Iran last week paraded a range of new military equipment on Army Day, including a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system that has been likened to the Russian S-300 PMU-1. If the system actually represented the PMU-1, it would imply that manufacturers Almaz had finally made good on their December 2005 contractual (and controversial) obligation to deliver. Upon closer look at the Army Day photos, however, some key differences suggest that this was unlikely the case. Interestingly though, these same differences may also signify the reality of an indigenously produced Iranian variant – something Tehran has repeatedly alleged is in development…
According to a number of experts, whatever was on display on April 18 was likely a mockup. But that should not come as too much of a surprise, since most of the other hardware on display at the parade was mocked up – either for safety / security reasons or as a result of still being in the concept stage of design. Consequently, this factor does not necessarily imply that the Iranian SAM equipment on display is not based on real technology, as is clearly the case in this example.
A typical S-300 PMU launch complex consists of a number of transporter erector vehicles complete with four launching canisters (holding the missiles), a 30N6E Flap Lid phased-array illumination and guidance radar (also known as Tomb Stone), a 76N6 Clam Shell low-altitude early warning radar (for intercepting low altitude cruise missiles), and a command post infrastructure that incorporates a Big Bird early warning radar.
The pictures of Iran’s system illustrate two transporter erector launcher vehicles, something that looks like a Tomb Stone radar, and a surveillance radar that appears to be part of the Russian made Nebo family (designed for long range air surveillance). While the Iranians did not field any of the elements associated with the command post infrastructure, this may have been because it was deemed inappropriate for parade purposes. As such, we shouldn’t necessarily read too much into this point.
From the above photos, the Iranian system appears to be different to the S-300 PMU-1 in three ways. Firstly, the transporter vehicles of both the missile launchers and ‘Tomb Stone’ radar appear to be indigenously produced Iranian variants, of a slightly different design. Secondly, the missile canisters themselves appear to be a lot ‘cleaner’ than the designs found on the S-300 PMU-1 (but similar to the Ukranian inherited S-300 canisters on display at a Croatian parade in 1995 – which were apparently sold to Iran in 2008). Thirdly, as explained, Iran’s long-range Nebo type radar (assuming it is part of their launch complex) offers different capabilities to the low-altitude Clam Shell radar employed in the PMU-1 complex.
It’s true that these differences could suggest Iran was merely parading incomplete, mock-up equipment – either to deter potential adversaries or bolster internal prestige. These same differences, though, could also imply that Iran’s declared pursuit of an alternative to the S-300 PMU-1 is moving forward. In this light, the mix and match nature of equipment on show could be illustrative of a hybrid design that combines parts of the S-300 with more accessible alternatives for things like surveillance radars and transporter vehicles. As such, parts of the Soviet-era S-300PTs that Iran bought from Belarus in 2008 could now be employed in conjunction with more modern technologies to form an Iranian variant.
While it is not clear from these photographs how close Tehran is to actually fielding their system (if at all), its possible existence does suggest that there may now be more than just rhetoric going in to the pursuit of an S-300 PMU-1 alternative. And as suggested by the Planeman, even if this alternative system only equals the capabilities of the S-300PT system, ‘it’s still a huge leap forward and the only credible threat to IAF/USAF air strikes at medium/high altitude’. As such, it may help buy Tehran some respite as it continues to wait for delivery of the far-superior S-300 PMU-1.