Iran’s Air Defense: In Pursuit Of S-300

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Written by Konstantin Sivkov; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront

Iran has created a multi-channel long-range SAM, the “Bavar-373”. Now the country produces the entire line of anti-aircraft missiles from long range to the smallest. The quality of the air defence systems in service is the determining factor of security.

A few years earlier, the basis of Iran’s air defence was exclusively foreign-made SAMs, among which, in addition to Russian and Chinese, a significant proportion were American models. Today complexes of their own production are on combat duty and if foreign, then thoroughly modernised using their own skills.

At the end of August, the Iranian military and political leadership presented the world with another SAM, the “Bavar-373”, translated into Russian as “Faith-373”. This is a multi-channel long-range complex, created totally independently. According to the Iranian military, the SAM has a range of up to 200 kilometres and altitude of up to 27 kilometres. It is capable of hitting small air targets, cruise missiles and even the warheads of ballistic missiles. In Tehran, they say that the SAM is superior to the Russian S-300 and only slightly inferior to the S-400, but do not specify on what indicators.

In addition to the long-range “Bavar-373” complex, the latest Iranian medium-range SAM “Khordad-15” was presented this year with a maximum range of 120 kilometres with a kill zone of about 27 kilometres. It is well known that Iran produced other SAMs of its own design; one can identify them as the Talash and Ra’ad/Ra’ad-2. SAMs of the first type are largely copied from the American “Patriot” anti-aircraft weapons system; they are installed on the wheelbase of the MZKT-6922 tractor delivered from Belarus and its local copy. In 2017, the system was upgraded to the level of Talash-2 and now can hit air targets at a range of up to 120 kilometres, flying at an altitude of up to 27 kilometres; it is in service with the Iranian Army and the IRGC. The Ra’ad SAM is also installed on the wheelbase of the MZKT-6922 tractor. Many elements of the air defence system are borrowed from the “BUK-M2E”. The Iranian military notes that the Ra’ad-2 SAMs are capable of hitting targets at distances of up to 200 kilometres, flying at an altitude of up to 30 kilometres. However, the size and shape of the missiles of this complex are identical to our “Buks”. That is, the advertised range can hardly be achieved. Previously, the Ra’ad SAM systems were claimed to be capable of firing at 50 kilometres. So, most likely, the impact zone of Ra’ad-2 is unlikely to exceed 70-80 kilometres.

In addition to the large- and medium-range SAMs, the country produces complexes of a small range. It can be stated that Iran produces the entire line of anti-aircraft missiles. With the creation of the “Bavar-373” and “Hordad-15” SAMs, it joined the four countries capable of producing such systems, along with the United States, Russia and China. It should be noted that even the most highly developed countries in Europe cannot boast of such products.

However, the tactical and technical data of the latest Iranian SAMs that are presented in the open press is very limited. One can find the parameters of the kill zone, and based only on the energy output of the missiles and often rather exaggerated. Some complexes are known for their number of channels. There are no data on the maximum speed of intercepted aerodynamic and ballistic targets. Indicators of intercept range of targets with a small effective area of dispersion (EPR) and ballistics are unknown. There are almost no data on the probability of interception of various types of targets; especially there are no estimates of the degree of protection of Iranian SAMs from electronic warfare at least at the level of qualitative comparison with known foreign models. There are no data on the reaction time of Iranian complexes. Accordingly, to adequately assess their real combat capabilities in the course of an armed conflict with a high-tech enemy on the basis of these data it cannot even be estimated.

The school sets the pace

The required data, however, can be obtained on the basis of a general analysis of the state of the Iranian military and civilian industry, the state of scientific and technical potential of the country, the scale and depth of military-technical cooperation with other states, the availability of modern weapons, as well as the pace of development of new products for air defence. Let’s start with science and technology schools. Most likely there were no such schools in the Shah’s Iran insofar as the country bought weapons from the USA and Europe. In any case, any notable examples of military equipment of the period of indigenous production are unknown. This means that Iranian science and technology schools are no more than 25 to 35 years old. The first generation without its own strong tradition. That is, conceptually new weapons systems, in particular SAMs, are likely copies of foreign models from among those that came to Iran. The significant differences from the prototypes are likely only in the details.

One can judge the technological level of weapons of the Iranian army through the latest aviation, armoured and naval equipment models. Without going into details of the analysis of each of the prototypes, it can be stated that in this respect it is inferior to China, and from the most developed countries it is one or two generations behind. Therefore, it is difficult to assume that Iranian SAMs can be compared with Russian or American ones. The latest Iranian SAMs, I think, are at least a generation behind ours, that is, they can match the models that were created in our country in the late 80s-early 90s.

Iran’s high-tech industry, both military and civilian, is still emerging. In some areas, the results are impressive. For example, Iran has reached the world level in uranium enrichment. However, in a number of areas important for the production of SAMs, data on Iranian successes is not available. For example, there are no known breakthroughs in the production of materials with specific extreme properties. Iran is forced to buy foreign radio electronics. It seems to be lagging behind in software as well. Judging by the materials of the foreign press, there are no significant achievements in the creation of high-energy solid rocket fuels. It can be assumed that the Iranian SAMs’ phased array radars hardly differ from the existing foreign models. It is also likely that, without being able to fully reveal the algorithms and the nature of the hardware of the radar obtained from abroad, the Iranians can create their samples with slightly worse parameters. The conclusion is that anti-aircraft guided missiles (SAMs) can have lower performance on the limit overload, more weight at the same range as advanced foreign models, inferior in noise immunity with a shorter range of capture target GOS and greater lower boundary of the affected area.

In military-technical cooperation, Tehran is most focused on Beijing. Chinese weapons, in particular various SAMs, have been purchased for more than three decades. However, it should be noted that China supplied Iran with rather out-dated specimens. For example, Tehran has not received the latest multi-channel long-range SAM type HQ-9. That is, in scientific and technological terms, Iran could learn little from China. The history of cooperation with Russia is much shorter, but much more fruitful. It was from us that Iran received powerful multi-channel long-, medium- and short-range SAMs that meet modern requirements. We must assume that the basis of the latest Iranian developments is the Russian conceptual approach. Although at the level of the relevant scientific and technical schools, this simply did not have time to manifest itself.

As can be judged by the materials of the open press, the development of the latest SAMs was quite high. So, specifically, there was less than seven years from the moment of the first announcement in 2012 about the beginning of the creation of the “Bavar-373” SAM and the acceptance of a complex as a weapon. This means that a significant number of qualitatively new technical and software solutions in this complex cannot be.

Too early to compete with the S-300

Let’s estimate the probable values of unknown parameters and combat capabilities of the latest Iranian SAMs. We will focus on the “Bavar-373” and the “Hordad-15”.

Both of these complexes, according to media reports, have a semi-active missile guidance system, which means that shooting is possible only within the radio horizon, that is, on targets that are directly observable. The maximum range will be limited not only by the energy of missiles and radar, but also by the altitude of the targets, as well as the terrain. The Iranian military is talking about 200 and 120 kilometres, respectively. It is obvious that with this value, the “Bavar-373” is not better than our S-300PMU2, but surpasses the S-300PMU1 with its 150 kilometres. However, this range can be fully realised only on targets going at high or medium altitudes. On the small-range ones, the radio-horizon factor as well as the minimum height of the target, comes in. Our S-300PMU2 and S-300PMU1, according to open sources, the lower limit of the affected targets is at the 10 metres level. It should be noted that this figure is determined by the characteristics of signal processing in complex radar and seeker missiles, the trajectory of the rocket and parameters of the beam target illumination. A solid scientific and technical base is required to achieve the small values of the indicator. So for such a base, Iran is significantly weaker than Russia was during the period of creation of the S-300PMU2. This gives reason to believe that the lower limit of destruction by the air defence system “Bavar-373” and the “Khordad-15” is higher than the Russian counterpart and is 30-40 metres, closer to the American SAM “Hawk” range, which has long existed in the Islamic Republic. Accordingly, the maximum range of low-altitude targets, such as the KR “Tomahawk”, will be significantly less than that of our complex. It can be estimated at 30-40 kilometres.

The upper limit of the kill zone is stated as 27 kilometres. In principle, there are no good reasons not to trust these data, it is determined by the missile energy and radar, as well as the aerodynamics of the missiles, the ability to manoeuvre in these layers of the atmosphere. It looks like the “Bavar-373” and the “Hordad-15” are doing fine here.

An important indicator of modern long-range SAMs is the ability to destroy ballistic targets. In relation to the “Bavar-373” it is stated as such. However, the parameters of the kill zone and the speed limits of ballistic targets are not given. The Russian analogue, the S-300PMU2, according to the open press, has a maximum range and height of destruction of such targets at 40 and 25 kilometres respectively. Similar figures are given for the S-300PMU1. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Iranian “Bavar-373” has the same capabilities.

The maximum speed of intercepted targets. For the Russian S-300PMU2 complexes, the figure given is 2800 metres per second. Obviously, we are talking about ballistic missiles. There is no data on the maximum speed of manoeuvring aerodynamic targets. Therefore, it is logical to turn to the American naval SAMs with the Aegis control system, which can intercept them at speeds of up to 700 metres per second. The limiters are the parameters of the target illumination beam, the maximum range of its capture by the anti-aircraft guided missile, the power of the warhead and the characteristics of the fuse, as well as the limit overload of the anti-aircraft guided missile. It is possible to achieve high indicator numbers only with the support of powerful technical potential and developed scientific schools not only of the military line. Iran so far has neither the former nor the latter. It can use the achievements of other countries, implemented in the SAMs, and get any technology from China. But China itself has not yet reached the level of Russia or the United States in this regard, and Iran’s SAMs, even the most modern, are made in the export version. In addition, even with a prototype, not everyone can copy it. For example, China has long had our engine for the SU-27, but they are unable to make an analogue with the same resource indicators. Therefore, it can be argued that the maximum speed of intercepted ballistic and aerodynamic targets by both Iranian complexes is significantly less than that of their Russian counterparts. And if, according to open data sources, the S-300PMU2 can successfully deal with the missiles of operational and tactical and even medium range, the Iranian “Bavar-373” reliably intercepts only tactical missiles and operational and tactical ones close to them in terms of firing range.

One of the key indicators of the complex is the probability of interception of air targets. This figure is determined by many characteristics of the SAM and its missiles. And it is most dependent on the technological level of the country. The probability of one missile hitting a manoeuvring aerodynamic target for both Iranian complexes is stated at equal to 0.9. However, this figure is likely in ideal conditions. In reality, no more than 0.6-0.8, which is also quite decent. For low-altitude targets such as the KR “Tomahawk”, the probability of destruction by similar SAMs of other countries is significantly less, from 0.3 to 0.5. The probability of hitting a ballistic target is unlikely to exceed that demonstrated by the American “Patriot” SAM during Desert Storm, 0.25-0.4.

On noise immunity of the complex. Its indicator is the probability of hitting targets in conditions of interference. These data by all countries are usually strictly classified even with old complexes. However, you can use historical data. According to them, if effective EW equipment does not work against it, it is able to realise an almost polygonal probability of hitting the targets. In particular, this was the case during the Vietnam War in the initial period of application of the S-75, as well as with the unexpected for Israel appearance of the SAM “Square” in Syria in 1967. Then the rate of missiles sent to the same target ranged from one to three. However, with the creation of effective means of electronic warfare and the development of ways to evade aircraft from the anti-aircraft missiles consumption per target increased to almost a dozen. The technological backwardness of Iran predetermines a relatively low noise immunity even for these newest SAMs. Therefore, it can be assumed that the probability of hitting targets by both complexes under consideration in the conditions of interference will be from 5-6 to 8-9. According to this indicator, the lag from Russian copies is very significant.

We observe that the Iranian SAMs “Bavar-373” and “Khordad-15”, of course, are serious military-technological breakthroughs, bringing Iran to the forefront in the development of these weapons systems. However, it is premature to say that it managed to achieve the performance of our S-300PMU2. Nevertheless, there is reason to predict that in a decade and a half, Iran will create a SAM that meets the best world standards, catching up with at least China in this regard.

Konstantin Sivkov

Deputy President of Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences for Information Policy, Doctor of Military Sciences



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