A report that Iran had acquired several firing units of the much talked about Russian-built S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, allegedly from Belarus, sent a small shudder through the international defense community. Some commentators went so far as to claim that the presence of the S-300 in Iran could trigger an Israeli attack on that country’s nuclear installations. The reason for this is the S-300’s fearsome reputation as one of the world’s most potent air defense systems. The S-300 is allegedly able to track more than 100 targets at distances of nearly 100 miles and at any altitude while simultaneously engaging up to 12 with very fast interceptor missiles.
How serious is the threat? Belarus has denied selling the missiles to Iran. But even if it had, would this constitute a serious threat to U.S. and Israeli capabilities to dominate the skies over Iran? The short answer is no. Even if the two S-300 systems were operational, which is not certain, they could well cause more problems for the Iranian air defense than they are worth. The systems must be maintained and operators trained. Then the S-300s must be linked into the Iranian national air defense network, which is obsolescent and in need of maintenance itself. The Iranian move is like a fan buying Hank Aaron’s bat on E-bay with the expectation of being able to hit 700 home runs.
There are techniques for dealing with the threat should it turn out to be real. One of the first moves by Coalition forces at the start of both Gulf Wars was to attack the radars and command centers of Iraq’s integrated air defense. Coupled with the use of stealth aircraft (F-117s in 1991 and B-2s in 2003), the Iraqi defensive network was rapidly dismantled. Today, the U.S. can rely on the F-22 which was designed with a combination of stealthiness, speed and electronic systems precisely to deal with the threat posed by so-called triple digit SAMS. The now-venerable B-2 will also play a role. Both will be equipped with advanced, long-range anti-radar weapons. In addition, U.S. strike forces will be supported by upgraded electronic warfare systems onboard the EA-6B Prowler and new E/A-18G Growler to jam Iranian radars.
Although Israel does not possess stealth aircraft, it does have an array of long-range unmanned systems, precision strike weapons, ballistic missiles and electronic warfare systems that should allow it to successfully engage Iranian air defenses. Remember the radar blackout that preceded the Israeli strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor site? The main problem for the Israeli Air Force will be to carry sufficient weight of ordnance with which to destroy hardened and buried facilities.
But even the possibility of further proliferation of advanced SAMS should cause U.S. defense planners to focus more attention on dealing with a global anti-access threat that will only grow more problematic with time. China is reported to have around 100 batteries of S-300s in a combination of Russian-bought and domestically produced systems. With a maximum of just over 200 advanced stealth aircraft in its inventory (187 F-22s and 19 B-2s), the U.S. military will have to find other ways to deal with advanced SAM threats. It will also have to address the problem of operating in defended airspace when it designs the next-generation of advanced unmanned aerial systems.