Iran launched five-day military exercises on Nov. 16 to test its air defenses in case of an attack on its nuclear sites or other sensitive facilities. The war games—dubbed Defenders of the Sky of Velayat III—are the largest exercises ever held, according to the government. In a key development, Iran tested a new air defense missile system.
The exercises come at a sensitive time, given tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, talk of a future Israeli strike, and scheduled diplomatic talks in December. As in the past, the new war games have been accompanied by a fair amount of bluster, bravado and strategic messaging. Their primary purpose, beyond training and testing new systems, is to showcase Iran’s capabilities and deter potential attackers.
Given the advance rhetoric, Iran appears to be primarily messaging Israel, although other countries, including the United States, are also on the list.
The exercises were preceded by tactical drills that simulated real combat in Fordo, Tehran, Natanz, Bushehr and Isfahan, all sites associated with Iran’s nuclear program, according to Brigadier General Ahmad Mighani, the head of Iran’s Air Defense Forces.
In another signal to the outside world, Iran tested a new air defense missile system known as the Mersad, or “ambush” in Farsi. It has been coupled with a domestically produced surface-to-air missile (SAM) called the Shahin, or “hawk” in Farsi. It is a reverse-engineered version of the I-HAWK first produced in the 1970s.
Tehran claims that Iranian scientists developed the new systems, which can identify and hit incoming missiles at low and medium altitudes. Iran also tested a new radar, which it claimed has a range of 3,000 kilometers or about 1,875 miles.
The test follows Russia’s decision in September to comply with U.N. sanctions and not deliver the advanced S-300 SAM system that Tehran had ordered. Iranian officials have been furious at Moscow’s unwillingness to follow through on the deal, with Iranian legislators even calling for the government to sue Russia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Iranian state television has implied that the Mersad test is linked to the failed S-300 deal. It reported that the new system is an “ungraded version” of the Russian S-200 anti-aircraft missile system but has the same capability as the S-300.
The Mersad/Shahin system, even with upgrades, is actually a far cry from the S-300. But in testing it, the Iranian military is sending a defiant—if somewhat exaggerated—message to Israel, the United States, Russia, as well as its own people that it is not dependent on Moscow’s help to defend Iranian air space.
The exercises are being coordinated by the Khatam ol-Anbiya Air Defense Base, under the control of Iran’s regular military, although other services, including the Revolutionary Guard, the police, and the Basij also appear to be involved. The last large-scale war games were in May in the Persian Gulf.
The latest exercise will be a critical test for the new command and its ability to coordinate operations across multiple services and agencies—not an easy thing to do in a country with two parallel military chains of command, one for the regular military and another for the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
On the operation’s second day, the Iranian press reported that six unidentified foreign planes had intruded on Iranian airspace but were intercepted and forced to retreat. This rather interesting bit of news generated a stir in the Western media—until Press TV, an Iranian state-run English language news outlet, reported that the incidents were actually mock intrusions and part of the exercise. The next big Iranian military exercise—with IRGC ground forces taking the lead—is scheduled for late December. Stay tuned for more messaging.
Michael Connell is director of Iranian Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit institution that conducts research and analysis in Washington D.C.