The Islamic Republic has concluded a massive air defense drill showcasing select surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), launchers, radars, and command-and-control equipment. While analysts and policymakers have long focused on Tehran’s offensive capabilities, what enables the regime to strike abroad with confidence is the perception of security at home, a perception abetted in part by evolving air and missile defense aptitudes.
The recent drill — codenamed “Defenders of the Velayat’s Skies-99,” with “Velayat” being a reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader and “99” being the abbreviated Iranian calendar year — is part of a regular series of joint drills by the air defense branches of Iran’s dual military: the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In recent years, Tehran has prioritized the readiness and integration of its air defense assets through such drills. The lethality of these forces was on full display when Tehran shot down an American drone over international waters in June 2019, and accidentally downed a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020.
Tehran’s decision to continue these large-scale drills while beset by tough sanctions and the coronavirus should come as no surprise. Highly public military exercises are a pillar of Iranian deterrence, as they showcase capabilities that can signal a high-cost to any would be aggressor. While ballistic missiles are often seen as Tehran’s main tool of deterrence, they are more specifically tools of deterrence by punishment, meaning weapons that could be used to retaliate against or punish an attacker. Conversely, it is Iran’s air-defense systems and SAMs that constitute the regime’s tools of deterrence by denial — meaning tools that can (ideally, for Iranian security planners) prevent an adversary’s attack from being successfully carried out in the first place. As such, Iran’s SAMs are the first line of homeland defense.
Iran boasts a wide-array of domestically produced and foreign procured air defense systems, most of which are road-mobile, enabling the regime to oscillate in the protection of high-value targets around the country.
While all eyes are on Tehran to see if it will procure the S-400 SAM from Russia — a platform which Russian officials have stressed a willingness to sell — the recent drills highlighted a domestic Iranian system that should not be overlooked when it comes to “the detection, tracking, and destruction of targets,” according to one IRGC official. The Bavar-373 SAM system is Iran’s answer to the S-300 platform (which it, too, received from Russia). According to Iranian press reports, while the Bavar was allegedly tested in 2018, this is the first (and successful test) of the SAM system as part of a joint Artesh-IRGC air defense drill.
Formally unveiled last year, the Bavar’s level of interoperability, if any, with its Russian progenitor remains unknown. Nonetheless, if it can really engage targets out to 300 kilometers, U.S. aircraft operating out of American bases in Qatar or Kuwait would immediately be within range of Iran’s Sayyad-4 interceptor missiles. It is no wonder then, that Iran’s hardline media hails the Bavar as the “Jewel in [Iran’s] defense ring.”
Unfortunately, for Iran, these air defense systems are hardly a problem for the U.S. Air Force, should the takedown of Iranian systems ever be required. Iranian systems, even on their best day, pale in comparison to the Russian and Chinese assets that Washington prepares to defeat in training and via its acquisition programs. Using a barrage of cruise missiles, a handful of long-range bombers would make short work of Iran’s defenses. Syria learned this lesson in 2018, when two B-1B bombers launched 19 JASSM cruise missiles as part of a 105-weapon strike against Assad’s infrastructure. Taking down Iran’s air defenses, either through a suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses operation, would require more weapons and sorties to accomplish, but would still be possible. The more pressing issue in such a scenario would be defending American bases from Iranian ballistic missile retaliation, although if Iran were able to save or reconstitute even a single Bavar-373 system, any aircraft in the region (to include Western-operated airlines) would be at risk.
This latter point underscores the danger in a conflict with Iran. While technically excluded by the now-lapsed U.N. arms embargo on Iran — but prohibited under an expansive U.S. executive order from this September — the Russian S-400 would allow Iran to target aircraft out to 400 kilometers with the appropriate missiles. Under such a scenario, there is little the United States or its allies could do stop Iran from using them without resorting to a near total air war, similar to when it set up no-fly zones over Iraq.
Stopping such attacks would require constant tracking and targeting of Iranian air defense systems and radars as they reemerge, no small task in such a large country. As it stands, the fact that Iran has produced its own version of the S-300 in the Bavar-373 implies they are capable, perhaps with some Chinese or Russian components, to eventually extend the system’s range or modify other systems. Unmanned aircraft attempting to conduct surveillance on Iran — which are already exposed — will face more obstacles as Iran increases its SAM capabilities.
The more confident Iran becomes in its deterrence-by-denial tools, the more dangerous the regime is likely to become in the region. Moreover, Tehran knows that the better its air defenses get, the more unlikely the United States or its allies will be willing to risk air traffic over the Persian Gulf. S-300 and S-400 systems are essentially a more effective deterrent than impeding maritime traffic near the Strait of Hormuz through mining, as Iran has previously threatened to do.
In order to impede Iranian military modernization and procurement, it will be important to enforce existing sanctions, especially the new broad executive order against Iranian arms transfers. It will also be imperative to continue joint-exercises and the building-up of partner capacity. While the United States and Israel have conducted limited training with the F-35, future exercises could work in long-range bombers executing contested strikes against notional Iranian targets. This would send the message that if so inclined, the United States would easily find, fix, track and destroy Iranian defenses. Bombers can easily be postured in such an exercise to show that they are executing from ranges well outside of the Bavar-373′s capabilities. Increasing training with other partners, such as the UAE, would send an even stronger message, particularly if Israel is involved.
Iran’s massive exercise, even amidst a devastating pandemic and crippling sanctions, proves that the Islamic Republic is serious about developing its deterrence-by-denial capabilities, with or without foreign assistance. The United States and its allies must be ready to prevent Iran from solidifying its ability to further destabilize the region.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to its Iran Program and Center for Military and Political Power (CMPP). Maj. Shane “Axl” Praiswater is a visiting military analyst with CMPP at FDD. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other government agency. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
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