Key Point: Just because a threat can be defeated does not mean it is necessarily wise to do so.
Iran’s military planners face an unenviable military challenge: preparing defenses against air attacks from the most formidable air forces on the planet.
The once-formidable Iranian Air Force, starved of spare parts for its 1970s-era American-built fighters, is unlikely to effectively challenge U.S. air superiority. Instead, Iran has doubled down on a diverse array of surface-to-air missile (SAMs) systems in its Air Defense Force (IRIADF) as well as the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Together, these form an integrated air defense system that can tackle threats approaching at different ranges, speeds and altitudes, aided by powerful over-the-horizon surveillance radar described in this article.
Iran maintains numerous SAM systems imported from the United States and Europe half a century ago, but lacks access to spare parts and new missiles. Tehran has been able to acquire modest numbers of SAMs from China and Russia.
Therefore, to fill in the quantity and modernity gap, Iranian engineers have studiously reverse-engineered and produced modernized domestic variants of the older systems.
Initial Iranian spinoffs are often direct clones. But in the last decade, the Persian spinoffs feature significant improvements including increased range, digital fire control systems and electro-optical fire control systems that provide a short-range backup if their radars are jammed.
Arguably, the easiest way to understand the various Iranian SAMs is by identifying which foreign SAM system they’re evolved from and which layer air defense system they belong to.
Complicating matters is that Iran tends to use one name for the missile, and a different one for the system of radars and launchers that launch the missile. Furthermore, Iran’s more modern launch systems tend to be designed to launch multiple types of missiles.
The Top Layer
Long-range SAMs can track attackers from long distances, threaten non-agile aircraft over a hundred miles away and at high altitudes, and potentially knock down ballistic missiles.
The road-mobile radar-guided S-300PMU-2 ‘Favorit’ was Russia’s premier air defense system until succeeded by the S-400. It can engage up to thirty-six aircraft simultaneously up to 120 miles away using a mix of long-and medium-range missiles.
How Iran got them: In 2007 ordered five batteries of S-300PMU1s, but sanctions compelled Pres. Medvedev to cancel delivery in 2010—though Iran still managed to acquire a 30N6 radar and components
The Iranian Spinoff: In 2011, Tehran announced it would make its ‘own’ S-300—the Bavar-373, which uses the Say’yad-3 or 4 missiles derived from American Standard missile. The Bavar 373 supposedly has a range of 155 miles. You can read more about the system in this earlier article.
In 2015, Russia also delivered four S-300PMU2 batteries following Iran’s accession to the JCPOA nuclear deal, currently deployed in Tehran, Isfahan and Bushehr.
Other Notable Assets: Iran has thirty Soviet-era S-200 Vega-E (SA-5) long-range missile systems on heavy fixed launchers deployed at Tehran, Bandar Abbas, Hamadan and Esfahan. Though dated, they have a range of 150 miles and a blistering maximum speed of Mach 6, and have been modernized to the Fajr-8 and Gareh standards with solid-state electronics and increased range.
The Middle Layer
Medium range surface-to-air missiles can threaten airspace within a few dozen miles, and are effective against agile and high-flying aircraft.
The Standard Missile
The RIM-66 SM-1MR was a medium-range canister-launched surface-to-air missile system installed on U.S. Navy warships beginning in the late 1960s, with a range of twenty-two miles.
How Iran got them: The U.S. sold SM-1 missiles to the Iranian Navy prior to the Revolution
Iranian Spinoff: In 2013, Iran unveiled the Sayyad-2 (“Hunter”), which is visibly evolved from the SM-1, and very fast with a maximum speed of Mach 4.5 and range of forty-six miles. It can be fired from the truck-mobile Talaash (“Endeavour”) and Khordad-15 air defense systems, which can engage six targets simultaneously. The latter downed a U.S. RQ-4N drone in June 2019 using a Sayyad-2C.
The larger, longer-range Sayyad-3 model has a range of seventy-five miles, and is integrated on both Khordad 15 and S-200 launchers.
The Hawk Missile
The radar-guided Hawk missile was the first major American SAM system. The MIM-23B model has a maximum range of around 25 miles and the missiles travel at a speed of Mach 2.4
Where did they come from?: The United States sold numerous MIM-23Bs to Iran. Serving as Iran’s primary air-defense missile during the Iran-Iraq war, they shot down forty Iraqi MiG-23 and Su-22 jets, as well as several friendly jets by mistake.
The Iranian Spinoff: Iran first developed a Hawk missile clone, the Shahin (“Falcon”) followed by the improved Shalamche with speed increased to Mach 3.
In 2010, Iran debuted a new triple-rail launcher system called Mersad which can integrate multiple radars, engage two targets simultaneously, has a maximum surveillance range of ninety-three miles, and a short-range electro-optical backup. Iran also has developed a self-propelled Ghader variant. Iran has around 120 Hawks and Mersads.
S-75 Surface-to-Air Missile
The Soviet S-75 (NATO codename SA-2) was the first SAM used in combat. The battery directs V-750 missiles traveling up to 3.5 times the speed of sound via radio-control to close with aircraft up to twenty-eight miles away.
How Iran got them: China reverse-engineered the S-75 into the HQ-1 and HQ-2. Iran acquired 14 HQ-2J launchers.
The Iranian spinoff: The heavily modernized Sayyad-1A features extended range (50–60 miles) and a new infrared-seeker.
Codenamed the SA-6, this Soviet tracked SAM system mounts three missiles on each tracked launcher with a range of 15 miles and up to medium-high altitudes. A command vehicle equipped with a radar guides the missiles via radio command.
How Iran got them: Iran imported fifty 2K12Es in the 1990s.
The Iranian spinoff: The Ra’ad-1 (“Thunder”) SAM is a domestic truck-mounted variant which integrates a radar and electro-optical sensor.
The Russian successor to the 2K12, the 9K37 Buk is capable of short-to-medium range engagements at targets between 2 to 30 miles away, and up to high altitudes.
How did Iran get them?: Unclear—however, the launch vehicle for Iran’s relatively advanced Ra’ad-2 (“Thunder”) missile system and its Taer-2 missiles looks remarkably similar, though the Ra’ad launcher has three missiles instead of four. The Taer-2 also has similar claimed performance characteristics. The Ra’ad can also launch Sayyad-2 missiles.
The Bottom Layer
Short-range air defense systems protect frontlines troops and critical bases against low-flying (under 20,000 feet) helicopters, drones and attack aircraft—and potentially cruise missiles. However, they can’t intercept high-flying jets using precision-guided munitions.
The Crotale Short-Range SAM
Crotale is a French 1970s-era radar-guided system deployed on ground vehicles and ships.
How did Iran get them?: In 1979 China imported a few Crotales for a ‘evaluation’—and by the 1980s had reverse-engineered them into a SAM called the HQ-7 (FM-80).
The Iranian Spinoff: In 2002, Iran showed it had reverse-engineered the HQ-7 into the Shahab Thaqeb. Then in 2013, it entered the Ya Zahra short-range air defense system and the Herz-9 (“Protector”) self-propelled variant, shown on video here.
The 9K38 Igla is a Russian shoulder-fired man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) which uses heat-seeking missiles.
How Iran got them: China developed a copy of the Igla called the QW-1 which Iran subsequently imported.
The Iranian Spin-off: The Misagh-1 is a direct clone of the QW-1. The Misagh-2 is an improved model with the range extended to 3 miles. Iran also the Soheil jeep, which mounts four Misagh-2s. Iran has over 3,000 QW-1s and Misaghs.
Other Notable Assets
Iran has British 1970s-era optically-guided Rapier self-propelled systems with a range of 5 miles. In 2007, Iran acquired twenty-nine Tor-M1 self-propelled missile systems from Russia. Tehran also fields the laser-guided Qaem anti-helicopter missile, derived from the American TOW anti-tank missile.
Iran also possesses large quantities of anti-aircraft artillery ranging from Cold War 23-millimeter cannons and 100-millimeter KS-19 guns to indigenous automated close-defense Gatling cannons.
Iran possesses a mix of both obsolete and modern imported SAMs, and modern indigenous designs. The latter benefit from multiple radars and networked launch platforms and are hardened versus countermeasures, though none are ‘top-tier’ by international standards.
Massed together, Iran’s air defenses provide Tehran with a degree of deterrence because they increase the difficulty, expense and time required to launch air attacks on Iran—particularly from regional actors. They pose a threat to non-stealth fighters unless suppressed, and can deny Iranian and Persian Gulf airspace to less agile aircraft like the RQ-4N drone shot down in June 2019.
However, Iran’s SAMs won’t stop a concentrated air campaign from a power able to muster a combination of standoff-range missiles, electronic warfare and stealth aircraft. These have historically systematically dismantled air defense networks in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. Today, Syria’s large air defense network is proving ineffectual at preventing Israeli airstrikes, despite an injection of relatively modern Russian SAMs.
However, just because a threat can be defeated does not mean it is necessarily wise to do so.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared earlier in 2019.
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