“The Iranians are on contract for SA-20,” says a senior, U.S. government official. The U.S. and Israel now face a “huge set of challenges in the future that we’ve never had [before]. We’ve been lulled into a false sense of security because our operations over the last 20 years involved complete air dominance and we’ve been free to operate in all domains,” he adds.
Other senior officials independently confirm that Iran will get the Russian SA-20 strategic SAM system, irrespective of Kremlin protestations to the contrary. Tehran’s deployment of such a system would mark a step-up in capability, and considerably improve the country’s ability to defend its controversial nuclear facilities where the West remains concerned that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
The proliferation of so-called double-digit surface-to-air missile systems – such as the Almaz Antey SA-20 (S-300PMU1/S-300PMU2) – poses an increasing threat to non-stealthy aircraft, and will force changes in tactics and operational planning. The SA-20 has an engagement envelope of up to 150 kilometers; and Iran may be signed up for the S-300PMU-2 variant of the system.
Russia could use Byelorussia as the route for a sale, allowing it to deny any direct involvement, says a U.S. official. It would likely take the Iranian armed forces some time, as much as 22 months, to become proficient in the operation of the SA-20, however, any deal would almost certainly cover training support of the system in the interim. Analysts suggest ships delivering the missiles and the training, support and assembly areas could become targets.
The SA-20, and even more so the SA-21 Growler (S-400) which is now entering service, pose an increasing problem for mission planners using conventional strike aircraft. While low observable aircraft offer greater latitude for operations, they are not totally immune to air defenses.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 with its all-aspect, -40 dBsm radar cross-section signature can operate within the engagement envelope of the SA-20 and SA-21. But the Lockheed Martin F-35 with its -30 dBsm signature, which is not all-aspect stealth, is at greater risk. The rear quadrant of the F-35, particularly around the tailpipe area, is not as stealthy as the F-22.
The Northrop Grumman B-2, because of its aging stealth design, also has limitations in the amount of time it can spend within the range of double-digit systems since small signature clues can become cumulative and offer a firing solution. The U.S.’s next-generation bomber program is aimed at developing a low-observable platform capable of operating irrespective of the threat from systems of the SA-21 class.
More capable point defense systems – that would likely be used to protect SA-20 sites, for example – are also being introduced into the region. Syria is getting the SA-22 Greyhound (KBP Pantsyr), which uses a vehicle-mounted combination of cannon and missiles intended to provide defense against aircraft, helicopters, precision-guided munitions and cruise missiles.
New threats – involving advances in commercially available electronics – continue to rapidly mutate in the area of secure communications and command and control.
Recent pictures of the interior of a new Chinese surface-to-air missile command and control vehicle show two Inovo laptops and the commander of the integrated air defense system talking on a Blackberry. In the battery’s briefing vehicle, there’s a VOIP connection. These are all good, cheap commercial products.
With reporting from Douglas Barrie