ANALYSIS - Iran’s real military capacity in context

Imbalance in correlation of forces in the region is likely to grow and put Tehran in an increasingly unfavorable situation

Dr. Can Kasapoğlu   | 07.02.2020
ANALYSIS - Iran’s real military capacity in context

The writer is the director of security and defense research program at the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM. 


With 2020 already marking sensational developments, Iran has been facing daunting challenges. The well-known commander of the Quds Forces, General Qasem Soleimani, was killed in a targeted U.S. strike. Tehran opted for retaliating against a number of U.S. bases in Iraq, where General Soleimani was killed, with a barrage of missile strikes, albeit falling short of delivering a major impact. In the meanwhile, Iran’s air defense units were caught red-handed after the downing of a Ukrainian airliner in the Iranian airspace.

To date, much has been speculated about Iran’s military capabilities. Although some assessments -under the influence of ever-changing states of euphoria- overestimated Iran’s military capabilities, especially after the September 2019 Aramco attack, many analysts are nowadays giving less credit to Tehran. In fact, the truth about Iran’s military strength remains somewhere in between -as one can only conceptualize in a compartmentalized fashion- focusing on each defense segment separately.

The Achilles’ heel: How to defend Iranian airspace?

Iran has a problem of air force combat readiness and airspace control; and it is a big one indeed...

Before 1979, the Iranian Air Force predominantly relied on American platforms. F-4D/E Phantom II, F-5A/B, and F-14A Tomcat aircraft formed the backbone of Iran’s airpower during the Shah era. This arsenal, however, began to face consuming depletions due to the Iran–Iraq War and the subsequent U.S. embargoes. Although Iran still operates some of these aircraft, they probably sit at the lowest readiness level due to maintenance issues and lack of related spare parts.

Tehran, back in the 1980s, opted for procuring early variants of Soviet weaponry, such as the Su-24, Su-25, and Mig-29, as well as the Chinese J-7, which might be dubbed the ‘Chinese Mig-21’. However, in the face of the Gulf nations’ high-end air warfare systems (F-15 variants, F-16 Block60 variants, Mirage 2000 variants, Eurofighter Typhoons, along with precision-guided munitions and advanced sensors), Israel’s modern air force, which recently began receiving the F-35I Adir multirole aircraft, and Turkey’s robust F-16 squadrons, Iran simply cannot sustain air-to-air parity in its neighborhood.

Iran, on the other hand, has a large territory with a harsh topography in many corners of the country, which hinders full and uninterrupted radar coverage. Furthermore, as noted earlier, its air force is almost obsolescent. To address the shortfalls, Tehran has been investing in land-based air defenses backed by C4ISR networks. It also purchased Russian TOR short-to-medium-range air defense system and the S-300 PMU-2 strategic SAM (surface-to-air missile) to reinforce a layered interception capacity. Still, the accidental downing of the Ukrainian airliner revealed serious gaps in training, combat readiness, command & control network, and the overall discipline of the air defense forces.

Is it all about money?

Tehran’s conventional force modernization performance also remains unsatisfactory given the country’s problematic defense economics. Unlike the wealthy Gulf Arab nations, Iran has not been able to secure multi-billion USD procurements. The Iranian Armed Forces’ principal inventory for warfighting, namely main battle tanks, artillery pieces, fixed and rotary-wing platforms, and surface combatants, are aging and becoming obsolete in many segments.

Nevertheless, overpriced arms acquisitions do not automatically translate into battlefield capabilities. Digesting advanced weaponry, and more critically, developing right CONOPS (concepts of operations) loom large as key aspects of today’s defense modernization understanding. Hybrid warfare situations have long brought about dramatic changes as to the number and type of conventional arms to be used for producing strategic results. As manifested in the dichotomy in Iran’s doctrinal order of battle, namely the privileged status of the Revolutionary Guards over the armed forces, Tehran enjoys a robust edge in conflicts below the threshold of interstate war.

Iran’s core military capabilities

Iran’s real military strength is centered on asymmetric warfare capabilities, developed to compensate for conventional shortcomings. In brief, Tehran’s asymmetric assets include ballistic and cruise missiles, fast and flexible naval platforms to wage a war of maritime attrition in the Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as a large military advisory mission in the Quds Forces capacity to train, arm, and, when necessary, lead proxies.

Iran maintains a large inventory of liquid and solid propellant ballistic missiles with short (up to 1,000km) and medium (between 1,000 and 3,000km) ranges. Although Tehran reportedly has a declaratory policy of limiting its ballistic missile range to 2,000 km on the supreme leader’s orders –as, ostensibly, manifested in the solid-propelled Sejjil line–, its space launch vehicles program suggests efforts to develop the necessary know-how for producing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (reaching a range of 5,500 km and beyond).

Having digested the lessons learned from the Iran–Iraq War, Tehran has grasped the real value of missile warfare through fire and water. At present, Iran fields a mix of silo-based and road-mobile assets to boost survivability in a conflict. Iranian defense planners are well aware that their air force cannot survive in deep strike missions in hostile airspaces. Therefore, Tehran principally relies on its missile arsenal for strike roles.

Beyond being solely a strategic deterrent

With respect to its strategic weapons, Iran has another problem: its ballistic missiles are not accurate enough.

From a military-technical standpoint, Iran has two options to address its missile arsenal’s accuracy problem. First, Iranian defense planners could opt for working further on a precision strike capability, better warhead designs, and more effective guidance systems. Second, Tehran can aim at arming some of its missiles with unconventional warheads, namely chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological payloads. In the latter case, lack of conventional precision strike would be compensated for by the overwhelming deterrence enabled by weapons of mass destruction. The WMD option militarily makes sense especially given the U.S., Israel’s, and the Gulf’s massive qualitative edge over Iran. The imbalance in the correlation of the forces is likely to grow and put Tehran in an increasingly unfavorable situation. Current developments overshadowing the nuclear deal are likely to turn even more dangerous in this respect.

What if the war comes?

Geopolitically, Iran’s military capabilities and the way Tehran perceives its military toolbox cannot be compared to those actors which boldly resort to hard power solutions when dealing with security issues. Iran knows that the current regional balance of power would not help it survive an interstate conflict.

Indeed, Iran’s missiles, naval abilities to blockade the Strait of Hormuz –a major choke point –, and hundreds of pieces of rockets locked onto strategic targets in the Gulf provide deterrence. However, that very deterrence works only relevantly until the first bullet of a regional war is fired. Once, and if, that hypothetical threshold is passed, then Tehran’s real intrawar deterrence within an ongoing conflict would be its proxy warfare ability to signal to what extend it can cause regional destabilization. As observed in the Yemeni Houthis’ burgeoning capabilities, the Quds Forces’ transfer of rockets, missiles, and loitering munitions (kamikaze drones) know-how to Iranian proxies across the Middle East is a wildcard. With the right military advisory, such arms can significantly threaten the critical national infrastructure of the target countries. This is why General Qasem Soleimani’s death came as a real blow, as he was the mastermind behind Iran’s “grey zone” activities.

All in all, Iran bears significant military weaknesses and strengths at the same time. This is why Tehran remains fragile in some situations, i.e. in the control of its national airspace or maintaining air-to-air warfare parity in its neighborhood, while it can be really dangerous on other fronts, such as a proxy warfare. The current state of its defense economics would not allow a defense modernization breakthrough for the Iranians. Thus, at this point, the million-dollar question revolves around Iran’s nuclear future.

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