Saudi Arabia’s costly war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen continues to provide a serious and ongoing source of tension across the Gulf. Meanwhile, the Russian intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad supports Iranian policy in Syria and directly threatens the aims of the Gulf state monarchies.
The announcement made this Monday that a long-discussed and highly controversial deal between Russia and Iran for the supply of advanced S-300 missile and air defence systems has finally been signed, will further enrage the Saudi government in particular and inflame regional tensions.
The latest version available for export, the S-300VM, which NATO calls SA-23, is a long-range and highly capable surface-to-air missile (SAM) system which can shoot down both high-performance military aircraft as well as ballistic and cruise missiles.
Its range of 200km against high-flying aircraft targets will give Iran a weapons system capable of threatening air traffic and military jets far beyond its own borders.
Under most combat conditions the S-300 is very dangerous for modern combat aircraft that do not have very low observable (VLO) or stealth technology.
Russia claims that some versions of the system even have limited capabilities against stealth aircraft. However, no S-300s are known to have been fired in combat, let alone against stealth aircraft, so these claims are dubious.
A later modification of the basic S-300 line yielded Russia’s S-400 which was designed especially to improve capabilities against stealth fighters, suggesting previous versions could not reliably track or destroy these.
S-300VM systems based in forward positions held by Iran, such as islands in the Gulf, could project threat coverage as far as Kuwait City and the Ali Al-Salem and Ahmad Al-Jaber airbases, Al-Minhad and Al-Dhafra, as well as the oil fields of Zakum and Shariqah and Qatar’s north dome gas field.
Furthermore, air corridors used by international carriers through the Gulf could be shut by a threat from Iran should the country choose to do so during a crisis, although the international ramifications would be severe.
Operations against targets in Iran covered by S-300 systems, Gulf state or Western air forces would require extensive electronic-warfare support in terms of tracking, jamming, and suppression capabilities. Outside the United States Air Force and US Navy, such capabilities are in critically short supply.
To stand a chance of suppressing S-300 systems without serious losses, would probably require US Navy EA-18G Growlers for brute-force jamming; RC-135U Combat Sent and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft for long-range signalling of intelligence and radar location; and F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit stealth aircraft for direct attacks.
In addition, AWACS and Joint-STARS battle management and coordination assets would be required to coordinate such a complex strike package.
The US Air Force also possesses the essential institutional experience required for suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) operations, and multiple stealth assets which would be able to either bypass S-300 batteries altogether, or at least get close enough to them – without being tracked – to destroy or suppress them, and relay targeting information for standoff attacks by other aircraft.
This mix of capabilities would be a serious stretch for the US Air Force to deploy at short notice and impossible for any smaller air forces without US support.
However, even for the US, an operation like this would take months to organise and mount. The likely ‘first response’ from US Navy carrier battlegroups in the Gulf would be potentially vulnerable to an S-300 threat as the F-18 and EA-18 Growler are not stealth, although the Growler is a potent jammer platform.
Shift in dynamics
While S-300 systems cannot attack ground targets and so are predominantly defensive in nature, the Middle East’s fragile politics and the fact that Iran acquiring these systems will cause a significant change in military power dynamics, make them a potent source for future instability.
The US, UK and their Gulf allies would need to carefully weigh the risks of removing the threat entirely, or else learn to live with a strengthened Iranian hand across the Gulf.
US responses if and when deliveries commence might include increasing deployments of the US Air Force’s scarce F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to the region, and potentially to conduct ‘training sorties’ for B-2 Spirit stealth nuclear and conventional bombers near Iranian airspace as a show of force.
On the other hand, using stealth aircraft in proximity to Iran’s airspace on a regular basis might decline due to fears of giving Iran too much information on the S-300s ability to track these aircraft. The Gulf states are also more likely to renew their interest in Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 fighter to help counterbalance the S-300. This could intensify the arms race already going on in the Middle East.