In one of the most remarkable thematic misdirections I can remember, the West’s mainstream media reported on 28 August that Iran has now deployed “long-range missiles” to the Fordo uranium enrichment site in northern Iran, near Qom.
If you don’t look past the headline, you may think vaguely that Iran has put some launchers for an intermediate-range ballistic missile in at Fordo. That would be interestingly odd – food for thought, certainly, if only for wonks – but not terribly informative. The average reader has no way of putting such information in context.
The real headline
But what Iran actually did was deploy the first S-300 air defense system equipment to Fordo.
The average consumer of such news has heard of the S-300, and knows it’s a big deal.
Since the MSM stories acknowledge within the first few sentences that the missile system is the S-300, and since their previous stories about the long saga of Russia’s S-300 sale to Iran have invariably called it the S-300 in the headlines, there is no legitimate reason why this latest headline would merely refer to the items deployed as “long-range missiles.”
It’s not just sloppy to do that. It’s obscurantist. No one refers to the S-300 in a professional context as a “long-range missile.” It’s an air defense missile system. That’s what matters about it. That’s the first thing you say about it.
That’s what the average higher-information reader knows about it. Yet the initial MSM stories don’t mention that. At most, they do something like the AFP story and refer to the “long-range missiles” coyly as “counter-strike weaponry.”
To not name the system in the headline, or clearly describe its function in the text, is to mislead.
(Note, for example, that Drudge ran the headline as the typical mainstream outlet has been running it on Sunday night. Yet Drudge knows perfectly well the S-300 is a significant system for Iran to deploy — as AFP does. The headline and introductory material are worded so that it takes a knowledgeable expert to recognize that the headline makes no sense in any potential context.)
The first thing many readers will assume is that the MSM want to protect Obama from the ignominy of letting this happen on his watch.
For what it’s worth, the Obama administration has been inconsistent in its posture on the S-300 sale to Iran. Up through a year ago, the administration was opposed to the sale, continuing the policy of the Bush 43 administration.
On the other hand, Obama himself suggested as early as April 2015 that it would be no big deal for Iran to have the S-300, and that the U.S. could penetrate the system if necessary. (This is an irresponsible thing to say on several levels. The cost of penetrating the S-300 envelope – i.e., a much higher likelihood of U.S. warplanes being shot down in order to get through to priority targets – is far greater than the cost of attacking if the S-300 isn’t there. So cavalier words like Obama’s could only be spoken by a commander in chief who doesn’t care about his troops and just wants to talk big.)
Since Iran took delivery earlier this year of the first S-300 parts from Russia, the U.S. administration has fallen silent about it. Once the Iranians received the missiles to mate to the other system components, in July, it was likely to be a matter of weeks for them to make the first deployment. (I estimated 8 weeks or a little more, when I discussed the deployment timeline 5 weeks ago.)
Now the first deployment has reportedly taken place.
Put this development in context. The U.S. has given Turkey the green light to attack our allies, the Kurds, in Syria. This game-changing event comes at a time when the Iranians themselves are putting pressure on the Kurds from the east, and are preparing a military path into northern Iraq, intended to help them shoulder the Kurds out in the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS. Among other things, the Iranians are reported to have missile deployment sites constructed just inside Iraq on the northeastern border, and to have military training camps set up near Kirkuk.
The U.S. and Russia – Iran’s patron – are “negotiating” the surrender of U.S. policy to Russia’s as regards the fate of Syria. The fate of Iraq will not be far behind.
The Turkish armored incursion into Syria began on 23 August.
Also on 23 August, Iranian patrol boats made extremely provocative approaches to a U.S. destroyer in the Persian Gulf. The next day, they made multiple extremely provocative runs at U.S. coastal patrol craft, and at another of our destroyers, in a different part of the Gulf.
The coastal patrol vessel USS Squall fired warning shots at an Iranian patrol boat during one of the encounters on 24 August. But other than that, the U.S. reaction was worse than muted. It was pathetic. As noted by one of our regulars in the comments section, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was called out for making a statement so weak as to verge on imbecilic: that we couldn’t tell what the Iranians were trying to communicate to us with this behavior, because we don’t have diplomatic relations with them.
— Omri Ceren (@omriceren) August 26, 2016
Four days later, the report comes in that Iran has deployed the S-300 to Fordo.
It matters that it’s Fordo. Fordo is built into the side of a mountain, and qualifies as a “hardened and deeply buried target.” The effective weapon to attack Fordo with – the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) – has to be delivered by a B-2 bomber flying in (comparatively) close to the target. The bomber(s) would definitely have to get inside the threat envelope of the S-300 to attack Fordo. No stand-off option can have the necessary effect.
And while this doesn’t mean that the U.S. can’t attack Fordo now, it does mean that the cost of attacking Fordo has just gone up significantly. The assets that would have to be devoted to neutralizing the S-300 and escorting the bombers in and out would be unavailable, during that period, for other tasking. The act of neutralizing the S-300 would alert Iran to our intentions. It’s also not a given that we can effectively neutralize the S-300 on the first try. We haven’t faced it in combat before.
Multiply that problem and spread it out along the approach axes to Iran’s high-value nuclear-related targets, and within a few weeks, the S-300 will have shut down any hope there ever was of a limited, “surgical” strike on those targets. We’ll need more planes and more time, to execute the same mission.
And we’d be very likely to absorb much higher losses.
To an extent, the deployment of the S-300 has more meaning as a symbol of this shift than as the actual threshold of it. We’ve put ourselves in the box over the last four years with dangerous cuts to military procurement, training, and readiness. Even before the S-300 showed up, we still would have had less capability to mount a strike in 2016 than we did in 2009, and would have paid a higher price for it. We’ve lost too much of our edge – if not in skill and courage, in sheer numbers and the guarantee of operational advantage.
Iran is deploying the S-300. She’s not deploying a “long-range missile,” in any meaningful sense.* And the reason the mainstream media aren’t clarifying that for you in their headlines is that the deployment of the S-300 officially changes the game. Obama has let it happen.
Let’s once again cut the crap here. The media don’t want you to readily recognize that that’s what has happened.
Blinding the West – but not the rest
The alarming thing is that framing the event to keep it from reflecting badly on Obama obscures for the American and other Western peoples the magnitude of everything that’s going on. (Given the limited scope of Obama’s remaining political career, we’re also justified in asking if protecting his reputation is the only reason for this weirdly obscure headline theme.)
Iran saw America sell out an ally last week, and then react with supine fecklessness to major provocations at sea. Iran was taking our temperature to verify that Obama wouldn’t do anything if the S-300 were deployed.
That’s been verified. Don’t think Iran is going to stop with the S-300. Don’t think other nations (like China and Russia) have failed to notice this sequence of events.
Note – as we did in our comments over the last week here at LU – that 23 August marked the 77th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Thursday 1 September will be the 77th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which began World War II in Europe.
Perhaps meaningless. But the sense that this coincidence does have meaning is a truer and wiser response to it than any one-dimensional certainty that it can’t. Interesting numbers, for “interesting times.”
* The intercept range of the S-300 system’s missile – healthy but by no means the longest of any active system – matters only in the sense that it’s an air defense system. To merely call it a “long-range missile” is to speak gibberish.
As missiles go, the 100 nautical mile (120 statute mile) range of the 48N6E2 missile Iran is thought to have received is comparable to the U.S. Navy’s RIM-156 Standard Missile, but significantly shorter than the U.S. RIM-174 (operational since 2013) and the Russian S-400 Triumf, in general use throughout the Russian land-based forces since 2012.
The significance of the S-300 for Iran has more to do with air defense integration – rapidly processing and assigning target information – and the relatively robust performance of the missile when confronted with countermeasures and maneuvering targets. The missile range is not the big thing a front-line air force gets excited about, with this system. There is no level on which there is an excuse for selling the S-300 to the public as merely a “long-range missile.”