The Iran War has been called off for the time being, but the threat of a renewed crisis and future escalation remain. The Iranian missile strikes on two US bases in Iraq provide updated data points on how such a clash will go.
1. The most important adjustment we need to make is that Iranian SRBMs are much more accurate than conventional wisdom expected. Satellite analysis of the strikes show their CEP is <20m.
This is a major milestone. Forget Scuds being tossed about willy-nilly. Three decades since the War of the Cities, and the rise of cheap electronics, even decidedly mid-tier Powers now have access to accurate targeting. An area that was previously the exclusive preserve of the superpowers (US – since 1970s; USSR – since 1980s).
This will certainly complicate the US position in the Middle East, as it makes its military bases much more vulnerable to Iranian attack than what I had previously thought. At least assuming Patriots remain iffy. There was no test of that two days ago.
I don’t think it’s a complete game changer. Fixed bases are not a sine qua non of warfare. You can conceal planes and drones. Troops can be billetted amongst civilians, as has been practiced since times immemorial. And, of course, the launchers and missiles can be themselves targeted. Though this will not be trivial, since Iran is big and has a lot of mountains and hardened underground bases, where it has been accumulating missiles for decades.
— Iran (@Iran) January 8, 2020
2. Conversely, there’s nothing positive to report about Iranian air defense.
It is now clear that PS752 was accidentally brought down by mistaken fire from Iranian air defense. (Considering the improbability of a civilian jet catastrophe – something that happens just 1-2 times in any one year – coinciding with the sharpest Iran-US clash to date, this was always the likeliest version).
The friendly fire came from a Tor missile system (SA-15). This is a fairly modern system, so the fact that its operators – who, admittedly, must have been panicky and on edge – confused it for a hostile doesn’t speak highly to their training.
This is admittedly not much of a data point, but it does reinforce the existing, generally negative view of the Iranian IADS. It was less dense and more outdated than Syria’s even before Russia started upgrading it from 2016. As of a decade ago, most of it consists of outdated American and Soviet systems and some Tor batteries, although it has since been augmented with 4 S-300 batteries, 4 S-300PMU2 batteries, and 12+ Bavar-373 batteries (a supposedly improved adaptation of the S-300). Their performance is still mostly a black box.
There is very little in the way of an air force apart from a few creaking F-14’s that soldier on and MiG-29’s (with unupgraded avionics). Ideally, an IADS needs to be complemented by modern fighters, which would require that any strike missions against SAMS be accompanied by air-to-air escorts and lower the sortie rate. Iran doesn’t have anything of the sort, and it needs to wait until the expiration of UN sanctions later this year as well as years and billions of dollars of purchases before it can mitigate this shortcoming.
My guess, at this point, is that the problems posed by Iranian air defense will be comparable to that posed by the outdated Serbian air defense to NATO fighters in 1998: Enough to create a present and lingering threat that negatively impacts on the effectiveness of bombing sorties, but nowhere near enough to result in the loss of significant numbers of enemy airframes. The Iranians, on their side, have the benefit of a nicer geography and probably a smaller technological gap (much will depend on how good the Bavars are). OTOH, they probably also have poorer training and worse human capital than the Serbs.
Obviously, if Russia was to get involved – by provisioning S-400’s, providing training, perhaps even the crews for them and a fighter screen – Iran’s situation improves radically.