Soviet-era tech and 1970s American jets: inside Iran’s ageing air defences

A man walks past a military billboard in Tehran
There are frequent reminders of the Iranian regime's military boasts on the streets of Tehran - Anadolu/Anadolu

Israel’s strike on Iran early on Friday appears to have been limited.

The Iranian regime will likely be breathing a sigh of relief – its ageing air defence systems would struggle to stand up to a substantial aerial bombardment on the scale launched by Tehran last weekend.

Iran is reliant on a string of locally developed missile defence batteries and Soviet-era hardware, as well as American and British equipment that was stationed in the country before the Islamic Revolution.

The systems are incomparable to Israel’s modern Iron Dome surface-to-air defence system, which helped deflect hundreds of Iranian missiles and drones, with the help of American, British and French fighter jets.

Iran’s system is built largely around the Russian S-200 and S-300 missile systems, which were first put into operation in the 1960s and 1970s. The latest model is said to be able to down incoming aircraft, drones and missiles at a range of 93 miles.

Iranian officials have acknowledged the Soviet-era kit is complemented by domestically produced Bavar-373 systems.

They claim the system’s radar component can detect and track up to 60 targets as far as 280 miles away. Its missile launchers are said to be able to engage six targets at once at a range of 186 miles.

State media has boasted that the system is comparable to the newer, more advanced Russian S-400 batteries. Unlike Moscow’s flagship missile defence system, the Bovar-373 has not seen battle outside of military exercises.

The long-range technologies are believed to be complemented by a variety of other locally built, short to medium-range systems. Systems like Arman, Tactical Sayyad and Khordad-15 are deployed as part of a layered defence. They are believed to be capable of hitting targets at a range of around 124 miles at different altitudes.

A surface-to-air missile battery in Iran
A surface-to-air missile battery in Iran - Iranian Defense Ministry/AP

Arman is a truck-mounted system that was unveiled in 2022, and is said to be capable of hitting ballistic missiles – something the Russian systems in Iran are not able to do.

Another system from the same year is the Azarakhsh, a smaller, more compact missile launcher used to target drones and quadcopters.

Iranian military officials have said they are working on strengthening the country’s air defences.

An S-300 missile system on display during Army Day celebrations in Tehran on Wednesday
An S-300 missile system on display during Army Day celebrations in Tehran on Wednesday - ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Strategic Institute think-tank, has argued that penetrating Iran’s air defence is not the main challenge for Israel.

He told Reuters that the modern F-35 American-built stealth jets would be more than capable of evading Tehran’s surface-to-air missiles.

“The Iranian air defence network is certainly not impenetrable to these aircraft, but this raises the risk of losses and the Iranian capacity to, at least in theory, intercept some incoming standoff munitions increases,” Dr Kaushal said.

Fabian Hinz, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), added: “If there was a major conflict between the two countries, Iran would probably concentrate on occasional successes. They don’t have the comprehensive air defences that Israel has.”

Iran’s air force is a particularly weak point in any potential conflict with Israel. Tehran is believed to only have a few dozen working strike aircraft, including Russian jets and US-made F-4s and F-5s that were acquired before the 1979 revolution.

IISS has reported that it has a squadron of nine F-4 and F-5 fighter jets, one squadron of Russian-made Sukhoi-24 jets, and some MiG-29s, F7 and F14 aircraft.

The Sukhoi-24 jets were first developed in the 1960s. Amir Vahedi, Iran’s air force commander, said this week they were in their “best state of preparedness” to counter any Israeli strikes.

Israel has hundreds of F-15, F-16 and F-35 jets, which all played a role in counter-mining Iranian drones.

Iran’s strength is believed to lie in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ stockpiles of ballistic and cruise missiles.

At least half of the missiles that Iran fired at the weekend were said to have failed before reaching Israel, raising doubts over the claimed ability of its domestically built air defences.