Key Point: Improved Iranian missile defense might dissuade a U.S. attack.
On August 22, Iran unveiled to much fanfare its Bavar-373 mobile long-range air defense system in a Defense Industry Day event attended by President Hassan Rouhani. In a speech, he elucidated at length on the rationale behind the weapon’s nomenclature by comparing it to Russian surface-to-air missiles.
“Its number is between 300 and 400. It's 373. In any case, his system is stronger than the S-300 and very close to the S-400.” The latter is arguably the most capable long-range surface-to-air missile system on the planet, and the former is its well-respected predecessor.
Iran also shared launch footage of the Bavar-373’s Sayyad-4 missiles, which supposedly is capable against targets ranging from jet bombers and fighters, stealth aircraft, drones, and cruise and ballistic missiles. Tehran claimed the system remains effective under all weather conditions, and is hardened against jamming and nuclear/biological/chemical threats.
Iran’s chief military threat comes in the form of air and missile strikes from the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This explains why the deployment of an ostensibly top-tier system is receiving such hype.
Back in 2007, Iran first sought to import five batteries of Russian S-300PMU-1 (NATO codename SA-20 Gargoyle) air defense systems, which can engage aircraft up to ninety-three miles away. But even as Iranian technicians were training to operate the S-300PMU, in 2010 then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev elected to block the sale as part of international sanctions imposed in response to Tehran’s nuclear research program.
A year later, Iran announced it would instead develop its own S-300-inspired system, called the Bavar (“Belief”) 373. Tehran periodically reported the successful tests and progress, and first displayed the new missile batteries to the public in August 2016.
Earlier the same year, with the easing sanctions due to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, Russia went ahead and delivered four S-300PMU2 batteries, each of which constituted four launch vehicles and two radar vehicles.
However, Iran continued to develop the Bavar-373, reportedly intending to procure as many as a dozen batteries. When on May 18, 2018, an Israeli airstrike caused a huge explosion Syria’s Hama Airbase, regional media reported the target was a Bavar 373 missile truck deployed there by the IRGC. However, this claim didn’t square with the general impression that the Bavar was still in the final phases of development.
Meet the Bavar-373 Battery
Like the S-300, a Bavar-373 battery incorporates over a half-dozen off-road capable trucks. These missiles and radars are coordinated via a six-wheeled Fakour command post vehicle, which can reportedly network radar coverage with that of other nearby SAM batteries using an encrypted communication system called Rasoul.
The Bavar’s two radars are carried on eight-wheeled Zafar trucks: an S-Band acquisition radar for spotting aircraft at a distance, and a shorter-range but more precise X-Band fire control radar that guides missiles to their targets. Both are supposedly Active Electronically Scanned Array radars, which are harder to detect and have higher resolution.
Iran also has showcased a third radar, the massive Meraj-4 (“Ascension”) S-Band phased array radar which is mounted on a ten-wheeled Zoljanah truck. The Meraj-4 reportedly can track 100 targets simultaneously up to a distance of 217 miles (or even around 300 miles according to some sources) and uses a probabilistic “fuzzy logic” algorithm to more reliably estimate the positions of distant contacts. The Meraj-4 uses solid-state modules, and reportedly possesses a variety of defenses against jamming and other forms of electronic countermeasures.
Though the Meraj-4 is not organic to a Bavar-373 battery as is sometimes claimed, it’s nonetheless designed to interface with Bavars to improve target queuing.
Up to six ten-wheel-drive Zoljanah tactical trucks serve as launch vehicles, each carrying four boxy ribbed launch canisters.
Like the S-300PMU, the Bavar has vertical launch system which doesn’t require the missiles to be “pointed” towards their targets. However, while the Russian system uses is a “cold launch” SAM which ejects the missiles out of their cylindrical launch tubes before igniting their rocket motors, video footage shows the Bavar 2 is a “hot-launch” vehicle in which the rocket motor begins blazes away inside the square-shaped canister.
The missiles in question are roughly seven-meter-long Sayyad-4s, a weapon visibly evolved and enlarged from American SM-1 naval anti-aircraft missiles sold to Iran just prior to the Iranian Revolution. An Iranian general has claimed they incorporate vector-thrust technology to increase their maneuverability while intercepting missiles. Two other unspecified types of missiles are also said to be compatible, perhaps for short- or medium-range intercepts.
Altogether, a Bavar-373 supposedly can simultaneously engage up to six targets up to 155 miles away with twelve missiles. Multiple missiles are likely to be fired at an individual target to increase the probability of a kill.
The weapon’s claimed engagement ceiling of 88,000 feet may aid in intercepting ballistic missiles or high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) surveillance drones like the Pentagon’s RQ-4 Global Hawks that are known to cruise at such altitudes.
But is it for real?
On paper, the Bavar-373 seems capable, but it’s hard to have confidence in Tehran’s claims due to a track record of grossly exaggerating, or even outright fabricating its home-built military systems. Nonetheless, Iran’s SAMs at least stand up better to visual scrutiny than other Iranian wonder weapons, and are far more affordable and realistic solutions for the Iranian military than fantastical stealth fighters.
Claims of the Bavar-373’s anti-ballistic missile and anti-stealth capacity begs further inquiry. For example, shooting down ballistic missiles, like Saudi Arabia’s Chinese-built DF-3s, requires very fast and precise interceptor missiles. And stealth fighters can be detected using low-band surveillance radars, and/or coordinating multiple bistatic radars. Networking the Meraj-4 radar with the Bavar-373’s fire-control radar may potentially facilitate such an exploit.
Even if the Bavar-373 is as capable as Tehran claims, they would struggle to prevail in the face of a full-scale aerial bombardment campaign by the United States, which along with the Israeli Defense Force, has extensively practiced methods for dismantling air defense systems. The Pentagon’s anti-SAM toolkit notably includes AGM-88 HARM missiles designed to home in on radar emitters, F-35 stealth fighters designed to penetrate defended airspace, EA-18G Growler jets carrying powerful radar jammers, and AGM-158 JASSM stealth cruise missiles.
Nonetheless, weapons like the S-300 or the Bavar-373 make executing such a campaign more difficult, expensive and time-consuming, and increase the risks of incurring losses. They also make smaller-scale strikes more difficult to execute, requiring the use of more expensive and resource-limited stealth aircraft and standoff munitions.
Thus while Iran’s improving air defenses don’t put Iran in a position to win a war, they do improve Tehran’s conventional deterrence by increasing the risks, complications and costs of resorting to air strikes, protracted or otherwise.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter. This piece was originally featured in September 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.