Air Defense: Iran Buys False Hope



November27, 2006: The sale of Russian Tor-M1 missile system to Iran have generated a fair bit of hype, but a closer look reveals that the sale is not as big a deal as some try to make it out to be. While the Russians are selling 29 missile systems, it is not nearly enough to reliably defend all of the key sites in Iran's nuclear program.

The Iranian nuclear program is scattered throughout the country - some around Tehran, some around Bushehr, some in other locations. In other words, these launchers will not be bunched up, they will be scattered across Iran. Can the Tor-M1 cover all of it? Not quite. The reasons are easily discovered when one looks closely at the system involved.

The Tor-M1 - known to NATO as the SA-15 Gauntlet, has a maximum range of 12 kilometers. It is only effective up to 6000 meters altitude. The system was designed as a successor to the SA-N-8 Gecko. Each launcher carries eight missiles, and it is claimed to be capable of engaging two targets simultaneously. The system was designed to be a tactical battlefield air-defense system, designed to take out close-air-support planes like the A-10 or tactical fighter-bombers like the F-4, F-16, and F-18.

Against a Tomahawk cruise missile, which goes as fast as 880 kilometers per hour, and comes in at very low altitudes, the Tor-M1 is a very marginal system. A single Tor would have 49 seconds at most to engage a Tomahawk if it detects the missile at its maximum range. That is a pretty big if, as radar performance declines against low-altitude targets. This assumes the missile will hit. If the missile misses (not an unthinkable occurrence in some circumstances), then more have to be fired.

If Tomahawks are not an option, then attacking from above the Tor's reach is. Most American combat planes can easily fly at altitudes above 6000 meters. These aircraft would have the option of either attacking the Tor systems themselves (and clearing the road for Tomahawks or combat aircraft to attack the main target), or going for the main target itself.

Tor could also be neutralized by sending in UAVs or target drones on a flight profile similar to that flown by combat aircraft or Tomahawk cruise missiles. This was the technique used in the 1991 Gulf War against the Iraqi air defense system. The Iraqis fired at the drones, revealing the location of the missile batteries and drawing very prompt attention from American Wild Weasels. The Iraqi system was neutralized very quickly.

When it comes right down to it, the Iranians have spent some of their petrodollars to get a missile system that looks good on paper, and which generate media attention, but ultimately is a false sense of security. The Russians have managed to make some money, get an export customer, yet these systems will not be able to deflect a determined attack against the nuclear weapons program. - Harold C. Hutchison (

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