In early November, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned, "Any country attacking Iran better be prepared to suffer retaliation from the Iranian armed forces. Anyone thinking about invading the Islamic Republic of Iran better be able to withstand a powerful response from the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian army."
The recent report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) explains that once Iran decides to manufacture a nuclear bomb, it will only take a few months to assemble. In Israel and the West, this report intensified discussions on the need for an all-out attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
So far, Western media has focused on questions concerning a possible Israeli and/or Western attack. What has yet to be discussed is what Iran is doing to counter an inevitable clash.
For several years, the Iranians have publicized their military capabilities in an effort to deter an attack. Occasionally, they unveil a new, locally produced, state-of-the-art weapon based on foreign technologies.
"In reality, their conventional military forces are poor," says Yiftah Shapir, a senior research fellow and director at the Institute for National Security Studies’ Middle East Military Balance Project. "Looking at the layout of Iran’s conventional forces, they have a large but antiquated army that has suffered from cutbacks and sanctions in recent years. Since they find it difficult to procure new advanced weapons, they have begun to produce their own. Every two months or so, we hear of something new: airplanes, helicopters, missiles, weapons systems, radar, and so forth.
"True, we must not underestimate Iran’s industry, as in the past it received assistance from North Korea, and today, knowledge flows in the opposite direction in some areas. Still, Tehran's public announcements should be viewed with some degree of skepticism. The question is: what do they have and what is actually operational?" mulls Shapir.
Mickey Segal, a senior research fellow at Terrogence Company and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former head of the Iranian Desk in the Research Department at the Directorate of Military Intelligence says, "The Iranians believe that the revolutions in the Arab world play into their hands. From their viewpoint, the old regimes are being pushed out and being replaced by the Islamic organizations. As they see it, they are the next ‘big thing.’ They expect nuclear weapons to increase their influence."
The Iranian government invests enormous sums of money in an effort to conceal their numerous nuclear sites. The main sites are the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, the conversion plant in Isfahan (where the November 2011 explosion occurred), the nuclear power station in Bushehr, and the uranium enrichment plant near Qom that remains under construction.
Many of the facilities are underground and shielded by a concrete-reinforced ceiling and walls up to two and a half meters thick.
"From the outset, they built facilities underground and concentrated their efforts on the surrounding air defenses," says Dr. Ephraim Kam, principle research fellow and deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
The Iranians spend huge sums of money on camouflage. According to Western assessments, Russia supplies Iran with the technological means to hide its nuclear facilities. During the Cold War, Russia developed special camouflage nets capable of blocking the view from space, including thermal sensors and synthetic aperture radars (SAR). In addition, it is likely that Iran also employs advanced methods to distort a facility’s geometric pattern and render them unidentifiable by spy satellites and UAVs equipped with optical payloads.
Besides camouflage, Iran is doubling efforts to reinforce its air defense layout, especially its anti-aircraft systems—even though these consist mainly of antiquated anti-aircraft missiles acquired from foreign sources or produced domestically. These include Russian SA-5s for intermediate to long-range interception, SA-2s for intermediate and very high altitudes, and an Iranian-made Shahin version of the American Hawks (that the Iranians claim can reach an altitude of forty kilometers). They also possess several advanced SA-15 units that they received from Russia around five years ago, and frequently release photos of their batteries deployed near the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.
"Few of the systems pose an immediate threat to advanced Western aircraft,” asserts Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. Inbar asserts that, "Following Russia's refusal to supply Iran with advanced S-300 missile systems (that have a range of over 100 kilometers)—a result of American and Israeli pressure—Iran now claims that it succeeded in developing an improved version of the S-300 (that it calls Bavar-373). Official Iranian sources note that the system performs better than the Russian missiles—but this is an empty claim.”
Be that as it may, the Iranians seem to have managed to get ahold of a Chinese version of the S-300, designated HQ9, and on the basis of this imitation, they have developed their own system. Israeli sources recently acknowledged that Iran is beginning to produce multi-layered systems that will further complicate any operation against its nuclear sites. Iran also tried to obtain a number of Russia’s Pantsir-1 anti-aircraft missile systems from Syria. The system's development was financed by the United Emirates and became operational in Russia only last year. It is uncertain whether it has been transferred to other countries since then.
Most aircrafts in the Iranian air force are aging Russian-made planes that Iraq transferred to Iran during the First Gulf War. The Iranians also have some old F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats that the Americans delivered when the Shah was in power.
Iran’s first line of fighters is compromised of MiG-29s purchased from Russia in the early 1990s, as-well-as the aging F-14s purchased from the US. In late 2007, Iran announced that it was developing two new fighters: the Azaraksh (Lightning) and the Saeqeh (Thunderbolt); both are based on outdated American F-5s.
"The Iranians claim that these planes perform better than F-18s. The truth is that they still look like F-5s, but have an extra tail (stabilizer) added to resemble the F-18s. It is doubtful that the Iranians succeeded in developing the avionics and other systems necessary to retrofit an airplane into a first-class modern weapon. Still, Iran has made impressive advances in the maintenance of its systems through improvisation and the acquisition of spare parts from the black market. They are also experts at cannibalizing parts from planes and missiles. For example, they can disassemble twenty old planes in order to keep thirty others in flying condition," explains Yiftah Shapir.
Iran also has several dozen Cobra attack helicopters from the 1970s, Bell-205s and 214s, and MI-171s that they bought from the Russians a decade ago.
In recent years, Iran has made significant progress in developing and producing UAVs, some of which are capable of carrying munitions. Last year, Iran announced they had developed an attack UAV armed with a bomb, while referring to their jet-propelled air vehicle (which is based on an outdated American target drone that was later manufactured by South Africa). According to Mickey Segal, the Iranians are currently working on two UAVs: one for attack—the Karrar (Striker), and the other for attack and reconnaissance—the Ababil (Swallow). These UAVs appear to be pre-programmed, and not controlled in real-time.
The Iranian developers of the UAV layout will probably glean valuable technical information from the recent capture of an American RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone. The stealth UAV malfunctioned during a reconnaissance operation over Iran in early December 2011, and was picked up by Iranian security forces. American military sources note that, "Iran gained a great prize from a technological point of view by getting its hands on the RQ-170, one of the most advanced UAVs in the world."
Today, Iran possesses a number of outdated European radars, such as the British AR-3D for air defense and an unknown quantity of Chinese JY-14s acquired in the late 1990s. Last June, during a weapons exhibition in memory of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranians gave a sneak peak at a phased array radar that is considered one of the most advanced of its kind. According to Tal Inbar, the first analyst in Israel to identify the radar, "The Iranians didn’t officially reveal the radar, but it can be seen peeking out behind Khamenei in the exhibition. They claim that it was their own development, and at face value, the system appears genuine."
Only in late 2011 did the Iranians hold a large-scale air defense exercise, to evaluate the performance and operability of intelligence and communications equipment designed to "protect sensitive sites around the country." Mickey Segal believes that during their latest exercise, the Iranian successfully tested a locally produced wide-range-frequency passive-radar-detection system. Rapid response units using modern EW (electronic warfare) equipment succeeded in jamming a simulated enemy’s radar and communications systems. Tests were also carried out on the latest fiber-optic communication equipment and electro-optic systems for air-defense detection.
In the second stage of the exercise, Iran's air-defense forces quickly jammed enemy combat aircraft and employed active and passive means to protect their own radar network and communication lines.
The Iranians have gone to great lengths to thwart a naval attack. After spending endless hours developing anti-ship missile systems, they have produced their own version of the Chinese C-802 and the Khalij Fars (Persian Gulf) anti-ship ballistic missile, based on the Fatah-110 surface-to-surface missile technology. Both weapons pose a tangible threat to naval vessels, especially American ships cruising close to the Iranian coast.
A few months ago, Iran unveiled a new cruise missile with a 200-kilometer range that could be launched from ships or ground batteries. They also announced development of the Valfajr (The Dawn) torpedo system that is designed to carry a 220-kilo warhead capable of hitting large battleships.
"If Iran comes under a major attack, it will try to block the Strait of Hormuz and cut off oil shipping routes," says Tal Inbar. "Blocking the Persian Gulf will require the use of Iranian-made miniature submarines (Ghadir mini-subs with a two to three man crew), different types of torpedoes, and speedboats. This arsenal will be used to saturate the area with dozens to hundreds of missiles that will disrupt movement, forcing the Americans to engage the targets." It should be noted that last summer, Iran fired supersonic surface-to-sea missiles at moving targets close to the Strait of Hormuz during the Great Prophet 6 war games exercise.
The Iranian fleet currently has three Russian-made Kilo Class Type 877EKM submarines, and according to Iranian sources, a half-ton Iranian sub designed for reconnaissance in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. Iran also developed Bavar 2 – a lightweight radar-evading seaplane armed with machine guns and capable of carrying a bomb.
Mickey Segal notes that Iran's preferred tactic against naval vessels is to swarm them. This tactic involves dozens of small, Iranian-made speedboats armed with explosives, rockets, and light weapons dispatched to blow up American aircraft carriers and destroyers.
Missiles and rockets
Iran’s strongest deterrent is of course, their offensive capabilities that appear in the form of missiles and rockets. This arsenal directly threatens any point in Israel and Europe—whether in the hands of Iranian proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, or by way of Iran's own long-range missiles.
Most experts agree that Iran has made impressive gains in rocketry in recent years, and has even surpassed North Korea in certain areas of its missile program, especially with respect to guidance systems and solid-fueled engines. During the Great Prophet 6 exercise, Iran exposed their underground missile silos and fired off a large number of surface-to-surface missiles at various ranges. Iran’s pride and glory is the Shahab 3 missile that has a 1,300 km range. Iran also has the Qader (Mighty) cruise missile—an improved version of the Shahab 3—that can reach a target at 1,800 km. A more significant threat is the Sejil (Baked Clay) ballistic missile, which is still in the development stage. This is a solid-fueled two-stage rocket with a range of over 2,000 km. Iran has carried out several tests on the Sejil during the last two years.
Iran is striving to attain missiles with ranges of thousands of kilometers capable of threatening Europe. According to Tal Inbar and based on various sources, North Korea may have transferred BM25 missiles to Iran, which are believed to have a 3,500 km range. The BM25s employ the same technology as Soviet R-27 submarine-launched, ballistic missiles. Iran has not yet officially confirmed that it possesses these weapons, but an analysis of an underground launch site indicates that the storage facility’s dimensions are much larger than the missiles known to be in Iran's possession. Such evidence suggests that Iran has indeed obtained the BM25s.
Iran is also making progress on its cruise missiles that are based on technology acquired from the Ukraine a few years ago.
Once the Iranians produce nuclear warheads, they intend to arm their Shihabs with them. They already have the ability to launch missiles and aircraft armed with chemical and biological WMDs.
Some of the missile projects are developing under the guise of Iran's space program, since the technology for launching a satellite or a ballistic missile is essentially the same. Iran is also working on its own surveillance satellites. Half a year ago, it launched a miniature Rasad (Observation) satellite into space.
Though the orbiter is of no military value, Rasad is the second satellite that Iran independently launched. The first, Umid (Hope), brought Iran into the exclusive space club in February 2009.
A mysterious explosion at an Iranian missile-project site
In November 2011, an explosion rocked a major missile-testing site near Tehran. It killed seventeen people, including General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ missile program. The base where the explosion occurred is a storage site for Shahab missiles. To date, it is still unclear what effect the explosion will have on the Iranian missile program.
Iran's global terror network is the long arm of the Islamic Republic. However, Iran is also relentlessly striving to attain sophisticated defensive and offensive capabilities in the fifth fighting dimension, cyberspace.
In 2011, it established a Cyber Defense Headquarters in the General Staff, and a cyber-defense program was launched at Imam Hossein University in Tehran. A number of cyber defense drills will be held in 2012; the goal being to identify the Achilles’ heel in the state's operating systems. In early 2012, Iran will hold its first national conference on cyber defense.
Israeli sources estimate that Iran's cyberwarfare capabilities are among the most advanced in the world. The Iranians already know how to operate in cyberspace and leave almost no fingerprints.
How will the Iranians respond in the event of an attack? Pundits, scholars, and observers all agree: they will use every means at their disposal, in all dimensions, and on all fronts.