Russian missiles to Iran: Major hindrance but no game-changer

If deployed by Tehran, the S-300 air-defense system would create complications for Israel, but wouldn’t end military option

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Iran’s apparently imminent acquisition of S-300 missiles is a significant development, disturbing on several levels, but it is not a game changer. If Russia sends the air-defense missiles to Iran, it’ll hinder Israel’s ability to collect low-altitude intelligence over Iran and attack its military installations, experts said Tuesday, but it wouldn’t hermetically shut Iran’s skies to Israeli aircraft or spell the end of Israel’s military option against Iran’s nuclear program.

“If the Israeli Air Force had the ability to act against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the S-300, then it will have it afterward, too,” said retired IAF general Asaf Agmon, head of the Fischer Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.

The acquisition, however, would force Israel to devote vast amounts of electronic warfare capacity against such a system and to invest in weapons that could combat it, further complicating any strike against Iran and, potentially, raising the toll in human life if such a strike were to be ordered.

Agmon said Iranian air-defense teams have been training on the Russian system since the deal was initially made in 2007 and that, if it is delivered to Iran, it would take only weeks for it to be made operational.

Another concern, he said, is that once such a system has been passed on to Iran, it might be transferred to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces or those of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, eroding a central pillar of Israel’s deterrence.

An F-35 on the tarmac on May 12, 2012 at Edwards Air Force Base in California (photo credit: AP Photo/ Lockheed Martin)
An F-35 on the tarmac of the Edwards Air Force Base in California, May 12, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Lockheed Martin)

An additional variable — and one that will become an intelligence priority if the sale goes through — is to determine which system Russia has agreed to provide. There are roughly two dozen versions available, equipped with different sorts of radars and different sorts of missiles. “That’s the biggest question of all,” said Yiftach Shapir, a former IAF officer, who heads the INSS think tank’s Middle East Military Balance project. “It determines everything.”

He said Russia was unlikely to reveal, in the event of a sale, which system it had provided and that it was Israeli intelligence that would have to deliver that information to the IAF. The S-300 PMU, for example, was sold to Cyprus in January 1997 and, amid Turkish threats of a preemptive strike and even war, transferred to Greece in 2007. Israel, since the deployment of the system in Crete, has conducted several joint operations with the Greek air force. Asked whether Israel had trained against that version of the S-300, he said, “I’d put my money on Yes.”

A more advanced system, with, say, a 300-km (186-mile) range and an altitude ceiling of over 48 km (30 miles), would pose a more significant obstacle. It would be less known, perhaps, and it could engage planes from a further distance, tracking and targeting several aircraft simultaneously.

“It will make things more difficult for the air force, but not in an unsolvable way,” he said. “The air force knows how to attack it if necessary and to get by if necessary.”

A Russian air-defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
A Russian air-defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

A senior IAF officer, in charge of the acquisition and integration of the F-35 into Israel’s air force, said that in today’s planes a pilot can spot an air-defense radar only if locked on the plane, or rely on jamming or flying “along the stitch” between radars. “In the F-35” — which is to first arrive in Israel in 2016 — “you have a picture of situational awareness that is improved to the point of being absolute,” he said, with the ability to see and strike an enemy radar on the way to the target.

A Russian air-defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

Former ambassador to Russia, Zvi Magen, who is also a fellow at the INSS — the Institute for National Security Studies — and a former head of the semi-clandestine Nativ organization, said the sale “has significance, but is not dramatic.”

He said the air force has technological and operational solutions and that “if Israel reaches the decision that it needs to act, the mission will be accomplished with it, too.”

Magen, who viewed the system up close during his term as ambassador in Moscow, said the deal is part of a long history of using arms sales — or the threat of arms sales — as leverage in the region. In recent years, Russia has announced deals with Syria, Iran, and Egypt for the S-300; it has promised MiG-31s to Syria and MiG-35s to Egypt; but none has arrived.

“Russia is worried because Iran has escaped to the West,” Magen said, referring to the multilateral nuclear talks and the slight warming of relations between Washington and Tehran. “It is fighting for its spot in the region.”

The other lens through which the announcement should be viewed, he said, was Ukraine. Russia is losing its campaign there. The West has imposed sanctions against Russia. “In order to soften that blow, [Russia] started playing on a parallel field.”

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a long-standing opponent of the nuclear framework deal reached with Iran earlier this month, said that the sale is inextricably linked to the Lausanne agreement.

“This is the direct result of the legitimacy granted to Iran from the nuclear deal that is being forged,” he said Monday in a written statement, “and it is proof that the Iranian economic momentum, to come in the wake of sanctions removal, will be exploited for arms buildup and not the welfare of the Iranian people.

“The advanced weaponry,” he added, “will only heighten its aggression.”

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