Covering the Skies

A comprehensive peek into the activity of the Iranian engineers charged with the task of stopping the Israeli aircraft

One thing must be stressed right at the outset of this article: a lot of disinformation is being distributed around the question of the true capabilities of the Iranian Radar systems. This article is based on open sources, while some of Iran’s capabilities are derived from procurement deals involving foreign-made systems that Iran made over the years. Despite the confusion that sometimes emerges with regard to Radar models and technical specifications, some of it intentionally encouraged by the Iranian media, this article attempts to put the information into a more easily comprehensible context that would provide the reader with a broader perspective on the subject of Radar systems in Iran.

Iran received its first Radar systems from Britain in 1960. The systems in question were the mobile Type-13 and Type-14. Later on, Iran also received US Radars manufactured by Westinghouse. Between the years 1962 and 1977, 19 sites were built throughout Iran where various types of Radar systems were installed. This, in fact, was the beginning of Iranian Air Defense after World War II, assisted by the USA and Britain. After the revolution, between the years 1979 and 2001, Iran did not build even a single new Radar station, and relied exclusively on the procurement of mobile anti-aircraft missile batteries.

Until 2008, Iran’s Air Defense Command had operated as part of the Iranian Air Force. In 2008, it was separated and became an independent organ (IRIADF) with a command center located at the Khatam al-Anbiya base. The Air Defense Force has a personnel of more than 18,000 troopers. The commander of the Air Defense Force is Farzad Esmaili, who holds the rank of Brigadier-General.

The Iranian Air Defense is based on stationary Radar stations and stationary/mobile anti-aircraft batteries. Iran has three main types of surface-to-air missile batteries: Russian-made SA-5, HQ-2, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet SA-2, and US-made HAWK batteries. All of these systems had been supplied to Iran before the revolution and are still operational. It is estimated that the Iranian defense industry applied “reverse engineering” to these systems, studied the technology and upgraded the existing systems. Based on this technology, Iran also manufactured new products.

Iran’s short-range Radar systems are used for identifying targets for such anti-aircraft gun systems as the Mesbah, which has a range of 4 km. Iran also unveiled the Samen Radar system for detecting targets with small Radar Cross-Sections (RCS) – stealth aircraft and UAVs. This system is probably the Russian-built SA-8 system that has a range of 12.5 km. Iran also acquired Radar technologies from China. According to open sources, Iran acquired HQ-7 batteries, the Chinese reverse-engineered version of the French-made Crotale missile system, based on which it developed the Shahab batteries, which, in turn, are based on the SkyGuard Radar and have an effective range of up to 12 km.

The SkyGuard Radar came to Iran through the acquisition of several anti-aircraft gun systems in the early 2000s, which were delivered with a fire-support Radar as well as Fledermaus type Radars. Subsequently, the Iranian industry developed local copies of those systems as well as upgraded derivatives. Iran also developed the Bashir Radar that has a range of about 50 km for their Raad-2 missile batteries.

Medium and Long-Range Radars

The Iranian defense industry places a strong emphasis on Radars to ranges of up to 500 km. In 2010, Iran developed the Mersad missile system, supported by four types of Radars: Jouiya, Kavosh and two versions of the Hadi Radar. The missile battery has an effective range of 150 km. The missile battery and the Radars are an upgrade of the US-made HAWK system. Iran also developed the Hafez Radar that has a range of 250 km, to extend the detection range of the system. This is a 3-Dimensional Radar capable of identifying multiple targets simultaneously.

Iran acquired the advanced Russian-made Nebo SVU Radar that has a range of 200-380 km. This is an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) type Radar that can be used for target acquisition for the S-300 SAM batteries. Another series of mobile Radars is the Kashef ASR-type Radars. These Radars operate in the S band and have a range of 150 to 200 km. According to open sources, the advanced version can track 1,000 targets simultaneously.

Other Radar systems include the Matla ul-Fajr series or Radars, with ranges of 300 to 480 km, and the Meli Radar that has a range of 450 km. In 2011, Iran unveiled their passive (non-emitting) Radar manufactured locally under the brand name Alim or Najm-802 that has a range of 250 to 300 km. Iran also acquired the Kasta 2E Radar (150 km range) from Russia and developed the Arash-2 Radar, which also has a range of 150 km.

On the naval arena, Iran uses shore-based Radar systems. They acquired the Vostok E Radar (70 km range) from Belarus. They also acquired the Chinese JY-14 Radar that has a range of 590 km. Iran developed a series of mobile Radars that includes the GSR-110 and Basir-11 that have ranges of 3 to 100 km and operate in the X and Ku bands. These are short-range tactical Radars designed for use at the shoreline, along the borders and for the purpose of identifying moving objects and low-flying aircraft. They are installed along Iran’s eastern border to prevent infiltration from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Additionally, Iran also developed Radar systems designed for installation on naval vessels. The first installation, involving a medium-range (180 km) Radar system, was on the Jamaran destroyer of the Iranian Navy. Along with the medium-range Radar systems, Iran also developed optical identification devices under the brand name Sadad.

In 2008, Iran unveiled the Samen/Ghadr-101, an anti-aircraft battery based on the Chinese Radar used in the M-9 SAM system Iran had acquired a few years previously. Iran incorporated in the system additional technologies it had acquired from the Pakistani network of A. Q. Khan, which was active in the early 2000s. North Korean elements also helped Iran develop the system. To go beyond the 1,000 km range in their detection capabilities, Iran had to accomplish a giant leap. One of the questions that remained unanswered is whether Iran succeeded in developing, on its own or in cooperation with other parties, an Over-the-Horizon (OTHR) Radar system. Such Radars are used to detect targets beyond visual range and are therefore capable of providing early warning in the event of an Israeli or American attack. The Radar system in question has an extremely long range of thousands of kilometers.

According to some estimates, the Iranians have probably succeeded in developing a Radar system of this type. Last June, information was revealed about a 1,000-km range Radar system designated Ghadir. According to those estimates, it is an Iranian version of a Russian-built Radar system. The Radar system in question can cover the entire territory of Iran, Iraq, south-eastern Turkey and north-eastern Saudi Arabia.

Another Radar model, possibly the crown jewel of Iranian technology, is the Sepher (sky) Radar system (also known as the Kordestan Radar) which has a range of 2,500 to 3,000 km and can detect stealth aircraft, small UAVs, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. According to web reports, it will become operational next year. A Radar system of this type can cover the entire territory of Israel.

Reports regarding attempts by Iran to develop an OTHR Radar system started to surface on the web in December 2013. However, a report by the International Amateur Radio Union Monitoring Service (IARUMS) claims that the attempts to develop a Radar system of this type had probably begun as early as 2004.

Iran had intended to acquire from Russia the S-300PM SAM batteries. Whether or not Iran received those batteries remains an unanswered question. Certain sources claim that as far back as 2010, Iran took delivery of four batteries – two from Belarus and two more from an unknown supply source. Later reports claimed that the other two batteries came from Croatia. Officially, Russia cancelled the sale of S-300 batteries to Iran.

However, in 2010 Iran presented photographs of the advanced Russian-made digital Radar system NNIIRT 1L119 Nebo SVU, which is capable of identifying stealth aircraft. This Radar system can be used for target acquisition for the S-300 batteries. Iran had presented this Radar system before the Russian deal was cancelled. The Iranians subsequently presented a local-made Radar system, supposedly based on the 30N6 model used in earlier versions of the S-300 system, a fact that raises concerns that Iran received technological elements associated with those batteries after all.

The cancellation of the deal with Russia led Iran to announce the local development of a local version that would compete with the S-300, designated Bavar-373. As part of the development effort, Iran announced, in February 2014, the launching of 21 projects involving the development of new Radar systems. In the summer of 2014, about six months later, Iran unveiled two Radar systems intended to support the SAM batteries. Last August, the Iranians announced that the development of the battery was completed and that it has entered the production line phase.

Another aspect of this affair was the acquisition of Chinese-made HQ-9/FD-2000 batteries by Iran. Experts believe that these batteries incorporate technology the Chinese had stolen regarding the Russian-made S-300 batteries, as well as stolen information about the US-made Patriot missiles. The Chinese battery includes an AESA type Radar, similar to the one of the S-300 system, and is effective to ranges of up to 100 km. Did Iran use Chinese knowledge in the development of the Bavar-373? That question remains unanswered.

The Objective: Integrated Battle Picture

Like the defense tier concept of Israel, Iran develops its air defense infrastructure along similar lines: short-range, medium-range and long-range Radar systems that support surface-to-air missile batteries and short range anti-aircraft gun systems. For this purpose, the Iranian military maintains a network of Radars deployed at 5,000 points that provide a complete coverage of the country – as high-ranking military officials announced last November.

Iran now wants to link all of those Radars, including the Radars of the dedicated stations, the SAM batteries and the anti-aircraft gun systems, in a single network, along with the optical identification systems, so as to enable data fusion and create a current battle picture. For this purpose, Iran is developing command and control systems that link all of these surveillance and identification elements under the brand name Fakour. The system in question fuses the raw data from all of these elements into an integrated status picture.

Along with the data fusion tier Fakour, Iran is also developing a communication tier to connect all of these elements under the brand name Rasool. This data communication system can link the identification and surveillance elements with the interception elements. Eventually, interception must follow the detection and identification stages. Last September, Iran unveiled the new command center of the Air Defense Force at the Khatam al-Anbiya base. The command center occupies a 250 square meter bunker out of which the commander of the Air Defense Force controls Iran’s network of Radars and interception assets.

In order to support the Iranian military, Iran must maintain a defense industry. As mentioned previously, Iran relies extensively on Russian and Chinese technology and the process normally goes like this: the Iranians acquire a system, reverse-engineer it and then proceed to develop and manufacture their own version locally. For this purpose, they need engineers. Indeed, Iran managed to develop an extensive academic infrastructure in engineering fields that are relevant to Radar systems.

Along with academia, Iran needs an industry as well. One of the primary industries in the field of Radar systems is Iran Electronics Industries (IEI), which manufactures various Radar systems with varying ranges and has about 5,000 employees. Another element dealing with Radar research and maintenance is the Sepher Research & Technology Institute, operating under the Iranian Air Force.

The Iranian industry also engages in cooperative alliances with foreign industries in order to improve their products through the exchange of knowledge. Iran has such cooperative alliances with Indonesia. Indonesian elements like the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and PT Dirgantara Aviation Enterprise cooperate with IEI in the development of active and passive Radar systems that have ranges of up to 500 km.

Iran is also engaged in close cooperation with the Chinese defense industry. One of the Chinese companies that trade with Iran in Radar components is the China Shipbuilding Trading Company. Another company is the China National Electronics Import-Export Corporation. Paradoxically, this latter company sold Iran an advanced Radar system with a range of 300 km that is based on American components approved for export by the US Department of Commerce. In another case, Iran acquired a JY-14 tactical Radar system from the same company. Another Chinese company that sells Radar products and technology to Iran is Norinco.

Iran also maintains close cooperative relations with industries in Russia, Belarus and North Korea. In this context, suffice is to mention the incident of July 2013, where a North Korean ship was apprehended in Panama, carrying Radar parts for Iran’s HQ-2 batteries.

A Barrier against an Israeli Attack?

Will the reinforcement of Iran’s Air Defense Force constitute a barrier against an Israeli attack? Well, an examination of events, attributed to Israel, in the Middle East over the last few years will show that it will not. One major event that proved that Israel possesses advanced EW capabilities through which it can neutralize Russian/Chinese air defense systems was the attack against the nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 or the attack against munitions last December. According to foreign sources, in both cases Israeli Air Force fighters operated over Syria almost without interference and without destroying the existing SAM batteries.

Israel also conducts military training exercises with countries that possess and employ Russian technologies. One of these countries is Greece, which had acquired Russian-made S-300 batteries.

There are even rumors to the effect that Putin’s decision not to sell batteries of this type to Iran had stemmed from an Israeli threat that it would publicize the way to bypass those batteries – which would have an adverse effect on the exportation of these batteries and on the exportation of future Russian technology.

Regardless of the Israeli capabilities, there is no doubt that Iran treats the subject of air defense very seriously. Despite the disinformation Iran distributes with regard to its actual capabilities by recycling model names and supplying intentionally confusing technical data, beneath all that ‘noise’ the real progress made by Iran in this field is clearly visible. 

Tal Inbar, Head of the Space & UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, assisted in the preparation of this article