retired. While the U.S. tried to prevent Iran from getting the Cold War surplus stuff, they were not always successful. Moreover, while Hawk was cutting edge in the 1970s, that means the tech needed to keep Hawk batteries (each with six, three missile, launchers) operational today is easier to get or make locally. The big problem for Iran is obtaining the technology that enables Hawk to handle modern electronic-countermeasures. This was a frequent cause for Hawk upgrades since the 1970s. Iran, in the meantime, has developed ways to keep up. The Iranian upgrades to Hawk have not really been put to the test and Hawk remains the most numerous Iranian SAM (Surface to Air Missile) air defense system they have. Iran may also have some operational American SM-1 ship-based air defense systems converted to operate from land bases. Iran says it has reverse-engineered the SM-1 but not much has been seen of it lately. Since the 1970s the U.S. Navy has upgraded its air defense missiles to SM-2, SM-3 and the recently introduced SM-6.
In 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.
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 and has been upgraded several times with modern electronics, an improved warhead, better rocket motors, and more maneuverability and turned it into a much more effective HQ-2 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 a number of 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 if that.
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 actually accomplish.
The Iranian army also has control of most of the short-range anti-aircraft gun systems. There are about 1,500 of these and comprise at least ten different systems with calibers ranging from 23mm to 57mm. Most are Cold War era Russian systems. These are effective against helicopters and any jets operating at low (under 2,000 meters) altitude. Iran also has thousands of MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) similar to Russian models (or Chinese clones).
As impressive as all that appears to be the Iranian leaders, despite knowing that they are on a mission from God, do not believe that makes Iran immune from the other “death from above.”