Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Aug 1, 2006
Iran will fight to its strengths
By Richard M Bennett

It seems increasingly likely to many foreign observers that Iran's army has quietly acknowledged that it stands little chance of defeating the United States in the event of invasion, at least using conventional means.

However, its planning for an unconventional or guerrilla warfare campaign of resistance is far advanced and its confidence that it would prove ultimately successful has been greatly reinforced by the ongoing insurgency in Iraq and the resistance shown by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In recognition of this, the US may be losing interest in the vast commitment needed for an invasion and the strain this would undoubtedly place on its already overstretched armed forces. The suspicion grows that any future US-led attack on Iran may be

restricted to a massive series of air and missile strikes on strategic targets, most directly linked to Iran's nuclear program.

The US would certainly wish severely to damage not only nuclear-research facilities, but missile-production centers; chemical and biological warfare installations; the air-defense infrastructure, radar, command and control sites and probably the most significant air bases as well.

It is unlikely, however, that anything short of a ground invasion or the use of small nuclear weapons would do anything more than seriously degrade Iran's advanced weapons programs and at most set the country back some five years. The US must hope that it "gets lucky" and that a serious military humiliation for Iran would fatally undermine the government in Tehran and lead to an eventual change of regime.

It is interesting to consider whether the Central Intelligence Agency and other Western intelligence services have achieved any great degree of penetration of Iran or indeed anything on the scale of intelligence available on Iraq's air and ground forces. Even in Iraq it must be remembered that the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction proved to be grossly flawed.

Iran's powerful and much-feared intelligence and security services have built highly effective networks of informants around the world and have a tight hold on Iranian society. So far, it seems, Iran has proved rather hard to infiltrate - its political intentions, military installations and probably its most important secrets are very well protected.

The army
Iran's armed forces have been placed on a high level of preparedness and a number of major exercises have been carried out in recent months, particularly along the coastline of the Persian Gulf.

There is a growing confidence among its leadership that Iran could survive a conflict, short of outright invasion, with the United States. Both the army and the Republican Guard have invested much time, effort and thought into providing Iran with an effective low-tech response to the United States' overwhelming military power.

The army of some 325,000 is organized into a Northern Operations Sector headquarters Reyaiyeh (Azerbaijani and Turkish borders - reserve for Iraq front); Western Operations Sector headquarters Bakhtaran (Kermanshah); Southern Operations Sector headquarters Dezful (southern Iraq front - Gulf Coast - Strait of Hormuz); Eastern Operations Sector headquarters Birjand (Afghan, Pakistani and Turkmen borders); Airmobile Strategic Reserve headquarters Isfahan; Army Command headquarters Tehran; and the Republican Guard (IRGC Pasdaran inqilab) of more than 130,000.

The IRGC also has a small but effective naval force of at least 10 Chinese Houdong-class missile boats with C802 missiles and more than 100 small fast craft for suicide missions against large warships or merchant vessels, shore-based anti-ship missile batteries, and a large combat swimmer special warfare force. These are based at al-Farsiyah, Sirri, Abu Musa and Larak and on the Halul oil platform.

Between the army and the IRGC the Iranians can probably field about 1,600 battle tanks (including 157 M47/M48, 150 M60A1, 200 Chieftain, 540 T-55 and T-59, 75 T-62, 480 T-72 and at least 20 Iranian-built Zulfikar); some 1,500 BMP-1, BMP-2, M113 and other armored personnel carriers; more than 300 self-propelled and 2,100 towed artillery; 900 mobile multiple rocket launchers; more than 7,000 mortars, anti-tank weapons and man-portable SAMs (surface-to-air missiles). To this can be added more than 550 helicopters, including some 85 US AH-1J combat helicopters.
Missile force
Iran's missile programs are among the regime's top priorities and it has succeeded in producing a number of effective ballistic-missile systems, including:
Shahab-1 missile is a minor variant of the Scud-B, which Iran initially acquired from Libya and Syria between 1985 and 1986. The Scud-B's 300-kilometer range allowed Iran to strike Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. There are probably about 350 in service.

Shahab-2 missile is a variant of the Scud-C, built from 1990 with the assistance of North Korea. It has a range 500-700km, and is therefore capable of striking targets in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Iraq. About 450 are probably now in service.

Shahab-3 is a genuine medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) developed indigenously by Iran. It had an original range of 1,300km; recent modifications have increased this to nearly 2,100km. It can thus easily reach Israel and US bases throughout the region. The missile, based on the Nodong-1, was first tested in 1998 and became operational on July 7, 2003. On November 9, 2004, it was claimed that Iran now had the capability of mass-producing this missile.

Significantly, Iran, with North Korean assistance, is also actively pursuing the development of a genuine intercontinental ballistic missile capability, a missile capable of threatening not only the whole of the Middle East but Europe, Africa and Asia as well.

Many other systems have been acquired, modified or developed by Iran in recent years. These include SAMs, anti-tank missiles, coast-defense missiles, battlefield missiles and highly sophisticated anti-ship missiles reportedly capable of threatening US aircraft carriers operating outside of the immediate Gulf area.

Weapons of mass destruction
Iran has an advanced chemical and biological warfare program and is believed to have stockpiled several hundred tons of chemical agents in bulk and weaponized form, including nerve, blister, choking and blood agents. It has the capability to actually deploy artillery shells, bombs and missile warheads filled with chemical agents in significant numbers. Whether it can deploy biological weapons effectively remains in doubt.

However, international interest remains firmly fixed on Iran's nuclear program, one that is widely considered by Western powers to be aimed largely at the production of deployable weapons. Iran now has several dozen nuclear-research facilities, mostly well hidden and some buried deep in bunkers, mountain caverns and heavily fortified tunnel systems.

Unless the Pentagon's intelligence on these locations is of top quality and extremely precise, it is doubtful whether any significant long-term damage can be assured by the use of conventional weapons alone.

The air force
While Iran is aware that a low-tech defense may prove highly effective in deterring a ground invasion, the defense of its strategic targets requires an increasingly sophisticated and advanced high-tech air defense.

The key target in any future US or Israeli air strike, regardless of its scope or duration, would undoubtedly be Iran's nuclear industry. Attacks on Iran's air defenses would seek to cause long-term degradation and any large-scale operation would require a broader range of air defense targets to be struck.

The initial intention would be to blind Iran's air-defense command by destroying its radar coverage and paralyzing its command and control infrastructure.

Iran faces the possibility of attack by either the US or Israel. The Israeli Air Force, with its limited strategic assets, would only be able to strike at a very small number of the main Iranian targets using F-15Is and rather risky in-flight refueling somewhere over Iraq.

Additional strike capability would only be available from the F-16I squadrons using the buddy-refueling system. Recent deliveries of advanced weapons by the US have markedly increased the ability of the Israel Defense Force to attack hardened targets, but the number of sites would still remain limited to a few high-value targets, such as the Bushehr nuclear reactor complex.

It is considered unlikely by some observers that Israel would be prepared to use its Jericho missile force to attack Iranian targets, except in retaliation.

The United States, however, is not restricted by such limitations and if the political will is present, then a truly exotic and quite remarkable variety of weaponry is available for use by the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Ranging from ship- and submarine-launched to air-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, stand-off weapons would be guided to their targets by satellite and deep-penetration bombs.

Highly sophisticated precision delivery of traditional and specialized bombs would come from strike aircraft ranging from B-2 Spirit and F-117 stealth aircraft and B-52 heavy bombers to the F-18, F-16, F-15 and F-14 fighters. These devastating air strikes would be delivered from a range of air bases established in friendly countries on all sides of Iran and from aircraft carriers, missile cruisers, destroyers and submarines in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

Air defense
In consequence of the threat to Iran's strategic targets, the armed forces have sought constantly to upgrade, modify and enlarge their air defenses. New radars, missiles and control equipment have been acquired from Russia and numerous other countries in Europe and Asia.

The Iranian Air Defense Command appears to have rejected the old Soviet-style layered and inflexible national system that so obviously failed Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Iran, however, has sought to learn valuable lessons from the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in Serbia and US tactics against Iraq.

Every attempt is being made to improve the survivability of the radar, command and control networks as Iran is painfully aware that these would be the United States' first target and would be an essential part of any realistic chance of Iran proving more resilient than its Iraqi neighbor was in 2003.

The Iranians appear to be pinning their hopes not on stopping the strikes, but simply on making them rather costly to the attacker, by developing an air-defense system based on a number of highly integrated local networks of interceptor aircraft. Ground-based SAMs and radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery will provide a flexible layered protection for specific areas.

This will be backed up by a mobile defense system involving the unexpected movement of highly mobile SAMs linked to numerous small formations of low-flying fighters screened by mountain ranges and teamed with F-14A "controllers" operating at higher altitudes and deeper within Iranian airspace.

It has been assumed by some sources that this is part of an Iranian air force plan to ambush US strike aircraft, their electronic support aircraft, AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) and refueling tankers with surprise attacks using salvos of very long-range missiles. It remains to be seen whether these are to be Iran's tactics or indeed whether they would stand any serious chance of success.

The air force has struggled hard to rebuild the fighting force that existed under the shah. Sophisticated aircraft and weapons and superbly trained combat pilots were lost to attrition in the eight-year war with Iraq or through poor maintenance, lack of flying hours and a chronic shortage of spare parts.

However, it is widely believed that the air force has done a remarkable job in recent years with limited resources and a shortage of advanced equipment. There is no doubt that the air force remains determined and committed and, while no match for the US or Israel, would still prove a tough opponent.

Air defense
There are reportedly some 16 battalions with more than 100 US I-Hawk, and five squadrons with 30 British Rapier and 15 Tigercat. There are many other air-defense units, with 60 Chinese HQ-2J(SA2), 10 or more Russian SA5, 30 Russian SA-6, Chinese FM80 (based on French Crotale), thousands of Russian and Iranian modified SA7s and later-model man-portable SAMs, as well as some remaining US Stingers.

Iran also recently signed a major deal to buy at least 29 advanced Russian tactical SAM systems, known as the TOR-M1, which is designed to bring down cruise missiles and aircraft at low altitudes.

The navy
The Iranian naval forces could turn out to be a rather unpleasant surprise for the United States, very much the war of the flea versus the elephant, but still capable of giving a nasty bite or two.

The main surface combatants include three light missile patrol frigates and two corvettes, along with at least 20 fast missile craft armed with C802 anti-ship missiles. To these surface warships must be added three Russian Kilo-class ultra-quiet conventional submarines armed with long-range wake-homing torpedoes. Iran also has the significant capability to lay thousands of advanced Russian and Chinese naval mines in the Gulf and particularly in the narrow entrance formed by the Strait of Hormuz.

It has bases at Bandar Abbas (fleet headquarters), Bushehr, Kharg, Bandar-e-Anzelli, Bandar-e-Khomeini and Chah Bahar.

AFI Research provides expert information on the world's intelligence services, armed forces and conflicts. Contact rbmedia@supanet.com.

(Copyright 2006 AFI Research. Used with permission.)

A war without borders in the making (Jul 29, '06)

For further reports on the Conflict in the Middle East, click here


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110