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Bluffer’s Guide: Fortress Iran Part 1, Air Defences
+ Pls note that this is amateur research and illustrations. Corrections and constructive feedback welcome.
The nation’s capital is defended by static emplacements of area-defense SAMs and short range air-defense, and in times of tension or conflict may have additional mobile air defenses mobilized.
Area Air-Defense Systems
SA-5 Gammon (S-200)
Iran declared the SA-5 long range missile system operational in 1997 and apparently now produces the missiles which Iran calls the “Ghareh”. There are 5 fixed SA-5 sites covering Tehran. Iran recently showcased an ‘optimized’ SA-5 but quite what that optimalizsation involves is not clear – although one can surmise that the existing SA-5 infrastructure must be sub-optimal in the eyes of the Iranian military. ;-)
In 1983 Iran was reported to have 23 Hawk/I-Hawk batteries, ironically receiving extra missiles from Israel and US during the Iran-Iraq war.
Four Hawk sites circle the south and west of the city, at about 20-30km from the city centre. Of these only the southern-most two appear active in Google Earth. A fifth active Hawk site is located at Mehrabad air base.
Hawk is a relatively mobile system and can be redeployed in times of threat. During the Iran-Iraq war Hawk was mostly employed close to the battle front in temporary emplacements. Similarly1990’s Iranian Hawk sites on the islands of Sirri and Abumusa are much more rough-and-ready than the older Western built Hawk sites in Tehran’s ring. What is significant however is that even though the system can be redeployed, the signature layout is maintained, although three launcher configurations are more common than the original six:
To me, this suggests that this site was built by the Iranians after the revolution and reflects the initial spares shortages facing Iran in the 1980s and early 90s before local production had stabilized the Iranian I-Hawk community.
Iran has reverse engineered the SM-1 Standard naval SAM missile and employs variants as both surface-to-surface and surface-to-air systems, possibly with the local name “Fajr”. The success and extent of service of the system is open to question, and it is thought that the Iranian Navy, who had fitted a Kaman class missile boat with the system after the retirement of the sole Babr class destroyer (Allen M Summer class FRAMII) which had carried 4 twin boxed launchers, and also trialed an air-launched anti-ship version, has retired the system. The reverse-engineered missile is claimed to have several enhancements including digital components allowing it employ different radar frequencies. In the SAM role the Fajar is fired from twin as per the SM-1 system on Babr, which are now mounted on an adapted I-Hawk SAM launcher. Performance is not known but is likely to be similar to the SM-1MR (RIM-66A Block-IV) naval missile, having a range of about 32km; significantly shorter than the I-Hawk.
None of the identified I-Hawk sites on Google Earth appear to have Standard missiles and given the likely inferior performance compared to the I-Hawk it seems likely that the system has not been adopted in meaningful numbers if at all.
The 1960’s SA-6 Kub mobile medium range SAM system was first introduced into Iranian service in 1990, and is (exclusively?) operated by IRGC-AF. In concept the system is a fully mobile area-defense system for maneuvering army brigades, but can be employed to defend fixed sites with the advantage of being able to redeploy to fresh sites frequently. Although the system was incredibly successful in the 1970s in Egyptian hands against Israel, it was far less successful in subsequent conflicts and although still considered a credible threat is no longer cutting edge.
Iran first received Chinese HQ-2 (Chinese version of SA-2) SAMs during the Iran-Iraq war, possibly also with some SA-2s from other countries during that time. The system is generally regarded as obsolete and appears many HQ-2 sites are now empty, suggesting a general reduction in strength, but since 1999 Iran has produced an enhanced version of this system as the “Sayyad-1” and “Sayyad-1a”, which has an increased effective range of 50km (as per later HQ-2s) and possibly an improved warhead and elements of Hawk and Standard missile technology. It is probable that the Sayyad-1 is employed as an improved missile for existing HQ-2 sites rather than a complete stand-alone system.
There are four HQ-2/Sayyad-1 sites covering Tehran, forming a semi-circle around the on the South-west side of the city, positioned about 30km from the city centre. Only the western-most site appears active and it is possible that the southern three are remnants from the Iran-Iraq war. It is not possible to discern whether the missiles employed are Sayyad-1 or original HQ-2s, but I’ve drawn the arcs at 50km range of the Sayyad-1:
The active site is protected by seven 23mm AAA positions:
The 23mm AAA is however insufficient to cover the whole of the HQ-2/Sayyad-1’s dead ground, leaving a significant opening for attacking aircraft /missiles to fly in under the HQ-2/Sayyad-1’s altitude limits and then pop up 7-5km from their target for a diving attack that the ZU-23-2 would be almost powerless to stop:
The combination of a relatively poor missile potency, particularly at short ranges and low altitudes, combined with the inadequate point defense and static installations makes the HQ-2/Sayyad-1 SAM sites easy prey to cruise missiles and modern stand-off weapons. At the same time the sites themselves are not sufficiently valuable to warrant deploying SA-15 (Tor) or SA-19 (Panstyr) systems to shoot down incoming missiles.
Perhaps the longest running and most controversial rumor surrounding Iran’s air defenses is the supposed acquisition of advanced S-300 (SA-10 Grumble) SAMs from Russia. For years people have argued whether Iran has them but in recent months several fresh rumors and credible reports have rekindled the fire. On the one hand there has been a spate of credible reports that Iran is in negotiations with Russia for the comparatively advanced S-300PMU1 (SA-10D) system:
Whilst this deal was being denied by some Russian Government sources, reputable defense news source Jane’s published an article claiming that Iran was in final negotiations to purchase two batteries of the older S-300PT (SA-10A) system from Belarus. The report was denied by Belarus, but accuracy remains unclear. The S-300PT is less capable than the S-300PMU1 and less mobile, using trailer launchers that require significant preparation to redeploy relative to the much more mobile S-300PMU1 which uses either a self-propelled Maz truck launcher (TEL, above) or a more mobile truck and trailer configuration. At first glance it seems that Iran is so desperate to upgrade its air defenses that it is willing to pay over-the-odds for surplus early-model S-300s, although it now seems probable that the ‘leak’ was a political ploy to spur the Russian government into finalizing the S-300PMU1 deal. Strangely China’s comparable HQ-9 and KS-1A SAM systems don’t seem to be in the picture. The satellite imagery below shows one of the Belarusian S-300PT batteries supposedly involved in the deal:
The S-300PT uses the original trailer launchers without integral generator:
Short Range Air Defense (SHORAD)
Lighter Air-Defense systems:
Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet)
By far and away the most advanced and potent air defense system in the current Iranian inventory, the 29 Tor-M1 systems entering service provide a credible defense against cruise missiles, stand-off weapons and medium/low flying aircraft including fast jets. Their main weakness is that they are relatively short ranged and cannot reach the highest altitude bombers.
Although the Tor was designed to provide organic air defense to maneuvering armored brigades, Iran’s greatest threat is perceived as pre-emptive air strikes on key installations, and it seems likely that at least some of the Tor systems are deployed around key strategic targets during times of tension.
The Tor system in Iranian service is not the most current Tor variant, but it remains a very formidable adversary.
In May 2007 Iran was reported to have purchased at least 10 Pantsyr S-1E combined gun/SAM systems from Russia via Syria, although subsequent delivery to Iran has yet to be confirmed. The Pantsyr system is extremely potent with similar anti-missile capability to the Tor-M1, but with more missiles (12 ready to fire vs 8) and two 30mm auto-cannons. The only noteworthy weakness of the system is that it is truck based and requires deployment of stabilizing legs to operate, thus making it inherently static in operation and thus cannot move to escape anti-radiation missiles, although it could conceivably shoot down the incoming ARM providing a measure of self defense.
For the role of defending key facilities and cities Pantsyr is a better choice than the Tor-M1, so delivery of the Pantsyr may free up any Tors that are being used for static defense for their more fitting role as regular maneuver units.
FM-80/Shahab Thaqeb (Matra R440 Crotale)
Iran had attempted to purchase the Crotale (Rattlesnake) short range SAM system from the French in 1985 but appears to have been rebuffed. However, Iran subsequently purchased a number of FM-80 (HQ-7) Crotale short -range SAM systems from China and more recently succeeded in reverse engineering the system under the Ya-zahra project. There is speculation that Iran also captured French made Crotale units from the Iraqis, and it is possible that Libya, who also operate Crotale and where allied to Iran in the 1980s also supplied equipment and/or technology. The new system, which differs in use of the Oerlikon Sky Guard radar instead of the original French radar, is called Shahab Thaqeb. It is not clear what the operational status of either the Shahab Thaqeb or FM-80 systems s and they are rarely (if ever) paraded for the press or photographers in an operational state.
Before the revolution Iran had planned to mass produce the Rapier system under license, but when the regime change put paid to that only a small number of British assembled launchers had been delivered. The planned technology transfer required for local production had not taken place. Unlike other systems it is not thought that any extra missiles were delivered during the Iran-Iraq war.
Iranian Rapier systems were the original “Mk 1” system but with added ‘Blindfire’ tracking radars (sometimes retrospectively described as FSA; Field Standard “A”). This is essentially the same system that Britain used with modest (often over-stated) success in the Falklands war. However, several design flaws were found and subsequent modifications made, in particularly to increase the range, the addition of a warhead with proximity fuse. Iranian Rapiers however still use the non-warhead “Mk 1” missile that has to hit its target to inflict any damage (a “hittle” not a “miss-ile”…). Iran has developed local production of missiles and possibly fire units, but it is likely that the Rapier is not very widely deployed, not least because it is becoming obsolete, although some degree of operational service remains, evidenced by the routine inclusion of the system in military parades. Relative to the Shahab Thaqeb (FM-80) program the Rapier is much shorter ranged and has less modern electronics.
Iran experimented with a fully mobile Rapier system employing an all-terrain 8 wheel drive truck, with a distinctive tandem stepped cockpit reminiscent of an attack helicopters on the left hand side of the vehicle. There were four reloads in protective boxes on the back of the truck. It’s not clear if there was an additional search radar.
Although this variant improved mobility it reduced the arc of fire and for whatever reason does not appear to have made it into production.
SkyGuard / 35mm AAA
Iran purchased 24 SkyGuard systems before the revolution and primarily deployed them as point defense for air bases and other strategic targets. The AAA used is the Oerlikon GDF-001 35mm twin mount. In 2008 Iran unveiled a reverse engineered version which appears virtually identical to the GDF-001 and does not appear to include any of the design changes included in the later GDF-002>005 types now in service. Over the years the serviceability of the SkyGuard radars probably deteriorated and other radar sets were substituted. More recently Iran has unveiled a new radar similar to the existing Feldermaus fire control radar for locally produced GDF-001s, and possibly receiving upgraded Super Feldermaus radars from India . Although the ballistic performance and rate of fire make it by far the most potent of Iranian AAA systems, it is still reliant on manual aiming and firing, and lacks AHEAD or similar advanced ammunition.
Although it is difficult to ID AAA from civilian satellite imagery, a fair guess can be made by using the relative size of the ‘blob’. The two main AAA pieces used by Iran are the Swiss GDF-001 and Soviet ZU-23-2. When viewed from above the latter is much smaller, especially as the wheels are often removed if the gun is going to be sitting there for a prolonged period:
Hawk SAM launchers are also about this size but these sites have a distinctive signature – as a rule if there are less than 5 or 6 ‘blobs’ then it’s not a Hawk site. FM-80 on the other hand would appear much larger whilst Rapier would be smaller than the 35mm AAA and would have a generator connected by a cable and control station(s) nearby.
Because the system comprises of a radar and two AAA guns, the site layout is typically triangular although there are several exceptions. A typical site layout is “A” shaped:
The radar position and gun positions are usually raised to improve the fields of view/fire.
The distribution of SkyGuard around Tehran can be divided into four groups; A, B, C and D:
Group A approximately encircles the city centre, but is primarily sited at air bases. Because of the city centre is highly built up it is difficult for the AAA to have a full field of fire and it is possible that additional AAA would be sited on the tops of tall buildings in times of conflict.
Group B defends the alleged missile development facilities and is co-located with a cluster of lighter 23mm AAA. Group C defends a large oil refinery. Group D, which again is co-located with a cluster of 23mm AAA positions, protects the Parchin facilities.
Additionally there are several ‘possible’ sites although none appear to be occupied.
ZU-23-2 Light AAA
Probably the main AAA weapon in terms of numbers employed, the Zu-23-2 is a reasonably effective weapon against low-flying targets at short range. It uses essentially the same gun as in the infamous ZU-23-2 Shilka but only two rather than four, thus having only half the rate of fire. The weapon is crewed and relies on the crew for alignment with the target, although the crew may be cued by radar. The strength of the system is its simplicity, but it is generally ineffective against fast moving targets such as missiles and provides little comfort against cruise missile attack. The system is usually deployed in single gun positions surrounding key installations.
Secondary Light Air Defenses
In the event of a defensive war Iran would probably mobilize its reserve air defense forces and redeploy the army’s mobile air defense units around key targets including Tehran. Iran has numerous types of light/secondary air defenses including several locally produced and unique types.
Iran operates several types of man-portable air defense SAMs including the US made Stinger, and Chinese QW-1/2. All are broadly speaking similar. In general MANPADs are least threatening to missiles and fast flying jets, and anything flying above about 5km relative to the terrain. As such, whilst they are potent insurgency weapons, they do not present a significant threat against enemy bombers and missiles.
Misagh-1/2 series MANPADs
The Misagh-1 and 2 are based on the Chinese QW-1 and QW-11/18 respectively. The QW-1 is based on the Russian SA-16 missile but incorporates features of the US Stinger. The QW-11 and QW-18 are further enhancements. It’s not clear how different the Misagh series is from its Chinese parents.
Misagh-2 is widely deployed among infantry and light motorized units, but has also been developed into a twin pedestal mount that can be fitted to jeeps (typically Toyota derived designs) for enhanced mobility, targeting and crew comfort (and thus readiness). The mount has two missiles ready to fire with enhanced targeting and larger batteries to allow prolonged activation, thus reducing reaction time.
Mobile 23mm AAA
Iran operates several 23mm AAA systems, the most potent being the infamous ZU-23-4 “Shilka” system imported from Russia. The ‘-4’ in its designation indicates the number of barrels. The Shilka has the gun in a turret mounted on a lightly armored tracked chassis, with integral fire control radar mounted at the back of the turret.
The ZU-23-1 is, as the name implies, half a ZU-23-2 (note the -1 not -2). Actually that’s my name for it; I don’t think there’s a widely given name for this uniquely Iranian system. Although the twin barreled ZU-23-2 is frequently mounted on the back of a pick-up, doing so limits its field of fire because the cab gets in the way. The Iranians have sought to overcome this by reducing the weight of the gun so that it can be mounted higher up, and what better way to reduce the weight than to remove one of the guns?
ZU-23-2 mounted on a Toyota derived pick-up:
EDITED in light of fresh evidence: Another peculiarly Iranian attempt to remedy the field-of-fire problem with vehicle mounted ZU-23-2s is to bolt them to the top of a the Toyota SUV on a flat roof. I speculate that this is not a particurly stable (and thus accurate) firing platform as it's munted high up on a sprung susspension rubber wheelled vehicle with no outriggers. As if that concept isn’t comical enough someone attacked them with a can of spray paint and the standard Iranian camouflage ‘splodge’ stencil. I promise you I couldn’t make this up… (Image from before it was confirmed as a Toyota similar to the ZU-23-1 image above)
14.5/12.7mm Light AAA machine guns
Iran operates several types of heavy machine-gun 4.5mm and 12.7mm AAA, mostly for secondary defense of tanks and troop vehicles, but also as dedicated air defense guns. In the latter role the main type is the Russian ZPU-4 14.5mm towed AAA:
Although heavy machine-gun AAA can make a mess of unarmored helicopters, it is widely regarded as obsolete.
Despite this Iran has recently showcased an indigenous 8 barreled 12.7mm AAA piece using Iranian manufactured MGD 12.7mm machine guns, a copy of the Soviet DShK type and also used on Iranian T-72, mounted on a ZPU-4 carriage . Each gun can fire 600rds/min but only has a 50-70rd magazine. The system has an effective range of about 1.6km against aerial targets. The DShK series of machine guns was replaced in Soviet service by the NSV series in part due to the former’s relative inaccuracy. Although an eight-barreled gun is quite intimidating it is of questionable combat merit in the modern air defense picture.
Iran also operate Soviet S-60 57mm and KS-19 100mm heavy AAA but these are pretty much obsolete.
I don’t regard the tales of air mines (balloons filed with explosives) as credible. There are several flaws to the concept, not least that they can’t carry a meaningful fragmentation warhead, and are too low altitude. Also, timing explosions would be very difficult against maneuvering targets. Just thought I’d mention them though. ;-)
Point defense of other high-value sites
Iran has several locations that Iranian military consider sufficiently high value to warrant permanent air defenses. These are typically sites associated with Iran’s alleged WMD programs.
The main point air-defense of these sites is the ZU-23-2 23mm AAA, although several also have SkyGuard sites. Defenses would also include man-portable SAMs.
Natanz, alleged nuclear facility
4 x SkyGuard sites (2 x twin 35mm AAA plus radar)
12 x 35mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
25 x 23mm AAA (single gun emplacements) (plus 2 more several km to the south east)
4 x Unidentified AD positions, possibly RBS-70 SAM
2 x I-Hawk batteries (One 7km North and one 17km West)
1 x HQ-2/Sayyad-1 battery (21km north west)
The SkyGuard positions around Natanz are interesting because, if you look carefully, you can see that the radars being used at at least one of them appears to be the original SkyGuard-1 system supplied to Iran in the 1970s, with the surveillance radar mounted above a round fire control radar:
This is significant because it appears that Iran has replaced this radar with simpler fire-control only sets in many of the SkyGuard sites, presumably because of spares shortages for this particular system.
There are also several unidentified positions around the site, consisting of small ramps with no berms or sand bags around the position, and a small item on top (1-2m across), with another small items nearby.
There is no real way to tell what these are – there are too few supporting positions to be Rapier etc. One possibility is that they are pedestal mounted MANPAD (man portable SAM) positions. Iran has several types of MANPAD including the locally produced Misagh 1 &2, but an intriguing possibility is that they are the remaining Bofors RBS-70 systems procured on the black market during the Iran-Iraq war. The RBS-70 is unusual in that it is laser guided making it very hard to jam. The early model RBS-70 that Iran is thought to have are relatively slow (mach 1.2) but have a range of about 5km and a maximum altitude of 3km.
Another plausible explanation for these isolated positions is infantry-detecting radar.
A closer look at the HQ-2/Sayyad-1 SAM site to the north west reveals that although there is clear evidence of operational activity with missiles on their launchers and radar/command set up, it is also deployed at half strength with only three of the normal 6 missile positions occupied. This is a theme in Iranian SAM sites – I-Hawk batteries with only three firing positions (normal = 6), SA-5 sites with only two firing positions (normal = 6) etc. Also, although this HQ-2/Sayyad-1 site has 8 positions for light AAA (Zu-23-2 etc), none are occupied at the time of the satellite over-flight.
Esfahan, alleged nuclear facility
5 x SkyGuard sites (2 x twin 35mm AAA plus radar)
6 x 35mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
13 x 23mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
Examples of Esfahan’s Skyguard sites:
Bushehr, nuclear facility
1 x I-Hawk site adjoined to facility (empty)
3 x SkyGuard sites (2 x twin 35mm AAA plus radar (one only has one gun position occupied))
13 x 35mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
6 x 23mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
2+ empty AAA positions
Qushm Island, not-so-secret secret mini-sub base(?)
4 x 23mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
4+ empty AAA positions
Arak, alleged nuclear facility
2x SkyGuard sites (2 x twin 35mm AAA plus radar)
7 x 35mm AAA (single gun emplacements)
23 x 23mm AAA (single gun emplacements) + 2 further north and one empty position
3 search radar positions
Arak’s AAA positions are arranged in two concentric rings; the outer ring is more sparse and consists of 35mm AAA with the occasional SkyGuard and 23mm AAA sites. At least three well sited search radars are also positioned in this ring. The inner ring consists of 23mm AAA encircling the site itself.
A quick comparison between the facility’s two SkyGuard sites shows a stark contrast; the site on the left has a more permanent feel to it whereas the site on the right hasn’t even got the guns on raised platforms etc.
Isfahan, alleged weapons facility
8 x SkyGuard sites (2 x twin 35mm AAA plus radar)
All of the SkyGuard positions appear empty but are otherwise in perfect condition.
Firstly I’m surprised the site is so close to the nuclear site, which is not a weapons related site. The whole area of Bushehr is heavily defended by multiple I-Hawk and even SA-5 (S-200) SAMs and numerous AAA sites. It is possible that the S-300 site here replaces the other SAMs although because it’s a new site (converted from AAA) we can assume that the other SAM systems are still present. Additionally, the Bushehr location allows the long range S-300 missiles to cover most of the Persian Gulf effectively deterring strike aircraft from taking the ‘straight across’ route from US or the Gulf States, or Israel.
Like the SA-5 in Iranian service, the known S-300 site is noteworthy in that it has fewer launch positions than would be expected for S-300 in service elsewhere. There are two obvious firing pans (as per Iranian S-200) although each is designed for two missile TELs which means up to 16 missiles ‘ready to fire’. Additionally the S-300 is much more mobile than other Iranian systems so additional launchers could easily be set up nearby and networked in. There is only one elevated radar ramp, presumably for the fire-control radar. The radar in this case looks to me more like the ‘Cheeseboard’ system rather than a ‘Flap lid’ series, hence my belief that it is S-300 PMU-2 not PMU-1. Additionally, the ‘Big bird’ surveillance radar effectively rules out older version of the S-300, although not conclusively.
Alternatively, the fresh satellite images are not Russian supplied S-300 but an Iranian clone/cousin of the system. That Iran is developing an indigenous “S-300” has been reported, and possibly with a lot of Russian assistance although we should strictly treat it as a rumor. The system would be similar in capability to the S-300 and share many technologies but may be quite different in end product – akin to the Chinese HQ-9 program. The below illustration shows a ‘what-if’ of an “Iranianized” S-300 system:
Iranian garage-build CIWS
Iran uses a large number of AAA particular to defend static high-value installations, such as nuclear sites. Further, Iran has purchased much more advanced SA-15 and Pantsyr S-1E short-range SAM systems. However, these are expensive and not easily reverse engineered, so Iran has also pursued numerous indigenous AAA projects. The main ones, and most successful it seems, have been simply reverse engineering the ubiquitous Russian Zu-23-2 23mm gun and the Swiss 35mm Oerlikon ‘Sky guard’ system. However, these offer little defense against cruise missiles and PGMs. Perhaps with this in mind Iran has pursued several lines of development to improve accuracy, or volume of fire.
Fully automating the 100mm AAA
This project has only recently been unveiled. Essentially the obsolete crew-intensive KS-1 gun has been modernized so that it has fully autonomous transverse, elevation and firing. Coupled with a fire control system this allows much more accurate fire (and by implication greater effective range) than with a human crew. It also seems possible that a guided shell is used, although this is unconfirmed. If deployed in numbers this system will greatly enhance Iranian SHORAD.
The Zu-23-2 is a pretty decent AAA, but Iranian engineers have come up with a fiendishly cool idea: Why not bolt three Zu-23s together, so that you have three times the volume of fire? The Zu-23-6 uses a S-60 57mm AAA gun carriage, and has an assumed cyclic rate of fire of 6,000 rds per minute. That’s more than the Phalanx CIWS!
Another project involving improving the Zu-23 is to make it fully autonomous, although it’s not clear if this has progressed beyond trials.
There is also an Zu-23 with MANPAD missiles attached although it’s not clear if this has entered service.
Increase in Iranian air defence sites from 2003 – 2006 and beyond
Imagery of Natanz nuclear site is particularly interesting as it shows the construction of the ‘secret’ underground complex to house the nuclear centrifuges. This was spotted by Western observers and the nature of the site is now well documented.
I previously posted an analysis of the air defences around Natanz, identifying a mix of 23mm and 35mm AAA. This recent internet-sourced photo confirms the presence of the latter type. Always nice when analysis of satellite imagery is confirmed!
As well as AAA sites, the SAM sites covering the area are also quite recent:
Elsewhere in Iran we see a similar pattern, with many air defence positions being recently built:
Bandar Abbas port: