Key point: Iran's air defenses provide a level of deterrence, but can't stop the U.S. Air Force.
Iran’s military planners face an unenviable military challenge: preparing defenses against air attacks from the most formidable air forces on the planet.
The once-formidable Iranian Air Force, starved of spare parts for its 1970s-era American-built fighters, is unlikely to effectively challenge U.S. air superiority. Instead, Iran has doubled down on a diverse array of surface-to-air missile (SAMs) systems in its Air Defense Force (IRIADF) as well as the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Together, these form an integrated air defense system that can tackle threats approaching at different ranges, speeds and altitudes, aided by powerful over-the-horizon surveillance radar described in this article.
Iran maintains numerous SAM systems imported from the United States and Europe half a century ago, but lacks access to spare parts and new missiles. Tehran has been able to acquire modest numbers of SAMs from China and Russia.
Therefore, to fill in the quantity and modernity gap, Iranian engineers have studiously reverse-engineered and produced modernized domestic variants of the older systems.
Initial Iranian spinoffs are often direct clones. But in the last decade, the Persian spinoffs feature significant improvements including increased range, digital fire control systems and electro-optical fire control systems that provide a short-range backup if their radars are jammed.
Arguably, the easiest way to understand the various Iranian SAMs is by identifying which foreign SAM system they’re evolved from and which layer air defense system they belong to.
Complicating matters is that Iran tends to use one name for the missile, and a different one for the system of radars and launchers that launch the missile. Furthermore, Iran’s more modern launch systems tend to be designed to launch multiple types of missiles.
The Top Layer
Long-range SAMs can track attackers from long distances, threaten non-agile aircraft over a hundred miles away and at high altitudes, and potentially knock down ballistic missiles.