Iran’s Growing Air Defense Capability

Iran recently conducted a significant military air defense drill showcasing its newly updated air defense systems. This has been a significant military arms-related event among several in recent years, along with Iran’s attempt to ship ballistic missiles to Venezuela. This drill included the use of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), radars, launchers, and command-and-control technology, according to a leading nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security. In the past, international focus has been on Iran’s capability to make offensive war, this drill shifts the spotlight onto its equally impactful defensive capabilities. Iran has positioned its air defense systems over many locations within the country, and top leaders of an organization following foreign policy argue that confidence in home-based air defense creates an understanding that any retaliation from opponents is less likely. This, in turn, provides Iran more freedom to realize any ambitions for offensive action in the region.

The drill, named “Defenders of the Velayat’s Skies-99” is one of a series of joint drills conducted by the Iranian military’s air defense branches. The use of Iran’s air defense capabilities in military drills has become an increasing priority over the past several years. The effectiveness of their new air defense systems was highlighted when Iran destroyed an American drone in 2019 and accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner more recently in 2020.

It makes sense that Iran has decided to display large-scale military drills while it is hampered by sanctions and the potential for domestic unrest due to the coronavirus. Public military drills serve as a primary means of deterrence to any aggressor that would be assuming a degree of weakened capability from the Iranian regime, according to a Washington-based think tank. Iran’s military displays also serve as a message to the United States to back down from its intent to stymy Iran’s oppressive regime.

While Defenders of the Velayat’s Skies-99 should be taken seriously, Iran’s air defense capabilities are still limited. The United States and its allies have the capability to defeat Iran’s current air defense technology. Nonetheless, Iran’s defenses are becoming more effective, and presently constitute an additional layer of difficulty for any potential attacker, as well as some degree of deterrence.

Iran’s air defense drill is also indicative of potential future problems for the region. Russia has signaled its willingness to sell its more effective S-400 SAM air defense system. If Iran were to purchase this system, its ability to shoot down aircraft will be augmented. This would provide the capability to target aircraft in regions further outside of Iran and along international trading routes. Given the apparent failure of the international community to limit Iran’s arms imports and other limitations, this creates additional concern. Enforcement of Iran’s weapon embargo has been largely unsuccessful internationally. 

Given Iran’s recent air defense drill and the possibility of Iran gaining access to the S-400 SAM air defense system, it is important that this situation is taken with seriousness. Top experts on Iran warn that such a move could provide Iran greater freedom to militarily expand in the region, and impose on international trade. The United States and the international community need to make a concerted and effective effort to halt Iran’s regional and military ambitions. Efforts so far to curb Iran’s military technology growth have been insufficient.