Iran Signals Possible Shift of Procurement of Advanced Air Defense Systems from Russia to China and Belarus

According to a report in the Iranian news agency Press TV, Tehran is now contemplating to buy the HongQi-9 (HQ-9) long-range surface-to-air missile systems recently offered by China for export under the name of FD-2000. As the Press TV report suggests, Tehran’s shift of procurement efforts from Russia to China can be explained by Iran’s frustration over Moscow’s continued refusal to honor the $800 million deal signed in 2007 to deliver the S-300 strategic air defense systems, which was discussed on this blog in April. Designed by the China Academy of Defense Technology and manufactured by the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), the HQ-9/FD-2000 is a reverse engineered hybrid of U.S. Patriot and Russian S-300 air defense systems. Although, judging by some of its technical characteristics, HQ-9/FD-2000 is inferior to the advanced versions of the S-300 family of air defense systems, including the S-300 PMU1 and S-300 PMU2, it can nonetheless considerably improve Iranian air defense capabilities around the nuclear facilities and critical infrastructure assets. Equipped with the phased array guidance radar capable of tracking 100 targets, the HQ-9/FD-2000 air defense system can engage up to 48 airborne assets (including aircraft, cruise missiles, air-to-surface missiles and even tactical ballistic missiles) simultaneously at the range of 7-125 km and firing altitude of 0.025-27 km.

In a parallel development, in January the British defense publication Jane’s reported that, based on the information provided by the undisclosed “defense industrial sources in Belarus,” Iran was finalizing the $140 million deal with Belarus for the delivery of two surplus S-300 PT air defense systems. It should be noted that the S-300 PT is an older version of the S-300 air defense system, which was first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1978. Nonetheless, according to the Jane’s report, the S-300 PT air defense systems allegedly proposed for sale to Tehran by Minsk are equipped with the 5V55K and 5V55R missiles with the range of 47 km and 75 km respectively. Considering that in accordance with the provisions of the agreement on the joint air defense and creation of an integrated air defense network signed by Russia and Belarus in February, Moscow is obligated to supply the advanced S-400 air defense systems as part of the planned upgrade of air defense system in Belarus, it is no wonder that Minsk is now in the possession of the surplus outdated S-300 PT platforms. The First Deputy Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Vadim Volkovitsky recently confirmed to the RIA Novosti that Russia and Belarus were negotiating the details of the S-400 transfer without specifying the delivery schedule.

The Jane’s report provides astonishing details regarding the manner in which the S-300 PT air defense systems may be delivered to Iran from Belarus. According to Jane’s, the partially disassembled air defense systems and spare parts will be transferred to Iran aboard cargo civilian and military aircraft as part of the regular flights between Minsk and Tehran. Moreover, the investigative reporter Edwin Black wrote in July of last year quoting “informed sources” that some of the components of the S-300 air defense system had already arrived in Iran but remained disassembled in boxes. Black described Belarus as “a common portal for controversial Russian arms shipments” and claimed that the Israeli Ministry of Defense believed that the S-300s would be delivered to Iran via Belarus. Meanwhile, on May 8, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko summarily dismissed foreign media reports concerning illicit transfers to Iran. President Lukashenko stated, “As far as S-300 and Iskander [missiles] are concerned, these complexes cannot be exported without my approval. There is not a single contract or project related to these systems that I have been asked to approve. This is utter nonsense.”

Regardless of the speculations in media and official denials, the “background noise” created by the aforementioned news reports prompts one to surmise that the United States and its allies will not be able to prevent the illicit transfers of S-300 air defense systems to Iran if they were to occur within the hypothetical logistical Russia-Belarus-Syria-Iran (with a plausible modification of Russia-Belarus-Armenia-Iran) network. The high level of secrecy and impeccably falsified consignment documentation will most likely ensure that the shipments will be carried out undetected. Thus, in the absence of specific intelligence, the U.S. and its allies will have to continue to rely on satellite imagery in the hope of identifying preparations indicative of the possible deployment of S-300 air defense systems in Iran.