Iran Has the Best Military the 1970s Can Buy
Iran has developed “asymmetric” capabilities including foreign proxy militias, sea mines and one of the world’s biggest rocket arsenals.
Here's What You Need To Remember: Iran wouldn't last long in an head-to-head military confrontation. But the country has become extraordinarily adept at projecting force through means short of full war.
Iran’s conventional weaponry is hopelessly out of date, and the country’s leaders know it, according to one expert.
But conventional military inferiority hardly fazes Tehran. Iran has found other ways of exerting influence on the world.
“Never have I seen a country more cognizant of its conventional military deficiencies,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on the Iranian military at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Sean Naylor of Yahoo News.
Iran’s regular armed forces, collectively known as the Artesh, oversees 420,000 people including 350,000 soldiers, 37,000 airmen, 18,000 sailors and 15,000 air-defenders, Naylor explained, citing Iran Military Power, a report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
Tehran also oversees an irregular force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC includes 150,000 ground troops. There are 20,000 people in its maritime militia and 15,000 in its air arm. The IRGC’s Quds Force, its special-operations branch, numbers 5,000 people.
The Artesh and the IRGC both depend on a mix of Russian, Chinese and American equipment, “the latter dating back to the United States’ support of Shah Reza Pahlavi,” Naylor noted.
“It is a grade-A 1970s military,” Taleblu told Naylor.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force and the IRGC air wing together possess some 700 aircraft. Among the most capable are the IRIAF’s U.S.-made F-14s, around 24 of which remain in service from a batch of 79 of the planes that Tehran ordered before the revolution.
Sixty-eight of Iran’s F-14s survived the Iran-Iraq War that ended in 1988. Sanctions that the United States imposed after the 1979 revolution prevented Iran from openly acquiring spare parts for the heavyweight fighters.
Tehran established self-sufficiency programs—not just in the air force, but across the nation’s economy—in an effort to satisfy material needs that foreign companies had once met.
Those programs, combined with concerted Irianan efforts to tap the black market for airplane parts, has helped Iran not only to keep F-14s in working order, but even to improve them with new weapons and other systems. The swing-wing fighters have taken to the air in several conflicts and occasionally have confronted American planes.
Likewise, the Iranian navy has managed to maintain a class of British-made corvettes dating to the 1960s and ‘70s, as well as build new copies of the class with enhanced weaponry.
The seven Moudge- and Alvand-class corvettes, each displacing slightly more than a thousand tons of water, are equipped with radars and armed with guns plus a few short-range, shoulder- and tube-launched anti-air and anti-ship missiles.
Building on its experience with corvettes, the Iranian fleet in late 2019 announced it would construct a 7,000-ton-displacement “mega-destroyer.” It could carry a new vertical-launch missile system that Iran has developed.
For all Iran’s prowess in maintaining and improving old hardware, no one pretends the F-14s and warships would last long in a direct military confrontation with a more sophisticated foe. Instead, Iran has developed “asymmetric” capabilities including foreign proxy militias, sea mines and one of the world’s biggest rocket arsenals.
Iran in all deploys around 55,000 surface-to-surface missiles. Most of them are shorter-range models such as the Shahab-1 and Fatah-110. The country also possesses Qiam rockets that can travel as far as 500 miles.
The country’s farthest-flying rocket is the Sejjil medium-range ballistic missile, which boasts a range of around 1,250 miles, in theory allowing Iran to strike targets across the Middle East, Eastern Europe, East Africa and South Asia.
When the United States in early January 2020 assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, Iran retaliated by firing scores of rockets at two bases in Iraq where U.S. forces reside. Dozens of Americans were injured.
Iran’s proxies arguably are even more dangerous. “Through its vast network of Shiite militias, the Quds Force adds tens of thousands of fighters to Iran’s real combat strength,” Naylor explained. “The Quds Force, for example, has managed Iran’s role in the Syrian war, which together with Russia’s intervention in that conflict, enabled Bashar Assad to remain in power.”
Iran’s asymmetric force are meant “to bait and bleed America in different theaters in the Middle East,” Taleblu told Naylor. “In this kind of fighting, raw capability — numbers, assets — matters a lot less than resolve.”
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This article first appeared in February 2020.