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.
Graphic 2 shows how the mobile S-300 could dramatically complicate the air space picture for strike planners, with its initial deployment. Where once attacking aircraft might have used the Zagros Mountains on the western edge of Iran to mask their approach to targets in central Iran, S-300s deployed to the western slopes of the mountain range could limit that option enough to make it effectively impossible, at least for massed waves of strike aircraft.
The Iranian air defense force could maintain the threat rings depicted in Graphic 2 while moving the missile launchers around to evade reconnaissance. It could also lose a launcher and quickly deploy another one to “fill the gap.”
Graphic 2 shows, for notional purposes, a deployment of eight rough launcher positions, not taking into account where the early warning/target acquisition radars would have to be positioned for coverage. (The system field-deploys typically with 6-8 launchers per battery. An actual deployment will not look exactly like Graphic 2 or 3.)
With a deployment of 16 launcher positions, shown in Graphic 3, Iran could blanket her entire perimeter with S-300 coverage. Iran would receive the batteries she needs for a version of the Graphic 2 concept in the first delivery from Russia. The Iranians could also choose to layer the western and southern sectors of the country more heavily, with less emphasis on the east and northeast.
With enough launchers, Iran could rotate ready positions within a coverage area and “fill in” holes where launchers were lost to attack. She has nothing approaching this capability today. The S-300’s range and mobility alone will make an attacking force work much harder, and probably take more losses, to fight through to its targets.
Which S-300 variant?
A key question about the S-300 is which variant Iran is to receive (or if she will get more than one variant). The ban Russia imposed in 2010 averted the prospective sale of the S-300PMU-series system: the 1990s-vintage system, based on 1970s/80s-era technology, used at one time by the Russian air defense force. (Russia’s national air defense force has been upgrading to the even more advanced S-400, also originally called the S-300PMU-3. To date, only China has been able to buy the S-400, and that only in late 2014.)
The older PMU-series system is a very good one, certainly better than what most countries have, outside the very top tier of militaries. Easy to learn, fully automated, instantaneously tracking and correlating dozens of targets at a time, with a well-regarded baseline missile and a respectable capability against older, short-range ballistic missiles – and road-mobile – it’s a formidable defense system.
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.
For one thing, it’s off-road-mobile. Its components are tracked, and can navigate unimproved terrain with the agility of a modern, medium-size armored tank. This will make it very hard to find and attack preemptively. Looking where there are roads of some kind won’t be a way to narrow down the search.
The baseline missile gives the S-300VM greater range than the PMU-series air defense force variant, along with a hypersonic capability, high resistance to countermeasures, and a unique capacity for terminal maneuvers against a target. This package combines with better target acquisition and modern automation to make the system extremely formidable.
But it has another characteristic that makes it a special concern. The S-300VM is designed to be equally effective against aircraft (including cruise missiles) and modern intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In other words, its deployment would at least partially blunt the impact of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.
It’s not clear yet what system or systems Iran will be able to obtain. A nightmare scenario would be Iran getting both the PMU-series system and the army VM system. Here’s what the Air Power Australia site has to say about the S-300VM:
Rapidly deployable, high survivable, and highly lethal, these weapons are especially difficult to counter and require significant capabilities to robustly defeat. The US Air Force currently envisages the F-22A Raptor as the primary weapon used to defeat these capable systems.
It is important to note that no F/A-18 variant, nor the Joint Strike Fighter, were designed to penetrate the coverage of the S-300V/VM systems. The survivability of these aircraft will not be significantly better than that of legacy combat aircraft [e.g., F-15 or F-16 – J.E.].
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.)
Just one example. Taking out a single SA-5 air defense site is relatively straightforward. You put some warheads into the SA-5 site. You probably want it non-operational for the duration of a campaign; if you envision three days of needing to fly in the adjacent air space, you want to scramble the site – knock things askew, hit what you can directly, make sure the site can’t come to life again in the space of 72 hours – but you won’t obsessively try, over and over, to leave every element of the system a smoking ruin. That’s a waste of assets.
If you’re dealing with the S-300VM, you probably can’t even find the launchers. You can try to locate the radars and surprise them with low-flying cruise missiles. But your best bet may be taking out the whole battery’s fuel source, back at the logistics head. Mobile missile launchers can’t move without fuel. You’ll still have to face some missile launches, but the problem will be bounded, and will have an expiration date.
If possible, you may even want to take out the critical fuel nodes of an entire region, depending on how much access you want, and how long. You won’t necessarily be attacking the fuel nodes from the air. But you’ll be blowing them up and inflicting massive infrastructure damage.
Rule of thumb: the better your defense system, in a tactical sense, the more strategic-level damage an opponent has to do to you, to defeat your defenses.
Enough resources to defeat the S-300?
The biggest and most important resource is national will. The harder it is to hit Iran’s nuclear program, the harder it will be for the United States to muster that will. Americans would tolerate a limited set of strikes, pulled out of our pocket from the forces we have in theater, and inflicting minimal damage.
It would be much more difficult to rouse national support for a level of combined-force effort we haven’t mounted since 2003. Defeating the S-300, in order to put meaningful thump on the Iranian nuclear program, would categorically not require a conventional ground invasion. But it would require considerably more tactical air (TACAIR) forces than we have in a ready status today. It’s not just that we don’t keep these forces in the Middle East. It’s that we literally don’t keep them combat ready at all.
We may have enough B-2s for the tough bombing jobs; that’s not 100% certain, since the S-300 will make the B-52 a non-player in a short campaign. And we may well have enough special forces to perform the preparations they would be best suited for.
But to achieve the level of damage to the main targets that the American people have the right to expect, if the U.S. mounts such an attack, we would need more TACAIR, once the S-300 is in place – more Air Force and Navy strike-fighters – than we can muster on short notice. Congress and the president would have to agree to boost our overall readiness again, at least back to what it was ca. 2008.
Israel will have to get creative. The S-300 poses a significant problem. Israel actually has more strike-fighters combat ready and available for an Iran attack today than the U.S. does. But they’re all F-15s and F-16s. There’s no option of flying into an S-300 network and dealing with it once it goes active. It must be degraded – blinded, immobilized to some level; ideally both – before the first main-target attack aircraft shows up.
Presumably Israel will retain the will to do what she must. The S-300 is virtually certain, however, to force Israeli planners to shorten the priority target list. Only the planners and the Israeli chain of command will know what their threshold is: at what point they have to decide they can’t do enough damage after the S-300 is deployed, and must strike before it’s deployed. But the S-300 forces that decision on them. It slides the indicator for the make-or-break point of cost-effectiveness.
A third option
No, I’m not talking about using nuclear missiles against Iran – or even about Israel attacking the S-300s during shipment. The latter may or may not be feasible. Russia can ship them across the Caspian Sea, and/or ship them in parts by multiple routes (e.g., by air and through the ‘Stans of Central Asia).
But there is a force sufficient to punch holes in the S-300 and do meaningful, extensive, cost-effective damage to Iran’s nuclear program. That force is the combined attack assets of the United States and Israel.
We can all think of the reasons why that won’t happen with Barack Obama in the White House. But as a touchstone for the future, remember this point.
Remember also that America’s increasingly skeptical Arab partners in the Middle East would, in fact, tacitly support such a move. Even with Obama in Washington, they would expect Netanyahu to insist on achieving a useful outcome, while limiting his objectives in the essentially “Westphalian-statesman” manner characteristic of him up to now. Obama may be, effectively, a loose cannon, but Netanyahu, however disliked he or Israel is, can be trusted pragmatically to not overstep reasonable bounds and destabilize the region.
S-300 versus the world
The countdown to an Israeli go/no-go decision has begun. If Obama were actually contemplating a U.S. strike, the countdown would have begun for us as well. Clearly he’s not contemplating a strike. How much he doesn’t care about the S-300 speaks louder than any vague protestations about “options” being on the table.
The Iranians have predicted this week that they will get the S-300 before the end of 2015. That’s less unlikely than it has ever been; it could well happen.
We shouldn’t discount the possibility that Russia is probing to incentivize Israel (or even the U.S.). In a world without a hegemon, the old magic kingdom of the Pax Americana no longer obtains, and incentivizing other nations – sometimes brutally and with relish – is what the de facto oligarchy of second-rank great powers will do. Israel is special, but Israel is also a vigorous nation whose policies have a significant impact on the Middle East – a region Russia sees as vital to her security.
In this way, Israel is like other nations being alternately courted and incentivized by Russia, such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
And in that regard, consider this piece of context: Russia is selling Egypt the army version S-300VM – and the initial deliveries are reportedly to start this year.
The Eastern hemisphere isn’t the only one seeing an S-300 bust-out. Alert readers will remember the flap a few years ago when Venezuela bought S-300 systems from Russia. The Venezuelans, like the Egyptians, bought the S-300VM, which began arriving in 2013. It entered combat service with the Venezuelan military in late 2014, and was incorporated in a huge military exercise last month, mounted by the Maduro regime because of its strange conviction that Barack Obama is on the brink of attacking Venezuela.
In general, Americans – along with our other allies – need to take heed that our qualitative military edge is fast declining, along with our numbers. We’re not awaiting the day when we can’t just use our pocket change to pay the price of security or stability. That day is already here.