Russian defense minister Sergey Ivanov spent five days in Washington this week on an unusually exhaustive tour. He made all the rounds – from President to Pentagon to Secretary of State – outgoing and incoming – to thoroughly prepare the ground for the February 24 summit meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. They combed through drafts of accords and other documents to be submitted for presidential signature at the end of the talks, including an agreement to share data on the trafficking in portable anti-defense missiles – MANPADS – that terrorist could use to endanger civil aviation and US troops in Iraq.
But while Ivanov was being whisked by armored limos with outriders around Washington from department to department, Russian engineers and technicians were quietly busy at Iran’s nuclear sites.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive intelligence sources reveal that Russian experts from the Raduga OKB engineering group in Dubna near Moscow have just completed the installation of two advanced radar systems around the Bushehr nuclear center on the Persian Gulf and the uranium enrichment plants in Isfahan in central Iran.
These improved mobile 36D6 systems, Western codenamed Tin Shield, were custom-made to upgrade the air defense radar protecting Iran’s key nuclear facilities from American or Israeli aerial, missile or cruise missile attack. Moscow’s investment in providing Iran with these systems shows it will spare no effort to defend the largest nuclear enterprise Russia has ever built abroad
Russian air defenses installed in Bushehr and Isfahan
Our military experts describe the 36D6 mobile radar system as designed to detect air targets and perform friend-or-foe identification. It is capable of providing the target and bearing of active jamming, as well as integrated computer-aided systems of control and guidance of anti-aircraft missile complexes. This radar is highly effective in detecting low, medium and high altitude targets moving at almost any speed, including winged missiles. The system can be used independently as an observation and air detection post, as part of computer-aided control systems or as an element in an anti-air guided missile complex, where it carries out reconnaissance and targeting.
After finishing the job at Bushehr and Isfahan, the Russian engineers are not heading for home. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, they will start work on mobile radar systems for additional nuclear sites such as Arak near Tehran. The Russians have also sold Tehran the same radar for the Shehab missile launch site in central Iran, most likely the preface to the supply of more Russian S-10 air defense missile batteries of the type which already shield Bushehr and Isfahan.
Our military sources note the rush of Moscow-generated news this week:
The Russian defense minister’s Washington trip; the completion of Russian work on Iran’s radar systems and their handover to Iranian military crews previously trained in Russia in their operation. And the stories run by a couple of Russian newspapers on Wednesday, January 12, claiming that when Syrian president Basher Assad arrives in Moscow on January 24, exactly a month before the Putin-Bush summit, Russia and Syria would sign a large deal centering on the sale of advanced SS-26 Iskander-E surface missiles to Syria.
This story was planted for maximum effect – which it achieved
Damascus has not been able to afford to renovate its armory for the past twenty years, or even settle its debts to the former Soviet Union. And now, in sight all of a sudden, is the glittering acquisition of the road-mobile Iskander-E, successor to the Scud, whose range of 280 km is less than the variant that went into service last year with the Russian armed forces, but still enough to bring two-thirds of Israel in range. Because its 480-kilo warhead is made up of 54 elements, it can dodge air defense radar systems and electronic jamming. It can be guided to target by satellite and aircraft – and also by a soldier who directs artillery fire. Targets can also be found from photos placed on a computer by a scanner.
Even a small quantity of the SS-26 changes the balance of strength in conflicts.
No Iskander for Syria – “only” SA-10 and SA-18
As expected, the “revelation” of its projected sale to Syria raised a hue and cry in Jerusalem and Washington. However, our intelligence and military sources confirm the report was all wind and smoke. There was no such sale. Syrian officials preparing the Assad visit to Moscow did inquire about the chances of obtaining the SS-26, but were brushed off by the Russians and did not raise the question again.
So what did Moscow gain from planting this red herring?
The answer is that the Russians counted on the cries of outrage over the sale to Syria of a missile capable – not only of reaching Israel’s Negev nuclear center at Dimona, but also Iraq’s oil city of Kirkuk and refinery center of Baiji – to sidetrack attention from four events:
1. Most importantly, Russian assistance in setting up sophisticated defenses for Iran’s nuclear sites.
2. The real arms transaction in the pipeline for Syria. Russia is prepared for the first time to let Syria have SA-10 (“Grumble”) surface-to-air and S-18 (“Grouse”) shoulder-launched missiles. The first can engage several targets at varying altitudes simultaneously including raiding aircraft and cruise or tactical missiles. The SA-18 is an improved version of the Strela with a 2-kilo high-explosive warhead fitted with a contact and grazing fuse, aerodynamic improvements, extended effective range and greater speed. The SA-18 has a maximum range of 5.2 km and maximum altitude of 3.5 km.
3. Iran has already purchased S-10 systems from Russia. Their supply to Syria together with the SA-18 poses a threat not only to Israel but also to US air force freedom of action in Iraq and farther afield in the region.
4. In Syria’s hands, there is nothing to stop the shoulder-held SA-18 coveted by terrorists from reaching Iraqi guerrillas, as well as al Qaeda and Hizballah terrorists – despite Russia’s commitments and the future Bush-Putin accord to curb their proliferation.
The injection of these sophisticated new Russian weapons into the Middle East not only strangles the maneuverability of the American and Israeli air forces but also ties Washington’s diplomatic hands.
Kremlin forgives old Syrian debt
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts believe that Moscow may think again and in the final reckoning hold back the SA-18 missiles from Damascus so as not to excessively provoke Washington. But the SA-10 deal will go through.
Moscow’s diversionary exercise worked perfectly. Amid the clamor over the sale-that- never-was of Iskander-E missiles to Syria, the US state department spokesman spoke up with a warning that a Russian sale to a terrorist state could incur sanctions. The Russian defense minister heard this as he waited for his meeting with outgoing secretary of state Colin Powell.
Ivanov later denied any Russian-Syrian missile negotiations were in progress, although he insisted that Moscow was free to supply missiles to any state it wishes. Despite this denial, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources confirm that the negotiations are going so swimmingly that monetary terms are almost settled. They reveal that the day before the outcry over the Iskander, Syrian finance minister Mohammed Hossein and central bank governor Ali Dardarai arrived in Moscow and were immediately received by Russian treasury, central bank and presidential bureau chiefs.
As we go press, they are closing a deal for the repayment of Syria’s $12 billion debt owing for old arms deals, Moscow’s condition for the missiles sale. Our Moscow sources add: the Kremlin has agreed to forgive a large part of the old debt and spread the remainder over many years and in goods for a nominal advance of several million dollars on the nail. For the new transaction, Moscow wants licenses for Russian companies to operate in Syria, possibly covering its oil fields. This remains still to be settled.