FROM MOSKIT TO MiG: Check Out Iran's Fearsome Military Arsenal

iran military women

Photo: (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

The Oil Drum’s Luis de Sousa analyses Iran’s arsenal at the critical Strait of Hormuz.This list isn’t exhaustive and includes only military information made available to the public.

ANTI-SHIP MISSILES: The most important weapons Iran has in the region

C-701 and derivatives

These are small air-to-surface missiles developed in China to target small vessels, with less than 200 tonnes displacement. They are subsonic and have a short operational range, no more than 20 km, but its low flight altitude, less than 20 meters, and the continuous development of its guiding system guarantee a high rate of accuracy, over 95 per cent. China seems to produce a special version with an upgraded guidance system of this missile for the external market called C-703.

Iran itself produces internally another version developed to be launched from ground vehicles (and possibly sea vessels), called the Kowsar. With further upgrades to its guidance system, Iranian officials have claimed it can resist electronic interference. Due to its short range, this family of missiles need some sort of exposure to be deployed outside Iran's borders, even in the Strait, they must be either fired from the air or from small sea vessels. This requires some degree of air supremacy for a sustainable usage during a military conflict.

A Kowsar was likely the weapon used by the Hezbollah to hit the INS Hanit, 10 nautical miles (18 km) off Beirut in 2006. The Israeli corvette (over 1000 tons displacement) was severely damaged but remained afloat: with propulsion systems partially functioning it was able to retreat to safety and head back to Israel for repairs. A controversial aspect about this event was the fact that the automatic missile defence system on board the corvette was switched off, thus it remains unknown how resilient the Kowsar is to this sort of defence.

C-704 and Nasr-1

This is the big brother to the C-701, with a similar top speed, cruise altitude and accuracy. The main difference is its size, capable of transporting a warhead of 130 kg, four times that of the C-701, thus able to menace sea vessels up to 4000 tonnes of displacement. Another difference is a higher range, over 30 km, thus able to hit targets in Omani waters from land based launchers.

Their main strength seems to be their low cost compared to other weapons able to target similar vessels. The number of units Iran has acquired from China is not public.

In 2008 Iran successfully tested a home made missile called Nasr-1 that seems to be an upgrade of the C-704, with a larger warhead (150 kg) and a slightly longer range. Iranian officials have since then been quoted in the press saying Iran is presently mass producing these missiles; how many it may have produced already is an open question. Further tests have followed, always presented to the press as a success.

The relevance of this class of short range missiles is its numbers, though I couldn't track down a precise figure, some reports pointed to an arsenal over 300 units already at the beginning of the century, before both the Nasr-1 and the Kowsar went into production.

C-601 and other Silkworm class missiles

This was a class of very large missiles developed in China from original Soviet designs. During the Iran-Iraq war the Chinese sold them to both sides and they were used in several important actions during the conflict. In general, these missiles carry half tonne warheads and have operational ranges in excess of 150 km.

The C-601 was the air launched class of this family that was also used by Iran against Iraq. Earlier versions were not very accurate (about 70% hit probability) and today wouldn't have much chance against modern defence systems. China kept supplying these missiles and an upgraded version, the C-201, to the Middle East; in 1988 sales of these weapons to Iran officially stopped, but Iran has today the capabilities to produce them. I haven't found information on numbers and more importantly, on what technological upgrades Iran may have introduced. In any case the original Silkworm version is a weapon that is quite able to hit commercial vessels or other unprotected civilian targets, like it successfully did during the Iran-Iraq war.

C-802 and Noor

The C-802 is a high-range, high-accuracy missile developed in China. It is a two stage rocket, that once at cruise speed detaches part of the fuselage containing the take-off fuel. Cruising speed is just under Mach 1 (the speed of sound) and the autopilot can lower cruise altitude below 10 meters if the sea isn't rough.

It is highly resilient to electronic interference and has a low radar signature; accuracy is reported in excess of 98%. It carries a 165 kg warhead capable of piercing warship Armour. This missile is also thought capable of targeting large vessels, even larger than those targeted by the C-704. With a range of 200 km, this is clearly a fierce weapon, providing its owner serious military projection.

Iran ordered 150 C-802 from China in 1991. Shipping eventually stopped in 1996 under the pressure of the US with only 60 units delivered, a move that attests to the relevance of this weapon. Though they can be deployed from air, sea or land, it is thought that Iran has all its C-802 in mobile land launchers, spread around the shores of the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.

In spite of the suspension of deliveries from China, Iran was able to develop its own version of this missile, called Noor, possibly introducing further developments. Numbers are unknown but this weapon has been in production for several years; at least one successful test was reported by the press in 2006. This is one of the tactical questions of the Strait of Hormuz: how many Noor missiles Iran has and how accurate they are. Even so, the 60 C-802s are enough of a menace by themselves.

SS-N-22 Moskit

This is the most important sea warfare weapon Iran has. Originally called Moskit, it was designed at the end of the Cold War by the USSR specifically to avoid NATO anti-missile defences.

First of all it is very fast, cruising at Mach 3 at high altitude and Mach 2.2 near the surface; at maximum speed this missile can cross the Strait of Hormuz from coast to coast in less than one minute.

Secondly it is capable of executing random changes of direction when closing the target, thus making it very difficult for automatic defences to calculate its trajectory. This is a large missile, weighing 4.5 tones, capable of transporting a warhead of 320 kg; its range is reported differently from different sources but modern versions seem to reach more than 100 km. This technology was inherited by Russia who has continued their development, producing more advanced versions. This family of missiles is usually referenced as the deadliest naval weapon in existence, with an accuracy rate over 99%.

Visiting Moscow in 2001 the Iranian Defence Minister requested a demonstration of these missiles and was impressed enough to order an undisclosed amount. Apart from this information is scant, though speculation abounds. Iran certainly has this weapon, but in what quantities and exactly which version is not public. Was the order in 2001 the only one or has Iran continued to buy these missiles? Has Iran acquired older or modern versions, in particular the upgraded Yukhon?

In the first years of the last decade, when it became known Russia was selling these missiles to China, India and Iran, there was speculation that NATO had no effective defence against them. Being known for more than two decades at the time, NATO surely has had the time to study ways to defend itself against these weapons. Nevertheless, NATO has never faced such missiles in combat and considering the close distances in the Strait and the possibility of Iran using several of them in a simultaneous attack, the hypothesis of relevant damage inflicted in case they ever come to be employed seems reasonable.

Khalij Fars ballistic missile

When this post was discussed at the EuropeanTribune, some folk raised the question of Iran having anti-ship ballistic missiles. Such is indeed the case, as about one year ago a tactical missile named Khalij Fars (farsi for Persian Gulf) was presented to the press with a nothing short of spectacular demonstration.

It carries a 650 kg warhead, has a maximum speed in excess of Mach 3 and a maximum range of 300 km. A missile this large on a ballistic trajectory should be relatively easy to defend against; during the Gulf War in 1991 NATO achieved a good deal of success against Scud missiles, which can reach speeds in excess of Mach 5. The only menace they may pose is when fired at close range targets, in such case providing a short time window for defences to be deployed.

Apart from these air borne missiles Iran also possesses torpedoes worth writing about.

Hoot torpedo

This is another weapon that attests to Iran's abilities to produce warfare material. The Hoot is a supercavitating torpedo, meaning that it travels through water inside a gas bubble, thus greatly reducing attrition.

It is much faster that any torpedo used by NATO, able to reach speeds of 200 knots, which should make it more difficult to defend against. It greatly resembles a defensive torpedo developed in the old Soviet Union that is still produced today by Russia, the Shkval, but in this case there are no reports of Iran having ever acquired the original.

Claiming to have developed a totally independent design, Iran has successfully tested these home built torpedoes in recent years, always as offensive weapons. Notwithstanding its impressive speed, uncertainty remains as to the effectiveness of these torpedoes. Its range should be relatively small and should be noisy enough to be identified right from launch. As with all weapons produced by Iran, the main threat may be the numbers available

NAVY: Another important piece of the puzzle

Submarines

Most of Iran's submersible fleet is composed of midget submarines. This class of vessel was originally thought to be used for infiltration operations, but in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf they acquire different purposes.

Their small size first of all allows them to be manoeuvred in the shallow northern shores of the Gulf and secondly makes them harder to detect by sonar.

Iran has in recent years built 17 Ghadir class submarines, that are capable of deploying Hoot torpedoes. To these add 4 old Yugoclass submarines built in North Korea from an Yugoslavian design. In the shallow waters of Iran these small vessels should be hard to detect and able to deploy mines and torpedoes without being immediately detected.

Iran acquired 3 Kilo class submarines from Russia in the early 1990s. These are about twice the size of the Ghadir, and conceived specifically for anti-ship operations in shallow waters. They are built with special tiles that distort and absorb sound, making it harder to detect by sonar at long distance.

Missile ships

These are small and fast attack ships, conceived for near shore operations.

Iran has 10 Houdong class vessels built in China capable of carrying 8 large size missiles. In the late 1970s Iran ordered 12 Kaman class gunboats of which 10 are still in service.

In recent years Iran was able to built 4 copy cat versions named internally as the Sina class gunboat. These 14 smaller vessels carry 4 mid size anti-ship missile launchers each.

Speedboats

These are very small vessels carrying two torpedo tubes. In order to be effective they have to get relatively close to their targets, thus largely exposing them to enemy fire. They rely on their high speed to be successful, both in approaching the target and retreating back to safety.

Iran has over 70 Peykaap class vessels, partially of its own making and another 10 Tir class units. Both of these models are reported to have maximum speeds in excess of 50 knots (over 90 km/h). A newer version, the Peykaap-II, has been fitted with two missile launchers.

In 2010 Iran introduced 12 attack speedboats inspired in sports competition vessels capable of crossing the waters at some 70 knots (about 130 km/h). Called Zolfaqhar, beyond torpedoes, they can carry two small launchers to deploy Kowsar class missiles. Iranian officials have told the press mass production of this class of speedboat started in 2011; the exact numbers the navy may have at this stage is unknown.

AIR FORCE: A crucial role in protecting Iran from NATO's air power

Here are the different roles in Iran's air force

Air superiority - 60 or more jet fighters, of which 25 MiG-29 recently updated; 25 or more F-14 Tomcat and 10 Mirage F1.

Multirole - over 150 jet fighters, of which 140 are 1960s F-4 and F-5 plus an unknown number of domestically developed Saeqeh (a copy of the F-5).

Interception - 20 Chengdu J-7 jet fighters.

Close air support - 13 Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters.

Ground-attack - 32 Sukhoi Su-24 plus an unknown number of Azarakhsh (the first attempt by Iran to copy the F-5, in development since 1997).

Helicopters - over 50 of assorted designs and purposes, mostly built in US before the Revolution.

Chengdu J-10 and Chengdu/PAC JF-17 Thunder

Chengdu J-10 - This is a state of the art multi-role jet fighter developed in recent years by China. With a maximum speed over Mach 2, operational range of some 2500 km and highly manoeuvrable, it is a jet fighter perfectly able to engage NATO fighters like the F-18 on equal footing.

In the realm of non-stealth, manned aircraft, this is one of the best options in terms of technology for the money in the market today. Iran acquired two squadrons (24 units) that were delivered between 2008 and 2010. Iran's Air Force made a major leap with this acquisition.

Chengdu/PAC JF-17 Thunder - This is a multi-role jet fighter developed by China to fulfil specific requirements of the Pakistani Air Force. With an operational rage of 1300 km and a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 it is not as powerful as the J-10 but much cheaper. Nevertheless it is able to face modern NATO aircraft, especially in defensive missions. Iran ordered an undisclosed number of these jet fighters from the Chengdu company in 2003. Due to the specificity of its requirements Chengdu renamed this version the FC-1. Production started in 2006 and from then on little is known.

Sukhoi Su-30

Sukhoi Su-30 - The Su-30 was born as a Soviet counter part to the F15E Strike Eagle; developed at the end of the cold war it was conceived primarily for air interdiction missions. With a range over 3 000 km and top speed of Mach 2, this is a jet fighter capable of engaging any other modern military aircraft.

Years ago news emerged in Israel that Iran had ordered 250 of these jet fighters from Russia, a deal that would increase to 2 G$; this was never confirmed and such high figures would likely had attracted much more attention. In 2008 again Israeli journalists claimed having observed a squadron of Su-30 jets in operations during war games in Iran, a claim once more unconfirmed.

Though it doesn't seem likely Iran has hundreds of these aircraft, it seems possible that jet fighters may be among all the warfare material it has been acquiring from Russia. In case Iran possesses any relevant numbers, say 2 squadrons, it becomes an entirely different military power in the region. This is one of the great mysteries in the chessboard of the Strait of Hormuz.

ANTI-AIR DEFENCES: may determine how well Iran can protect its military assets

Mersad, Shahin and Shalamche

With another well advertised public demonstration Iranian officials announced in 2010 the serial production of the Mersad defence system. It is a fully digital radar and control system coupled to a missile launch pad, firing the Shahin missile.

This missile is also produced in Iran, being an upgraded version of the US made Hawk missile, with higher and longer range and a top speed of Mach 2.6.

Development of this system has been continuous and during 2011 a new version of the missile was successfully tested. Called Shalamche, it has a top speed of Mach 3 and a range of 40 km, it can hit a target 30 km away in less than 30 seconds. Deliveries of the Shalamche to Iran's Army started latest September.

S-300 and Bavar-323

The S-300 is a state-of-the-art air defence system initially developed by the USSR in the 1970s. It was inherited by Russia who kept developing, upgrading and selling it to a multitude of clients worldwide. This system is basically a semi-trailer truck transporting radar, a firing control sub-system and a set of surface-to-air-missiles.

Modern day versions can follow up to 100 targets, either jets or cruise missiles and engage 12 simultaneously in a radius of 150 km.

After much speculation about a possible deal between Iran and Russia, in 2009 officials from both sides confirmed deliveries of the system would start soon. One year later Russia suspended all weapons sales to Iran in consequence of a United Nations resolution and the delivery wasn't completed. How many were delivered, if at all, isn't public, but it certainly was an insufficient number for Iran immediately started the development of its own version. Iran later claimed to have acquired further units from Belarus and another unidentified second-hand seller. Speculation exists also on a possible acquisition from Libya.

In the wake of the débâcle with the original deal, Iran made the development of a similar system a national design, involving top civilian and military scientists. Building on its experience with short to medium range systems Iran was able to complete the first prototype of the Bavar-323 last year. Up to the moment serial production hasn't been announced.

S-200 and Fajr-8

Another ancient system developed in the USSR, inherited by Russia, sold to Iran and now replicated there. Russia has been continuously developing the system that is composed of radar, a control system and a static missile rail.

In modern versions it fires a 7 ton missile with a range of 300 km, a maximum flight altitude of 40 km and capable of flying at 7 times the speed of sound. Iran reportedly has 30 missile rails of this version, thought I couldn't find if it also possesses modern versions of the missiles.

In any case Iran has for years been producing its own version, the Fajr-8, for which little to no information is available, apart from it being an upgrade to the original S-200. These missiles were highly thought of in an epoch when high altitude nuclear bombers were the main strategic weapon a military power could have. In the narrow scenario of the Strait they may never come to have an important role, but may provide Iran the ability to defend itself from air attack at high-altitude.

Beyond these, Iran possesses a further host of surface-to-air missiles, some acquired from Russia and China and others developed internally. They range from small portable anti-helicopter anti-aircraft rockets to large, long rage, anti-cruise missile systems. Operational numbers are unknown for most of these. At the European Tribune some fellow bloggers pointed out that the Iranian Air Force lacks any sort of airborne early warning system (basically an aircraft carrying a radar) which is today considered an essential component of anti-air defence infrastructure. How determinant this may be in the theatre of the Strait is an open question, but if Iran will ever come to face a large scale conflict this will certainly be a disadvantage.

CONCLUSION

The larger part of Iran's military technology is outdated, with several pre-revolution legacy systems still in service. Iran has through the years learnt how to reverse engineer and replicate these technologies to the point where it now possesses very relevant numbers of weapons ready to use.

These home grown technologies are often publicly displayed in war games and much celebrated by armed forces officials and politicians alike. Some of these weapons are effectively dangerous, like midget submarines operating in shallow waters. Others like the missile armed speedboats are very particular weapons whose effectiveness is largely unknown. These simpler technologies are menacing much more for their numbers than anything else. They probably give Iran the ability to sustain a military conflict around the Strait for some time.

And then there are the many state-of-the-art weapons acquired from Russia and China in recent years. Regarding these, the information available to the public is scant, sometimes even contradictory, as most arms deals have been shrouded in secrecy. The numbers and accuracy of these technologies are unknown in most cases, preventing a clear image of Iran's true military power. Is this uncertainty just part of an attempt by Iran to project an image of military power larger than what it actually is? Or is it part of the acquisition strategy protecting sensible deals that could raise objections from the West?

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