Russia has been preparing to deliver the S-300 Air Defence System to Iran, but Israel has managed to delay the delivery with an astute display of business acumen
In July 2008, Iran announced that it was set to receive an advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft system by the end of the year that could help fend off strikes against its nuclear facilities.
First delivery of the S-300 missile batteries was expected as soon as early September, one source said, though it could take six to 12 months for them to be deployed and operable.
Iran, which already has TOR-M1 surface-to-air missiles from Russia, said last December that an unspecified number of S-300s were on order. Moscow denied there was any such deal.
The Russian system, called the S-300, is one of the most advanced multi-target anti-aircraft-missile systems in the world today and has a reported ability to track up to 100 targets simultaneously while engaging up to 12 at the same time. It has a range of about 200 kilometres and can hit targets at altitudes of 27,000 meters.
“The S-300 could prove to be a tipping point for the United States and Israel,”
said Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. air force colonel who conducts war-games for various Washington agencies.
Israel does not have strategic “stealth” bombers like the United States, though the Israeli air force is believed to have developed its own radar-evading and jamming technologies.
“There’s no doubt that the S-300s would make an air attack more difficult,”
the Israeli official said.
“But there’s an answer for every counter-measure, and as far as we’re concerned, the sooner the Iranians get the new system, the more time we will have to inspect the deployments and tactical doctrines.”
The S-300, dubbed as the "game-changer", is feared by US and Israeli weapons experts as an element that can effectively rule out a successful attack against Iran
Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, carried out a large-scale air force drill over the Mediterranean in 2008 which was widely seen as a “dress rehearsal” for a possible raid on Iran.
Some analysts also described it as a bid to pressure the West to step up sanctions.
The exercise involved flying over parts of Greece, which is among a handful of countries to have bought and deployed S-300s. But Greek media quoted Athens officials as saying that the system’s radars were turned off during the Israeli presence.
According to the Israeli official, it would take a year for Iran to deploy the S-300s and man them with trained operators.
Robert Hewson, editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, said:
“The minimum work-up time to be comfortable with the system is six months, but more time is preferable.”
Hewson said the Iranian S-300 deal was being conducted via Belarus to afford discretion for Russia, which is already under Western scrutiny for helping Iran build a major atomic reactor.
“Belarus is the proxy route whenever Russia wants to deny it is doing the sale. But nothing happens along that route without Moscow saying so,”he said.
Russia has now declared the delivery of the systems would be delayed at least until the upcoming meeting between President Dmitry Medvedev and his US counterpart, President Obama, cited Russia's wish to prevent hindering dialogue with the new US administration.
The gesture may very well be self-serving.
Israel Radio quoted sources as saying that apart form the gesture to the Americans, Russia also wanted to avoid ruining a $100 million drone purchase from Israel.
During the brief August 2008 war with Georgia, Russian Forces were handicapped by the lack of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles providing real-time battlefield video and electronic surveillance.
Georgia on the other hand had Israeli UAVs deployed over the area of conflict, providing their numerically inferior forces with superior data than was afforded to the Russian commanders.
During the recent war in the Gaza, Israel demonstrated how advanced their indigenously produced UAVs had progressed. Apart from providing battlefield surveillance, the UAVs fired missiles at selective targets on the ground.
Russia now has to balance it's own security needs by acquiring the Israeli UAVs and preserving it's lucrative arms business to Iran.