The S-300 Slap Down

The Russian-built S-300 anti-aircraft/anti-ballistic missile (AA/ABM, carrying the NATO designation SA-10, codenamed "Grumble"), while not the world’s most advanced surface-to-air defensive weapon, roughly equates to the American Patriot system. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decree promptly lifting former President Dmitry Medvedev’s 2007 ban on exporting the Grumble to Iran constitutes a slap down for American diplomacy. It also makes it less likely Washington can achieve a viable treaty with Tehran, one that might—at best—delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Even so, the treaty that Secretary of State John Kerry obtains may rival Neville Chamberlin’s 1938 "peace in our time" Munich Agreement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, perhaps hitchhiking on the Obama administration’s overly anxious desire for a nuclear deal, pronounced the S-300 ban unnecessary due to "progress in nuclear talks." Lavrov’s assurances that the S-300 is a "purely defensive" system presenting no threat to any Middle East nation, including Israel, while technically correct, is also disingenuous. Meanwhile Moscow hypocritically objects to the United States deploying its Aegis ABM system to Poland and the Czech Republic. While President Obama has not abandoned that possibility, it is on life support while his policy wonks weigh alternatives.

First deployed in the mid-1970s to thwart American B-1 bomber and ballistic missile attacks, the S-300 has undergone numerous upgrades. Latest versions can detect 100 targets at 185 miles and simultaneously track and engage six to 12 targets at ranges of three to 95 miles and up to 19 miles in altitude. Currently, these systems are operational in Algeria, Belarus, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam. Moscow scratched plans to provide it to Syria after the civil war there intensified.

Strategically, Moscow’s decision on the S-300, rather than reflecting confidence in a forthcoming America-Iran nuclear weapons ban agreement, cynically attempts to take advantage of a potential Obama administration diplomatic belly flop. Furthermore, the economically strapped Russians believe lifting sanctions against Tehran opens a weapons-for-cash bonanza. Further evidencing Russia perfidy, in February Moscow offered to sell Iran the Alma Antey-2500 AA/ABM; a system more advanced than the S-300. Tehran reportedly is considering the offer.

Deployment of the S-300 does not enhance Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula security. Rather it encourages Tehran to harden its negotiation demands. If the U.S. State Department caves then such a treaty will be dead on arrival in Congress and possibly veto-proof.

With deployment of the S-300, Israel, the only regional air force remotely capable of degrading the Iranian nuclear program, will find an already difficult challenge virtually impossible. The F-15E Strike Eagle attack variant of the world-class American fighter-bomber cannot haul the heavy bunker-buster bombs needed to reach some of the deeply buried targets associated with weapons-grade uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons production. Israel faces two alternatives: use F-15E bombers to deliver nuclear weapons or attack Iranian sites with Jericho short range ballistic missiles. Furthermore, under the best of circumstances the relatively small Israeli Air Force cannot sustain long-term conventional air operations at the distances involved. The S-300 system would make an already difficult mission nearly prohibitively costly.

U.S. Air Force B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers can carry bunker-buster bombs. But the risks posed by S-300s would require an intensive preparatory bombing campaign to degrade Iranian air defenses resulting in significant losses to both countries and potentially sparking a regional conflict that might escalate globally.

Diplomatic folly often provokes war. Tehran remains confident that it can compel Washington to lift sanctions and still secure a treaty rendering nuclear weapons. Moscow senses a strategic coup that will re-entrench its presence in the Middle East while reaping economic benefits. The Obama administration’s diplomatic ineptness is to blame.

What can be done? Time is critical for possible military action by Israel or the United States. However, the gloved hand of diplomacy succeeds best when sheathed in steeled determination. Deploying the Aegis SM3 anti-ballistic system to Poland and the Czech Republic would bolster American leadership in NATO and reestablish international credibility.

In addition to sending a message to Vladimir Putin, it also signals resolve to increasingly mistrustful Middle East allies like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia along with Washington’s staunchest friend in the region, Israel.
Establishing a NATO airbase in Poland and stationing a dozen F-15C interceptors and a dozen F-15E Strike Eagles along with a squadron of A-10 ground support aircraft—possibly turned over to the Polish Air Force—would underscore American determination.

Meanwhile, don’t fret about renewing the Cold War; it’s too late for that.

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.