Why Israel is Worried about the S-300

Russia has announced that it will begin the process of transferring S-300 air defense systems to Iran in the coming days. The missiles have been a long simmering issue between Moscow, Tehran and Jerusalem. In 2010 Russia cancelled a deal that would have provided Iran the systems to Iran. Now, with diplomatic cover provided by the successful nuclear negotiations and Iran flushed with cash, the deal is back on.

The S-300

The S-300 is an advanced air and missile defense system roughly equivalent to the U.S Patriot missile system. The S-300PMU2 is the latest version of the S-300.It can track non-stealth targets at up to 300 km away and engage them at 150 km to 200 km using the 48N6E or 48N6E2 interceptors. It is also equipped with several other missiles to deal with targets at shorter ranges. It can intercept aircraft up to a speed of mach seven and to a height as low as 25 meters, with some sources claiming that missiles can hit targets as low as 10 meters.

S-300PMU2_complex
An S-300 System, complete with it’s radar and fire control components.

Israel’s capabilities

Israel’s current bomber inventory consists of fourth-generation multirole fighter aircraft optimized for ground attack. These come in the form of the F-15 and F-16. Although both aircraft are capable of dropping ordinance the IAFs primary bomber is an F-15E variant referred to as the Ra’am (thunder in Hebrew). The Ra’am is capable of carrying two 5000 lb class bunker busters along with external fuel tanks. It has sufficient range to fly deep into Iran and strike it’s nuclear facilities.

Although Israel’s Air Force is widely regarded as one of the world’s best, it’s aircraft do have some limitations. Fourth generation fighters are just that; fighters. The American made jets were originally designed in the 1970s to kill MiGs and Sukhois in an air superiority role. They have powerful radars for tracking enemy aircraft and guiding missiles. Their airframes are rated for 9G acceleration and possess extreme maneuverability.

Each F-15 also has two massive engines which give it a thrust to weight ratio of over 1:1 . In terms of speed, a clean F-15 can fly at well over twice the speed of sound.

RED FLAG 04-3
Two Israeli Defense Force-Air Force F-15D Eagle aircraft practice air defense maneuvers mission over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges, at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada (NV), during Exercise RED FLAG 04-3. Exercise RED FLAG is a realistic combat training exercise involving the Air Forces of the US and its Allies.

The problem is that we no longer live in the 1970s. The F-15 was designed for air superiority alone, not stealth. The Ra’am’s large radar cross section means that it is vulnerable to anti-aircraft missile systems like the S-300. Should Iran deploy the S-300 along the Persian Gulf the Ra’ams would have serious difficulties penetrating Iranian airspace.

Israeli response

Israel has acquired counter measures to make up for this deficiency. Their pilots are trained to fly extremely close to the ground in order to blend in with the radar noise generated by the terrain. The Israelis also have access to advanced electronic warfare systems which are capable of defeating advanced missile systems.

Problems

The problem with these countermeasures are multifaceted. First, flying low is extremely inefficient. It burns more fuel and forces the plane to fly slower. It is also dangerous, as minor errors can result in a crash and mission failure.

These issues are made worse by the heavy weapons load a required for the strike. Fordow for example, is so heavily fortified that the U.S feels it would need a 30,000 pound bomb to destroy it. Each F-15 would need at least a single 5000 pound bomb to have have a chance at damaging Iran’s heavily fortified nuclear facilities.

Jamming has it’s own problems. Although Israel is said to have some practice training with Greek S-300s, the system is notoriously hard to defeat. The radar is extremely powerful and would likely require additional specialized EW aircraft to jam. The additional aircraft would add logistical complexity to the mission.

Even with the additional jammers, most methods of jamming will not disguise the fact that there are aircraft operating in vicinity, it only obscures them. No modern radar jammer can make an aircraft invisible to radar.

If Iran figures out the Israelis are coming they have F-14 , MiG 29, J-7 and F-4 fighters capable of intercepting the strike aircraft. Even if the S-300 can’t get a missile lock, any detection could result in interception by enemy aircraft and mission failure.

The bottom line

While the S-300 doesn’t completely rule out Israeli strikes on Iran, it makes them extremely risky and complicated. Even if the IAF can fool the radar, it likely would not be able to keep the Iranians from figuring out that their air space has been compromised and scrambling fighters to intercept the strike package.

Should Iran decide to scrap the nuclear deal go for a bomb it would be much harder for Israel to strike their facilities and stop them. In a sense the S-300 is a shield that protects Iran from it’s regional adversaries. It scares Israel because it makes a strike much riskier and greater reduces the chance a strike could succeed. A failure, of course means a potentially nuclear armed Iran.

 


 

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