I can only shake my head in wonder at the dizzying pace all of this is happening.
Whatever version Iran would have gotten in 2010, she will almost certainly get the newest version of the S-300PMU-2 today. It will in any case be a more modern system than the S-300PMU-1 Cyprus has deployed, an early 1990s version purchased in 1997. Iran’s will have, e.g., upgraded target acquisition radar and probably the –PMU-2’s newer, longer-range missile introduced in the late 1990s.
But an announcement from February 2015 suggests Iran may get the Russian army’s variant of the S-300 system. A Russian industry official stated that the army system had been offered to Iran, and negotiations were ongoing.
From bad to ugly
That purchase would put this in the category of “worse.” The army system – the Antey-2500, or S-300VM – is a newer system, comprehensively redesigned in the late 1990s and entering the foreign market in the last decade. It has several characteristics that make it a show-stopper for minimum-footprint air strikes, of the kind the public imagines that either Israel or the U.S. would undertake.
Bad, or worse? Depends on what the meaning of ‘S-300’ is
Readers will have seen by now that Vladimir Putin has lifted Russia’s 2010 ban on selling the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran. For the record, this is bad. There’s a certain amount of nonsense being talked about it, but it is bad.
One of the most important things about it, however, is that it very well could be worse. In fact, the Russian announcement comes at a good time to remind us that it already is worse. The “S-300” problem is bigger than the Israel-Iran dynamic. Even within the bounds of that dynamic, there’s “worse” to worry about. But the S-300 problem extends well beyond it.
I’ll look at some of the key ways here. First a bit of orientation. The air defense picture of Iran is a nice way to visualize the kind of difference the S-300 can make. Presented here is a set of graphics using Iran as an illustration.
See the S-300 change the game
Graphic 1 shows Iran with a pre-S-300 baseline. Missile systems are grouped and layered to protect high-value areas. The anti-air missile system with the longest intercept range – the former-Soviet SA-5 system – is permanently installed, in a characteristic site configuration, and is thus relatively easy to find and attack preemptively. The shorter-range systems on the graphic are also installed at permanent sites. Iran has modern, mobile anti-air missile systems, but their range is extremely short; they are deployed, at need, to high-value locations, and neutralizing them is part of routine planning for a strike package by a force like the IAF or the U.S. military.
How does the game change?
No defensive system makes attack impossible. It makes attack cost more. The Israelis have already said that the S-300 won’t deter them from doing what they need to do, and that’s not just bluster. It’s also not an announcement of a suicide pact for the IAF.
What the S-300 will do, however, is make certain kinds of attack impossible. A campaign that lacks extensive preparation to punch safe corridors for air attackers will not be possible. And the priority list of main targets (i.e., the nuclear-arms-related sites) will have to be shortened – or be attacked by other methods.
A corollary to the first point is that an attack force will have to do more damage to Iran’s infrastructure, in order to punch those safe air corridors. (Which, it’s important to say, will only be relatively safe.)