Iran's five-day Modafean-e Aseman-e-Velayat (The Defenders) exercise for testing the defenses of its nuclear sites gave away more information than intended, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report. It showed how Tehran perceived a possible Israel attack on those sites and a potential ensuing war, and revealed most strikingly the paucity of its anti-air and anti-missile defenses.
For this reason, Iran long avoided these war games, fearing they would expose too many of its vulnerabilities. But after spurning every international compromise proposal for its military nuclear program (whose existence is denied) or even for its enriched uranium, Tehran has had to deal with the possibility of an Israeli, US or joint US-Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities, which may be only weeks or short months away.
Tehran will regard a purely Israeli operation as a joint effort in view of its expected American support in the form of radar, intelligence and interceptor missiles.
With this peril looming, Iranian leaders had no option but to stage trials for national air defenses, especially after carrying out every other possible military exercise, whether missile tests or land, naval and air maneuvers. The public needed to be satisfied that all was well, but most of all, it was high time for the military and Revolutionary Guards Corps generals to find out at last whether the Iranian air force in tandem with anti-aircraft batteries and radar units was actually able to defend the country's skies and nuclear installations – even though it consists of 300 ageing warplanes starved of spare parts and upgraded equipment.
Iran's multi-branched air defense system has its first trial
At a press conference in Brasilia Wednesday Nov. 24, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pooh-poohed a possible Israeli attack: “Weapons, threats and attacks are means of the past,” he said. “And (such words) belong to those politicians who are lagging behind.”
“Those you mentioned (the Israelis) do not dare to do such a thing and are too small to take military action against Iran.” The era of military invasions is over,” he said, “and today is the time for talks and thinking”.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources report that the facts emerging from Iran's war game tell a different story from Ahmadinejad's arrogant words. Rather than looking forward to “talks and thinking,” Iran's leaders are deeply worried that Israel may decide to send cruise missiles and tactical nuclear warheads, both of which have never been admitted, to destroy their nuclear installations and strategic infrastructure.
(See separate item in this issue.)
The exercise consequently kicked off Sunday, Nov. 22 with maneuvers for preventing enemy aircraft penetrating Iranian skies over nuclear facilities. They focused on protecting the uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz, the uranium hexafluoride gas production plant at Isfahan, the two military nuclear reactors under construction at Arak and on the Persian Gulf coast across from the Straits of Hormuz, the uranium mines in Yazd, the key military installations housing nuclear weapons laboratories – among them the cluster of military nuclear installation in northern and southern Tehran – as well as missile factories, missile silos and ballistic missiles launch pads concentrated in Central Iran.
Iranian Air Force Mirage F-1 multi-role aircraft were the mock attackers, whereas Mig-29 interceptors and F-5 ground support craft, some of US manufacture and some made in Iran, were assigned to defending the nuclear facilities.
They were supported from the ground by Russian-made Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missiles – which are advanced but short range – outdated SA-6 ground-to-air missiles and a motley assortment of anti-aircraft weapons including a variety of guns.
Iranians try to boost morale after homemade radar, communications fail
To coordinate the operation of the different branches, Iran tried out in quasi-combat conditions for the first time two big homemade systems, the Bassiou radar and the Thoram-1 digital communications network.
The latter, with its advanced and flexible design, was expected to become a key element in coordinating Iranian weapons systems and enhancing communication and data transmission among the various Iranian units.
But in the first hours of the exercise, both systems failed to cope with the influx of data. By the end of Day One, they had crashed. Furthermore, the air force planes in the roles of attacking US or Israeli aircraft broke through Iran's air defenses; they defeated the defending aircraft in dogfights and took control of the skies over the nuclear sites.
The exercise demonstrated that Iran's nuclear facilities would be smashed in the first hours of any attack, a conclusion that cast a pall of gloom over all the participants.
To raise their spirits, Iranian Air-Force Commander Brig. Gen. Ahmad Mighani delivered a speech Monday, Nov. 23, to senior officers at exercise headquarters in the Khatam ol-Anbia air base in the southern Khuzistan, assuring them that any Israeli warplanes that might reach Iran's nuclear sites would have nowhere to return to because their home bases would have been destroyed meanwhile by Iranian ballistic missiles.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that this was an idle boast for two reasons:
1. Tehran knows that a US or Israeli strike would first single out Iran's ballistic missiles before even approaching its nuclear sites. Even if not all its missiles are wiped out, few would be left intact for mounting a second strike and would therefore have only a remote chance of rendering Israeli air bases unusable.
2. With their radar and communication systems inoperable, Iranian commanders are short of the basic tools of modern warfare, including counter-measures for dealing with the electronic jamming capabilities owned by their adversaries and capable of throwing Iranian missiles off-course.
Iran complains Russians left them in the lurch
Monday, Nov. 23, Day Two of the war game, was devoted to testing Iran's defenses systems against a mocked-up Israeli cruise missile attack. The result was a major let-down.
Taking into account that Israel plans to shower hundreds of cruise missiles from ground bases, warships and aircraft stationed hundreds of miles away out of the range of the Iranian air force, the Iranians focused this part of the exercise on intercepting Israeli or US cruise missiles as they homed in on Iranian targets.
According to our military sources, no world army, the US and Israel included, has ever come up with an effective defense against a cruise missile. The development of interceptors is still in its infancy.
When this vulnerability was demonstrated too, Iranian war chiefs, from Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, through Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi and down to Air Force Commander Mighani vented their fury over Moscow's failure to deliver S-300 missiles, the only weapons system offering Iran an effective defense for its precious nuclear and strategic centers.
They were heard to lament: “We are unhappy with the Russian friends up north. … Don't the Russian strategists take into consideration Iran's geopolitical importance…?”
And when the Russians did not dignify Tehran's complaints with a response, Iran's leaders switched from gripes to threats. Tuesday, Nov.25, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hassan Mansourian, deputy head of Iran's air defenses said: “Iran can take legal action if Russia refuses to fulfill its commitments to deliver the advanced missile defense system to the Islamic Republic. And because this is an official agreement it can be pursued through international legal bodies,” he said.
Russia retains electronic counter-measures to all its weapons
Tehran is certain that Moscow was bullied by the Americans and Israelis into withholding the S-300s, which would have transformed the face of its air defense and missile interceptor capabilities. But the truth is that the Russians never let any advanced weapon out of their hands without retaining the electronic key to neutralizing it or handing it over to a third party. In this case, they might have concurrently sold the missiles to Iran and the counter-measure key to Israel.
In 2007, Moscow supplied Syria with the Pantsir (SA-22 Greyhound system), which was purchased to protect its secret atomic reactor then under construction. When Israel struck that reactor in 2007, the Pantsir defense system failed to function or even register the approach of Israeli warplanes.
According to some reports, Israel received the key for disarming the Pantsir from Moscow – or alternatively fabricated one of its own.
(Read article in this issue on Obama-Medvedev talks regarding Iran sanctions).