What Is It About Iran That Scares The US?: On Tehran’s Military Capabilities

by Amer Mohsen, Al-Akhbar English

Iran announced its first live test of the air defense system, Bavar 373, which is said to be similar to, or an alternative to the S 300 Russian system. This piece of news appeared two weeks ago but did not get adequate media coverage. Specialists and other concerned parties, however, read it with great interest.

Iranian media outlets broadcast the first picture of one of the Bavar missiles, which greatly resembles the missile used in the S 300 system. This test represents the beginning of completing the last phase in the Iranian air defense system, which consists of several systems with multiple ranges. Some of them are revamped old US weapons while others are clones of foreign radars and missiles and some are a combination of the two.

Estimating Iran’s military power is a very difficult task. Many of its projects are shrouded in secrecy and are revealed only after their completion, while the defense ministry’s propaganda adds to the mystery. Some research and experimental models are showcased as though they are in the production phase, and mixing actual achievements with propaganda is designed to mislead. The Iranian press often misinterprets military statements and the media, in general, is known for its ignorance of military issues and its inadequate coverage of these matters, thus adding to the confusion.


What we do know is that the United States and Israel were seriously planning a war against Iran, or at least, an air campaign to hit the Iranian nuclear program and other military targets since the US invasion of Iraq. One of the largest energy corporations in the world, received Russian intelligence reports in 2006 confirming that the war was going to take place in the coming months. What is it that postponed this war all these years, making it an unlikely scenario and undesirable for the US army despite Israeli objections?

The terms of the game

If the goal is to compare military capabilities between Iran and the US, the answer would be easy and clear. There is no parity between the resources and capabilities of the two countries, neither in terms of budget nor technological level, preparation or equipment. Most of the Iranian tanks are old, older than the Iranian Revolution. The same is true when it comes to the air force. The last serious military deal that Iran signed with another country to modernize its army was in the early 1990s, when it bought a number of T-72 tanks and MiG-29 planes from Russia, in addition to two submarines. These are the “newest” imported weapons in Iran’s traditional arsenal today.

The confrontation with Iran does not involve a direct war across the borders of the two countries. As a matter of fact, the protagonist has to send its forces to an area that is thousands of kilometers away from the US mainland, deploy them in flying distance from Iran, secure safe routes for air refueling and seize control of a large lake – the Arabian Gulf – whose width in many places is less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) and depth less than 50 meters (164 feet). Taking advantage of the circumstances of the Iraq-Iran War, the US navy entered the Gulf in the 1980s, wielding its influence by force after a series of skirmishes that turned into a quick war against the Iranian navy that the US forces easily won (Operation Praying Mantis). Iraq itself was not happy with this US expansion even though it was directed at its enemy. In 1987, an Iraqi jet aircraft hit the American frigate USS Stark with a French-built Exocet missile killing over 35 Americans.

The Iraqi government said the attack was a mistake but many analysts believed that the missile was an Iraqi message aimed at discouraging the US from having a military presence in this strategic area, especially that there were claims that the pilot was not punished, but rather promoted after the “incident.” (In 2011, the US forced Iraq to set up a US$ 400 million fund to pay compensation for the victims of USS Stark and American prisoners of war from the multiple US invasions of Iraq). During the Gulf War in 1991, the US military presence became firmly-established with permanent bases and a comprehensive support structure after signing semi-colonial “protective” agreements with all the countries on the Western bank of the Gulf.

In this sense, there is a similarity between Iran and China. Both countries are focused on a specific military goal, namely, confronting a Western attack supported by local allies and preventing it from seizing full control of the maritime area that surrounds the country, blockading and hitting it.

The difference is that China expects a limited, though violent, confrontation in the South China Sea in the context of competing for influence. China knows that such a clash can not develop into an invasion of the Chinese mainland or an attack to overthrow its regime and destroy its economy, given the nuclear deterrent that China has and Iran does not yet. This is exactly the scenario that the US wants to preempt. If the conditions of the confrontation were different and the Gulf was not an expected theater of war, most of the Iranian weapon systems would not have constituted a threat to US forces. Iran, for instance, focused on importing modern anti-ship missiles from China (C-801 and C-802), developing them and building new models whose range exceeds 200 kilometers (124 miles) and with several guidance systems.

This would not mean much if the confrontation were to take place in the high seas where aircraft carriers and the destroyers accompanying them enforce a prohibition area that extends to more than 400 kilometers (248 miles) in all directions, not allowing a boat or a plane to cross through, let alone fire missiles at US ships. In the Gulf, however, the situation is different. The distance between the Iranian mainland and the base of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is less than 190 kilometers (118 miles). This means that any US ship in the Gulf lies within the range of missiles fired by speedboats and aircrafts in addition to the a large number of mobile terrestrial platforms deployed along the eastern coast of the Gulf.

In the same sense, small submarines – dozens of which are produced by Iran – have no value whatsoever in international waters where US submarines and airplanes roam in “hunting teams” to subdue these kinds of threats. But like a naval mine, they become a scary weapon in the shallow Gulf that is full of targets, where the sonar does not work effectively. Besides, the huge US submarines cannot operate or dive in most areas of the Gulf.

The same scenario applies to the Iranian missile arsenal and US bases in nearby countries. Some Iranians say that the Fateh-110 precision missile of which Iran produced at least three generations so far is called the “Lebanon missile” among Iranians because its range and characteristics suit the Lebanese terrain as though it were designed for it. But Fateh also constitutes a threat to US bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (in addition of course to oil facilities and the oil export ports near these bases). In addition to Fateh, Iran has a huge number of Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missiles after years of production, which can be utilized in major confrontations to take down missile defenses, whether in the Gulf or Afghanistan.

War without borders

There are two factors that summarize the reasons behind US reluctance to engage in a military adventure against Iran. First, the difficulty of confining the war and keeping it within the limits desired by the US. Second, because the war against Iran threatens to be the first confrontation that the US military wages under the conditions of “modern war,” meaning an adversary whose military does not belong to the previous century, but rather knows ahead of time American strengths and prepares technical means to neutralize them. In other words, war against Iran will not be a walk in the park and a chance to showcase superior US technology. The US military knows that it will enter an arena where the GPS system will be jammed and drones may not be able to contact their bases via satellite. The US may actually be deprived of space and electronic reconnaissance, all of which are central pillars of the current US war doctrine. It is almost impossible for example to use far-range ammunition in the absence of the GPS system. The only alternative is to guide through laser or cameras which requires drones to be near their targets and therefore within the enemy’s air defense range.

These fears are not exaggerations or mere assumptions. They are all based on experience and on proven capabilities in the battlefield. For example, during the same month that Iran was able to control an “invisible” US spy plane, bringing it down and capturing it last year, Americans were surprised when Iranians “blinded” a spy satellite that was passing over Iran through a laser burst that most likely hit its lense. The lesson from the two incidents is that Iran possesses radars and means of reconnaissance that allow it to track invisible drones and low-orbiting satellites. For war planners, this raises a lot of concern. The US B-2 Bomber, expected to spearhead any air campaign, is slow, unable to manoeuvre and depends almost entirely on its radar-invisible technology to sneak into a hostile airspace and strike its air defenses. When Iran proves its ability to conquer radar-invisible technology, the most expensive bomber in the world – and the US owns less than 20 versions of them – becomes an easy target for air defenses.

The US got used to third world armies that threaten and huff and puff but have fragile structures with a lot of propaganda and no military effectiveness. The performance of Iranian-supported militias in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, however, draws a distinction between propaganda and reality and provides an undeniable example of the level of combat that any invading power will face. When the Israeli navy ship Hanit was hit in 2006 with an Iranian-made missile, many experts say, the war on Iran was postponed for years. Arabs were the first to introduce anti-ship missiles in military history when two Egyptian missile boats managed to sink the Israeli bomber Eilat with old Russian Styx missiles in October 1967. Hitting Eilat inaugurated a new era in naval warfare around the world as military experts realized that these new missiles enable a small boat to destroy much bigger ships. Arabs, however, were not able to repeat this feat against Israel for 40 more years, until 2006. The same thing applies to the IEDs that terrified US troops in Iraq, the tactics that debilitated the Israelis in Lebanon and Gaza and the performance of Iranian-trained forces in Syria.

Finally, the conditions of the confrontation prevent the US from planning a limited or containment strike that would disable Iran from retaliating. As Seymour Hersh wrote in a report about this issue years ago, US military officials discovered that limiting the war against Iran, the way it happened in Iraq in 1991, is impossible. It is not possible to hit Iranian nuclear sites without securing US air bases in the region. This requires hitting Iranian missile platforms but this could not be done while the Gulf is teeming with anti-ship missiles. Hence, little by little, the targets of the US campaign began to expand to include invading the Iranian coast and destroying a large number of military facilities in the country. The quick air campaign turned into a comprehensive war plan with hundreds and thousands of targets. US generals went as far as seriously contemplating using tactical nuclear bombs to quell Iranian defenses according to Hersh’s sources.

Therefore, the war against Iran becomes a risky proposition. Some American researchers, especially those close to Israel, tried to encourage the US government to hit Iran, insisting that the Iranian defenses will not pose a threat to the superior US fleet. But no country in the world will go to war if the cost of a mistake or misjudgement might be sinking an aircraft carrier or destroying bases that house thousands of US troops. The high stakes lead to reluctance. Postponing the war on Iran made it harder and more complicated. Hitting Iran in 2004 was easier than in 2007. And the war on Iran in 2007 is incomparable to a war that might break out today because Iran has developed new weapons and capabilities and its production lines worked for years to produce and accumulate missiles whose effectiveness and precision improved every year. (In the past few years, Iranians started replacing the old military warheads on Shabab-3 for example with new warheads that are more effective and precise). That is why the Israelis were rushing the Americans to hit Iran arguing that delaying the confrontation will make it harder and more complicated until it becomes impossible. The Iranians began showcasing the cruise missiles they are designing, which, like previous developments, will introduce a new element that will change the equation entirely as soon as they enter into service.

An example of Iran’s preparations: Unveiling stealth aircrafts

Third world countries can buy the best technology manufactured by the West or Russia and it will not be of concern to the US as one – less effective – radar manufactured by the country itself with its own capabilities. The characteristics and specifications of all the systems that are exported are known and the electronic means aboard planes are pre-programmed to monitor enemy radar waves, imitate and jam them. What scares an invading army are the things it does not expect, the radar it does not know about and the defense methods it is not prepared for. In modern warfare, an air defense battery, when working freely, can bring down a whole squadron of planes in minutes. Iranian military shows always play on the idea of fear of the unknown and display different and varied systems even if they perform the same task.

The invisibility technology is a clear example of military investment in Iran. The US was able, through multiple wars, to turn stealth aircrafts into an irreversible technological advantage. The F-117 aircraft (the prototype of stealth aircrafts) hit Iraqi radars in the raides that launched the Second Gulf War. The same aircrafts, in addition to the B-2 Bombers, played a central role in the Yugoslavia and Iraq campaigns in 2003. On the other hand, several technological methods were developed to offset the invisibility advantage and Iran concentrated its research and production in these areas specifically.

The first method has to do with the type of radar. The Russians quickly discovered that stealth aircrafts are designed to avoid a specific kind of radars, namely the high-frequency radars with the thin wave (X band) used aboard enemy aircraft and in missile guidance radars. This frequency produces a narrow radar beam, its width in centimeters, which is ideal for detecting targets with precision and guiding ammunition.

So the Russians began to build on the wide wave technology (K band and L band and in HF which is a metric wave, i.e., its width exceeds one meter), which they have used since the end of World War II. Its drawback, however, is in its lack of precision and the inability to use it for guidance (the wider the wave, the more scattered it is at long distances, giving inaccurate coordinates about the target). The advantage of the wide wave is that its large size makes the stealth aircraft design useless. Aircraft surfaces are designed to scatter, deflect and absorb the small centimeter waves but will not prevent a wide beam from reverting to the source and detecting the target.

When the F-117 aircraft was shot down over Yugoslavia, many experts attributed it to the Yugoslav use of old Russian radars (L band, a decimetric wave) in the Sam-3 System, which downed the aircraft. After the Yugoslav War, the Russians went a step further in developing a new generation of modern metric radars whose precision is comparable to high-frequency radars. This system became integrated into each S-300 battery operated by Russia. Iran has for years displayed different types of wide wave radars, the most famous are Matla-ul-Fajr-1 and Matla-ul-Fajr-2 (Breaking Dawn). The latter resembles the Russian Nebo radar considered an invisibility detector in S-400 batteries.

Iranian generals claim that these radars have become ubiquitous completely covering the Iranian air space.

The second method used to offset invisibility technologies calls for adopting visual equipment instead of radars. With the development of modern thermal cameras, pilots discovered that they can be an excellent alternative to the radar in many cases. They are an important monitoring device (the enemy does not know that it is following them). The Russians knew since the 1980s that modern cameras are capable of monitoring US bombers from a long distance of over 90 kilometers (55 miles) without the need to operate a radar, especially at high altitudes where there is a large temperature disparity between the aircraft and the cold atmosphere surrounding it. No other country in the world today relies on visual systems the way Iran does. It integrates them in all kinds of air defense systems and constantly develops new and light systems capable of detecting targets and guiding missiles and machine guns. This is another Iranian invention as the defense establishment noticed that anti-aircraft artillery considered by many to be old-fashioned can become highly effective if connected to a modern radar and operated within a group by using computer programs that can guide a wave of firearms, forming it precisely, thus creating a wall or rather a square of shrapnel in the sky around the target. These methods become ideal for shooting down cruise missiles and reconnaissance aircrafts and protecting sensitive areas.


Iran built its deterrent capabilities while avoiding competition with the US on its turf. It knows in advance that it will never be able to confront a Western power in air or at sea. It is from here that asymmetrical war technologies emerged, trying to exploit existing gaps and hit the enemy with unconventional means, like missiles for instance. For years, the US was busy developing defense means for protection against Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian missiles. But a report published recently in the Economist magazine explains the difficulty of doing so. The US could not stop talking about the missile shield program but few people know that a program which cost more than US$ 40 billion failed in all five interceptor tests conducted since 2008. The Economist says that about a US$ 100 billion were spent in the last decade on similar programs that did not get the US any closer to neutralizing the missile threat. On the contrary, it may have proved that the goal itself is impossible and that, indeed, is the conclusion that many US Generals who worked in this field came to. The problem is not limited to technical difficulties – trying to intercept a warhead or multiple warheads the size of a small closet floating in space at a distance of 8 Mach or more – but also has to do with how easy it is to mislead complex defence systems with simple methods. Russian missiles today are designed to launch dozens of fake targets when the warhead separates from it in outer space, all of them similar in size and moving at the same speed, thus, making it almost impossible to distinguish between them. As the US develops new interceptor technologies, Russia launches counter measures that nullify their effect.

This military and technical discussion constitutes the foundation for developing Iran’s relationship with the West and determines, to a large degree, the dynamic of the confrontation, sanctions, dialogue, agreement, competition and deals. Whoever is unaware of this background becomes easy prey to simplistic conspiracy theories and narratives about the “game” that the Iranians and Americans are playing behind the scenes while pretending to be enemies in public. The goal of course is to trick us Arabs.

Given the size of the US economy and its enormous technological capabilities, no country in the world can scare the US with the size of its army or through US-style air and naval fleets. What scares the US is armies that have combat experience and a fighting doctrine of their own, able to take advantage of local and geographic factors and design their combat style outside the traditional Western box. In this context, we can learn a lot from Iran’s experience.

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