The Conventional Military
Anthony H. Cordesman
•Iran’s conventional army, navy and air force are severely limited in capability, but are strong enough to create major problems for any invasion. They are unlikely to win any major military clash if the United States intervened decisively to defeat them.
•Like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s conventional forces have significant capabilities for irregular warfare and to threaten, intimidate, and conduct asymmetric operations and wars of attrition.
•Iran can use conventional long-range missiles as terror weapons, and has strong influence over non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraq’s armed Shiite groups.
•Iran is a declared chemical weapon state in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, may have a biological weapons program, and has acquired the technology and production capabilities necessary to obtain nuclear fission weapons within the next several years.
•These capabilities act as a growing, if limited, deterrent to attacks on Iran, and in some ways compensate for the limits of its conventional forces.
Iran is sometimes described as the “Hegemon of the Gulf,” but it is a comparatively weak conventional military power with limited modernization since the Iran–Iraq War. It depends heavily on weapons acquired by the shah. Most key equipment in its army, navy and air force are obsolete or relatively low quality imports. Iran now makes some weapons, but production rates are limited and Tehran often exaggerates about its weapons designs. Its forces are not organized or trained to project significant power across the Gulf. Its land forces are not structured to project power deep into a neighboring state like Iraq or to deal with U.S. air-to-ground capabilities.
But Iran is proficient at irregular warfare. It has built up a powerful mix of capabilities for both regular and IRGC forces to defend territory, intimidate neighbors, threaten the flow of oil and shipping through the Gulf, and attack Gulf targets. It has a dedicated force to train and equip non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and Shiite extremists in Iraq—potential proxies that give Iran leverage over other states.
Iran’s acquisition of long-range missiles from North Korea and development of its own liquid- and solid-fueled missiles has given it a strike capability that partly compensates for the weakness of its air force. It has declared that it is a chemical weapons power, and may have a biological weapons program. It has acquired the technology to produce fission nuclear weapons and has enriched uranium to levels where it is clear it can eventually produce fissile material. These capabilities help compensate for the limited capabilities of its conventional forces by increasing deterrence of outside attack and act as a deterrent to attacks on its irregular and asymmetric forces.
•Total forces: 500,000 to 525,000, including Revolutionary Guards. Most are poorly trained conscripts.
•Regular army: 350,000
•Regular navy: 18,000, including some 3,000 to 5,000 Marines
•Regular air force: 25,000 to 35,000
•Reserves: An additional 350,000 poorly trained reserves
•Paramilitary: Some 40,000. In theory, it can mobilize up to 1 million more men (3,500 battalions) in the Basij Resistance Force, which has a nominal strength of over 11 million. Only a fraction of that force receives meaningful training, although Iran has created a substantial local mobilization capability and gives Basij core elements some training with the IRGC.
•Virtually all regular military officers are now products of the revolution.
The status of Iran’s military
Estimates of Iran’s military differ significantly. More reliable sources include the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Jane’s publications, declassified U.S. intelligence, and Congressional Research Service reports. These sources indicate that Iran is still heavily dependent on arms acquired by the shah, and relatively low-grade weapons systems imported from China, North Korea and Viet Nam during the eight-year war with Iraq. Iran has been unable to obtain advanced weapons and military technology from the West, and has had limited deliveries from Russia. Its only major weapons imports from Russia have been short-range missiles, three Kilo-class submarines and TOR short-range surface-to-air missiles. Tehran has not obtained modern armor, artillery, aircraft or major combat ships.
Iran’s annual defense budget of roughly $10 billion excludes much of its spending on defense industry, missile programs, support of foreign non-state actors, nuclear capability and intelligence activity. The total is likely to be in the range of $12 billion to $14 billion—less than the United Arab Emirates, and only between 25 percent to 33 percent of Saudi defense spending. Iran spends only about 20 percent of the amount allocated by the six sheikhdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council – a consistent trend since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988.
Despite claims of indigenous production of major weapons systems, Iran has actually only deployed some 100 Zulfiqar main battle tanks (roughly equivalent to the T-72), a small number of Townsan light tanks, 140 Boragh armored personnel carriers and small numbers of self-propelled artillery weapons. But it has produced large numbers of towed artillery weapons and short- to long-range rockets. It has updated and modified many of its older weapons systems, and does produce a variety of effective short-range anti-tank, man-portable surface-to-air, anti-ship and other guided weapons. It is also producing unmanned aerial vehicles, some of which have been modified to carry a conventional warhead.
Iran’s land forces
Iran’s land forces are large by regional standards, with some 350,000 men in the army and 100,000 in the IRGC land forces. Neither is well equipped. They do not have modern tanks or armored vehicles. Their roughly 1,600 tanks are largely locally made Zulfiqars and some 480 aging versions of the Soviet-designed T-72.
Iran has some 3,200 major artillery weapons, but 2,010 tube artillery weapons are towed systems left over from the Iran-Iraq War. Most of its roughly 900 multiple rocket launchers are area fire weapons with limited operational effectiveness. Many army aircraft and attack helicopters are not operational or cannot be sustained for more than limited periods.
Together, the Army and IRGC have the size and capability to defend Iranian territory. But they are neither organized nor trained for power projection or sustained combat outside Iran. Turkey and the southern Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have weapons that are far more modern and effective. Iran’s northern neighbors are much weaker, and Iraq and Afghanistan have limited forces. Iran’s land forces do have the bases and ability to operate in Iraq’s border areas if Iraq does not have U.S. support.
Iran’s air and air defense forces
Iran’s air force and the IRGC air branch are its weakest military elements. They have 25,000 to 35,000 members. The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) says Iran has an inventory of some 312 combat aircraft. But 40 percent to 60 percent have limited or no mission capability at any given time, and many are so old or poorly supported that they cannot sustain a high sortie rate.
Some 60 percent of Iran’s warplanes were purchased by the shah, including (44) F-14s, (20) F-5Bs, (64) F-4Ds and F-4Es, and (over 60) F-5E/Fs, which have had limited, local modernization since 1979. Its other major combat aircraft comprise (30) Su-24MK, (35) MiG-29, (13) Su-25K Russian fighters; (10) F-1E French Mirages; and (24) Chinese F-7Ms. These include Iraqi fighters flown to Iran during the 1991 Gulf War. Their operational status is uncertain. The Su-24s and MiG-29s are early export versions with less capable avionics.
Iran has modified and updated some aircraft, acquired relatively modern Russian air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, has Chinese anti-ship missiles, and has tried to equip its F-14s with modified I-Hawk missiles for long range air-to-air combat to make up for the fact that they can no longer operate the Phoenix MISSILE. It is producing its own unmanned aerial vehicles. Tehran is also trying to produce its own light Saegheh and Azarakhsh fighters and has apparently introduced some into its active force. Yet, its air force lags behind the technology, readiness, and sustainability of U.S. air units and obsolete compared to the Saudi Air Force and rapidly modernizing U.A.E. Air Force. Iran has reportedly bought large numbers of modern Russian and/or Chinese fighters, but none have been confirmed. Purchases are now sharply restricted by U.N. sanctions.
Iran has even more problems with its land-based surface-to-air missiles. Its only modern systems are short-range man-portable systems and some 30 short-range Russian TOR-Ms suitable only for point defense. Its other systems are 30 short-range Rapier fire units and 15 Tigercats of uncertain operational status. Its longer-range systems include roughly (154) U.S. IHawks, (45) Russian SA-2s, (10) SA-5s and a limited number of CSA-1 Chinese versions of the SA-2. All are obsolete. While Iran has tried to modernize its electronics and integrate them into a modernized command-and-control and radar system, they are highly vulnerable to electronic countermeasures and anti-radiation missiles. This situation could change, however, if Iran can acquire operational versions of a more modern system like the S-300. There are reports it may have obtained four batteries from Belarus.
Iran’s entire air defense system remains vulnerable to “stealth” strike fighters, cruise missiles, and air-to-surface missiles fired from ranges outside its effective surface-to-air missile coverage. Tehran would need to acquire large numbers of advanced surface-to-air missile systems with anti-ballistic missile capabilities, like the Russian S300, and advanced radars and command-and-control systems necessary to integrate them into an effective system. Russia had refused to make such sales as of mid-2010.
Iran’s navy and the naval branch of the IRGC
Iran’s 18,000-man navy and 12,000- to 15,000-man Naval Guards pose the most serious threat to other Gulf states and the U.S. Navy. Iran’s Navy oversees operations in the Caspian and the Gulf of Oman. The naval branch of the IRGC oversees Gulf operations. Both have serious limitations. They lack modern surface vessel combat capability and depend on four obsolete frigates and three obsolete corvettes from the shah’s era with limited modernization and uncertain combat readiness. Iran is apparently building a prototype Mowaj-class corvette/destroyer, which is not yet operational.
The navy does, however, have three Russian Kilo-class submarines—which some reports indicate can lay smart mines and fire long-range homing torpedoes. The IRGC has four to seven North Korean/Iranian-made Yono and Nahand-class midget submarines, and is producing four more. It also has small, semi-submersible craft. The navy also has an aviation branch with three aging P-3F maritime patrol and airborne command and control aircraft, three Falcon aircraft modified for electronic warfare and intelligence, and anti-submarine and mine warfare helicopters.
The IRGC has a wide range of mine warfare and smaller, more modern missile patrol boats armed with Chinese and Iranian-made anti-ship missiles. It also has land-based anti-ship missile batteries, including HY-2s with ranges of approximately 100 kilometers, which can be directed to a target by an aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle. (China has anti-ship missiles with 200-280 kilometer ranges, but it is not believed these have been sold to Iran.) U.S. experts note that Iran can attack targeted ships with C-701, C-801, C-802 and Iranian-made anti-ship cruise missiles from its own shores, islands, and oil platforms using relatively small mobile launchers.
The navy and IRGC cannot close the Gulf for an extended period, but they could severely restrict shipping through the Gulf for five to 10 days. IRGC naval forces can operate from bases along the Gulf coast, bases near Strait of Hormuz shipping channels, Gulf islands and in the Gulf of Oman. Its anti-ship missile vessels include 13 Kaman-class and 38-meter Thondor (Hudong)-class vessels with C-802 anti-ship missiles, and 9 C-14 and 10 Mk-13 smaller patrol boats with short range Chinese anti-ship missiles. Iran has made and deployed at least 25 Peykapp II-class missile boats and 15 of its own Peykaap I-class coastal patrol craft. The IRGC also has some 100 other, smaller patrol boats, many of which are small enough to be difficult to detect reliably by radar. A number of Iran’s patrol boats are armed with torpedoes and short-range or man-portable anti-air missiles.
The Iranian Navy and IRGC regularly exercise laying mines. The navy can use submarines and five aging mine warfare ships. But all IRGC patrol vessels and many Iranian commercial vessels can lay mines. U.S. Navy intelligence estimates that Iran has the Chinese EM52, a rocket-propelled anti-ship mine, and that the Iranian purchase of three Russian KILO-class submarines probably included modern magnetic, acoustic and pressure-sensitive mines. Iran also produces its own mines, although these may still be limited to less advanced designs. U.S. experts estimate that Iran had at least 2,000 mines by 2004. This is a key threat. The United States normally deploys limited mine warfare capabilities in the Gulf. And Gulf naval capabilities include only five Saudi mine layers and some helicopters with uncertain readiness and training.
The Marines and IRGC could use patrol boats, small craft and commercial vessels to raid key offshore facilities in the Gulf, attack key petroleum facilities on the cost, strike at shipping vessels, or raid shore facilities such as desalination or power plants. Iran could also use marines and specially trained IRGC forces to seize ships and infiltrate land targets. It has amphibious ships, but some exercises include activities that train small craft with teams of IRGC fighters in ways suitable for raids on offshore or coastal targets.
Finding and destroying all of the active elements of the naval branch of the IRGC and Iran’s smaller surface craft would be difficult. While Iran’s smaller craft have limited ability to stay at sea, they can be remotely located and used in a war of attrition to launch sudden raids with anti-ship missiles, using direct fire weapons, or drop mines. The IRGC and some elements of the Iranian Navy regularly practice the use of small craft, commercial vessels and amphibious vessels in moving forces that can defend and seize targets in the Gulf and on its coast, and support the deployment of medium to long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles and operations of small craft and missile patrol boats outside regular peacetime bases.
•The United States could destroy all key elements of Iranian military power in virtually any scenario in a matter of weeks, if Washington had the support of Iran’s neighbors. It could inflict devastating damage in a matter of days.
•Iran’s missile and potential nuclear capabilities should be weighed against vast U.S. and Israeli superiority in existing missile and nuclear capabilities. Israel alone could win any nuclear arms race with Iran for at least the next decade.
•Iran could not win any serious confrontation with Turkey, and cannot match the rate of modernization and defense spending by Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf Cooperation Council sheikhdoms.
•But Iran has also already proven its ability to threaten, intimidate and carry out significant low-level or terrorist attacks—directly or through surrogates—against both major and regional powers.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and also acts as a national security analyst for ABC News.