Iran's Raad (3rd Khordad) air defense system brought down a US drone on June 20.
Iran showcased its impressive military capabilities on Thursday by downing a sophisticated US drone.
It says it used its "3rd Khordad" system, which is supposed to replicate the S-300's capabilities. Iran has also been highlighting other defense capabilities recently, including precision ballistic missiles, rockets, drones, submarines, limpet mines and cruise missiles.
Tehran's defense technology is impressive. Most of its neighbors have not developed their own indigenous weapons systems, nor are they particularly innovative when it comes to using the technologies they do have, which are supplied by the US and Western powers.
This leads to the question, if war breaks out between the US and Iran, and their respective allies, how will Iran and its proxies stack up?
When we look at how Iran and its allies have waged war in the past, it is clear Iran doesn't wage massive wars.
Iran's regular armed forces (Artresh) are weak and poorly equipped.
Iran has a regular army and navy, called Artesh and navy. These armed forces are potentially quite large in a country of 80 million. It has 530,000 men under arms, but according to the Middle East Institute, they are poorly equipped.
Since Iran's last land war was its 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, it is "hard to provide an accurate assessment of their real fighting capabilities." The war with Iraq saw Iran use human wave attacks on a battlefield that sometimes resembled more World War I than a war of maneuver and technology. Even though Saddam Hussein's army fought the Iranians to a standstill, it was no match for the US military in the 1991 Gulf War and it was easily destroyed.
Iran doesn't spend much on its army. Around $16 billion in 2017, compared to an Israeli defense budget of up to $19b. Saudi Arabia plows through $76b., and the Americans spend $600b.
This then tells us Iran's conventional army is no match for the US in a real war. But Iran doesn't fight large conventional wars. Its strategy is based on its alliance system involving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates, allies and proxies, including Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iraqi paramilitaries, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the real source of Iran's warmaking power.
The IRGC has a variety of forces, including its own 100,000 soldiers, as well as a Basij militia of another 600,000 or so, according to the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. The IRGC has its own navy, which is larger than Iran's regular navy, and its own air force. It also has a cyber force. This puts the IRGC at the forefront of Iran's technical knowhow. It is the IRGC that set up bases in Syria, and managed relationships with allies.
Iran has transferred precision guidance technology to Hezbollah for its rockets. In March, the IRGC stated that all of Israel is within range of the Lebanese terrorist group's missiles.
Hezbollah's massive rocket arsenal of more than 150,000 rockets pose a major threat. These include long-range rockets such as the Zelzal, Fateh 110 and the Fajr, as well as shorter range such as Katyushas. The Fateh 110 has a range of several hundred kilometers.
Hezbollah has an assortment of other weapons; it has deployed anti-ship missiles in the past and has anti-air systems such as the SA-7, which Iran used to fire at a US Reaper drone on June 13.
Hezbollah has accumulated an estimated 150,000 rockets.
Iran likes to showcase its missile abilities. In September 2018 it fired seven Fateh 110s at dissidents in Koya in northern Iraq.
They stuck precisely at the room where the dissidents were meeting. It has used its Zulfiqar and Qiam ballistic missiles against ISIS in Syria. It is thought that these missiles can fly 800 km. Iran has also developed a line of Shehab missiles since the 1990s.
It is not clear how well they function, but they allegedly have a range up to 2,000 km. Iran also says it put guided warheads on a missile called the Khoramshahr. It said in February this missile carries a 1,800 kg. warhead.
In February, Iran also showed off a new long range cruise missile, which it claimed has a range of 1,300 km. Called the Hoveizeh, it's part of a larger Soumar family of cruise missiles. Iran's Press TV said the Houthi rebels used a cruise missile against Saudi Arabia in the last several days.
There is no end to Iran's seemingly endless list of new technology. Submarines with cruise missiles were also unveiled in February. Iran also has a new destroyer, and tested armed drones in March. Iran often copies and improves other country's weapons, and copied a US Sentinel drone it captured. It may have used North Korean expertise on its rockets. Afterwards, Iran transfers technology to its allies. The Houthis offer a battlefield testing ground for its rockets.
But none of these rockets are a game changer in a real war. Israel, for instance, has built a multi-layered defense system to stop missiles. This includes the Iron Dome, David's Sling and Arrow-3. And Israel and the US have done missile defense drills with the THAAD system for high altitude air defense. Israel also has Patriot batteries, and is more than capable of thwarting a missile threat.
The US Navy, including the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Force in the Gulf of Oman, is also equipped with enough firepower to bring the Iranian navy and air force to heel. This would not be a great competition, if the US wanted to do it.
Iraq's IRGC-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are estimated to number at least 100,000.
The way Iran fights wars, though, is asymmetrically. It doesn't want a conventional war. That is why Iran also uses other allies, such as the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi'ite militias called the PMU. These have 100,000 men under arms and possess missiles, rockets and armored vehicles. They helped defeat ISIS, and some of them have fought the Americans in the past. The US army in Iraq today is there solely to train Iraqi security forces against ISIS, not to fight Iran. In the last week, there have been four rocket and mortar attacks near US forces. Iran knows that in each case, if its allies harass the US, the US will not likely retaliate but will call on the Iraqi army to respond.
In Syria, Iranian-backed militias have tested the US near Tanf and Deir Ezzor in recent years. In each case, the US struck at the harassers. These included mercenaries who attacked a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces post in February 2018. Any Iranian harassment of US forces in Syria would be met with force. And the US has the forces to deal that blow, including several thousand personnel and air force assets.
The question for the US and its allies when dealing with Iran is that in each case, the US and its allies – including Saudi Arabia and Israel – are capable of fighting, and have already been fighting, Iranian-backed groups. Israel has dealt with thousands of rockets fired from Gaza. Riyadh has dealt with drone attacks and ballistic missiles. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria over five years, according to reports.
If a conflict develops between the US and Iran, the US and her allies are more than a match for every part of the Iranian octopus of militias and proxies. The question is whether each front-line will erupt at once and the complexity of facing off against these asymmetric forces in a major conflict. Ideally, neither Iran nor the US want that conflict, and neither do their allies.