On September 6-15, 2011, Iran held a four-stage major air defense drill. The exercise took place in the midst of escalating Iranian rhetoric towards Turkey as a result of Ankara’s decision to deploy a radar system in its territory that is part of the NATO anti-ballistic missile system. Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi said: “The deployment of the NATO missile system in Turkey is not justified and will not be beneficial to regional nations. We regard the move as very harmful.”1 The Iranian press constantly spews toxic rhetoric regarding the Turkish move, while the conservative press went as far as describing Turkey as a Western puppet.
During the exercise – which was covered widely in the Iranian media (and less so in the Israeli and international press) – the spokespeople of the Iranian air force made sure to emphasize and highlight the advanced capabilities of Iran in the production of combat aircraft, technology development, and production of advanced and precise weaponry, missile defenses, electronic warfare capabilities, airspace control, and advanced, long-range radar systems. Special emphasis was given to Iran’s ability to independently develop, design, and manufacture weapons, and its capability to defend itself regardless of external factors.2
The Largest Exercise Since the Islamist Revolution
The drill, named “Devotees of the Sanctity of the Supreme Leader (Jurisconsult),” was held in northeastern Iran and was described by the commander of the Iranian Air Force, General Hassan Shahsafi, as unique in the era of the Iranian revolution. He added: “As acknowledged by Iranian observers and experts, the drills were the Air Force’s largest exercise since the Revolution (in 1979) and its most massive operational presence in fully combat conditions since the Iraqi-imposed war (on Iran 1980-1988)….These war games showed that our defensive power in both military dimensions and soft war has grown several times more than the extent to which the ill-wishers of the Islamic Republic intensify their animosity towards the Iranian nation.” Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Khatam Al-Anbia Air Defense Base, said ahead of the drill that “to see but not to be seen is one of the achievements of air defense in Iran.”3
In addition to Iranian-made airplanes – the Azarakhsh (Lightening) and Saeqeh (Thunderbolt) – F-4, F-5, Sukhoi-24 (SU-24), MiG 29 fighter bombers, cargo and transportation planes, and the logistic C-130 all took part.
The First Stage began with a flight by Iranian-made Saeqeh fighter planes. According to the drill spokesman, Saeqeh, F4 and F5, Sukhoi 24 and MiG 29 fighter, C130 transport planes and spy-planes (drones) participating in the maneuvers are able to identify each other and the characteristics of different aircraft, enabling pilots from different bases in Iran to meet up and exchange a great deal of experience and data. He went on to say that the morale of the pilots taking part in the maneuvers is high and that “the pilots are prepared to sacrifice themselves” and are completely prepared for any possible threat or danger.4
In the Second Stage, Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) domestically-manufactured Saeqeh and Azarakhsh fighters carried out mission flights including night missions and bombardment of the specified target areas in complete radio silence. In addition, “vast electronic warfare operations were held successfully in all frequency bands.” Drill spokesperson Brigadier General Hoseyn Chitforush said: “In addition to the fighters’ flight at the appropriate altitudes, keeping complete radio silence, actions included launching of a mobile tactical control tower and DF (Direction Finder) navigation systems, digital recording of meteorology and conversations, and utilization of secure communication layers in all spots covered by the drill’s overall territory.”5 He said the IRIAF “needs to hold more night drills, as the threats at night are of great sensitivity.” During the second stage of the aerial war game, Iran unveiled domestically manufactured unmanned aerial vehicles that successfully flew on reconnaissance missions.6
During the Third Stage on September 12, Iran unveiled “a new command-and-control (C&C) system that has been in use in different stages of the drills,”7 and seven squadrons of F4, F7, MiG 29, and Sukhoi SU-24 fighters as well as the logistic C-130 planes and home-made Saeqeh fighter jets. In this stage, Saeqeh, F-4, F-5, MiG-29 and Sukhoi-24 fighters flew in flight formation over the exercise area and, using a variety of tactics, fired diverse types of ammunition and rockets at the pre-designated targets. At this stage, which Iran described as central in aerial maneuvering, Iran introduced what it described as one of its biggest achievements in the field of missiles. According to Iran, during the unique exercise an F-5 fired a missile that was intercepted immediately by a missile fired by a MiG-29. The MiG succeeded in identifying and destroying the missile very quickly with its advanced radar system.8 In addition, an F-4 bomber launched Qassed (Guidance) super-heavy smart bombs at a target. According to Iranian reports, the 2,000-pound smart bombs are able to fly a 40 km distance with a smart guidance system and hit the target without the pilot’s control. The drill’s spokesman said that Mig-29s successfully test-fired air-to-ground missiles during the drills.9
During the Fourth Stage on September 13, the last phase of its four-stage air drill, Iran tested live munitions and missiles. IRIAF Commander Brigadier General Hassan Shahsafi stated: “At present the TACON (Tactical Control) systems and PAR (Precision Approach Radar) that have been designed and built domestically are ready to start work in the different operational zones.” He said that the IRIAF is using mobile communication centers, mobile watchtowers, mobile digital telecommunication centers and tens of other new home-made projects during the exercises.
Iran Reveals Advanced and Diverse Weaponry
During the exercise and afterward, Iranian spokesmen revealed additional capabilities in air defense. However, as of now, their operational readiness is unclear:
- Deceive and detour incoming guided missiles. The Deputy Commander of the Khatam Al-Anbia Air Defense Base for Electronic Warfare, Colonel Moharram Qolizadeh, referring to the key role of electronic jamming systems in successful electronic warfare, said that Iran is seeking to deceive and detour incoming guided missiles. He said: “We have a project at hand that is in fact a stage ahead of jamming to ‘deceive’ the incoming missiles….At this stage, we disrupt transmission of data to the data processing unit of incoming missiles and reprogram it with our own information and redirect the missile towards our desired point.” He also referred to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the enemy in order to identify sensitive areas in Iran and stated that “all the operations of these types of planes are under our surveillance, and we are capable of disrupting them.” 10
- Smart missiles capable of destroying mobile targets. Home-made anti-radar smart missiles are capable of destroying mobile targets with 100 percent precision. Air Force Deputy Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Alavi said that an air-to-ground missile was fired from a Sukhoi Su-24 fighter and destroyed the target with 100 percent precision. He added that the IRIAF also tested laser, thermal and TV-guided missiles with various ranges.11
- Cosmos Radar. The Head of Operations at Khatam Al-Anbia Air Defense Base, Behrooz Jahedi-Rad, said that the Iranian long-range radar system “Cosmos Radar” is now undergoing field trials. He underlined that once the system is operational, it will be able to detect and destroy low-flying aircraft, cruise missiles, and strategic long-range aircraft. Jahedi maintained that the “Cosmos Radar” has a range of 3,000 km and will be used by Iran to cover territory beyond Iranian airspace.12
- Iranian experts are designing a version of the Russian S-300 advanced anti-aircraft missile system. Khatam al-Anbia Air Defense Base Commander Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili said that Iranian experts have begun designing and building an Iranian version (Bavar [Faith] 373) of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system after Russia failed to deliver the system to Iran.13
Iran’s defense minister and air force commanders emphasized during the exercise the excellent flight capabilities of the Iranian pilots and the advanced technology available to them, both defensive and offensive. The exercise took place in the midst of high tension between Iran and Turkey, because of its decision to place parts of NATO’s missile defense system in its territory, and also because of the cessation of Turkey’s support for Damascus and for joining the criticism of the harsh regime of Bashar Assad. Turkey’s claim that the moves are not directed against any country is not accepted by Iran. The two countries are competing for the same sphere of influence and they recently became very aggressive. (Turkey threatens military action in the Mediterranean and Iran emphasized recently that it would not hesitate to intervene militarily in places that hold strategic importance for it.) The two countries are on a path of conflict. The Iranian show of force was intended to signal to Turkey that there is another important regional player that cannot be ignored.
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3. Mellat-e Ma, August 29; http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9006230178
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IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.