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Iraq: Arms Deal With Russia Could Threaten Allied Planes

  • Charles Recknagel

Recent reports that Russia has agreed to upgrade Iraq's air-defense system raise the question of how successfully Baghdad could use the new technology to challenge U.S. and British planes. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 18 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's "Sunday Telegraph" newspaper this week said it has reliable information that Russian military officials have negotiated a $90-million deal to improve the efficiency of Iraq's air-defense systems.

The report, which has yet to be confirmed elsewhere, said that under the deal, the state-owned Belarusian military hardware company Beltechexport has agreed to upgrade Iraq's SA-3 anti-aircraft missile batteries, to extend their range from 18 km to 27 km.

The paper said Iraq's aging anti-aircraft artillery is also to receive an overhaul and Iraqi air defense crews will be sent to Belarus to become familiar with the latest Russian electronic warfare systems.

RFE/RL asked military expert Nigel Vinson of the Royal United Services Institute in London how upgrades of Iraq's air defenses might be used to challenge British and American patrols of no-fly zones over the south and north of the country.

Vinson said Iraq's primary interest is to make its equipment capable of shooting down an allied plane, an event Baghdad hopes would result in the capture of a pilot. He says Baghdad sees capturing a pilot as its best hope of altering the balance of power in the almost daily air strikes which U.S. and British planes carry out against the Iraqi air-defense systems that challenge them.

But until now, Iraq's air-defense systems have shown themselves powerless to shoot down a U.S. or British fighter jet. Vinson says the reason is that the systems are outdated.

"The systems that Iraq has been using up until now have very much been based on 1950s and 1960s ex-Soviet technology. At the time those systems were really designed for medium to high-level (altitude) engagements, primarily of slow-flying aircraft or, indeed, bomber aircraft, which were not highly maneuverable. [The systems] have been modified over the years, [with] improved (missile) engines, improved warheads, but they've not really kept pace with great electronic advances in terms of countermeasures on board aircraft, such as flares, such as electronic jamming and, as we have seen in the last decade, [because of these advances] the number of [U.S. and British] aircraft that has been shot down has been miniscule."

Vinson says Iraq's best current air-defenses are the Russian-made SA-2 and SA-3 systems and that any upgrades would be concentrated on them. He described some of the possible upgrades as follows:

"Currently, Russia offers an upgrade called the Pechora-2, and the main advantages of that are in terms of mobility, the fact that you may be able to place two of these missiles on the rear of a specially modified truck as opposed to embedding it in a fixed, permanent concrete structure. That gives you a great deal of tactical mobility and makes it far more difficult to counter the missile. What you are also looking at are improvements in propulsion, in engine technology, which will give a greater engagement envelope (operational radius), which makes it more difficult for the allied aircraft to judge at which point to turn on their countermeasures and how to avoid those systems."

Vinson says the improvements also will almost certainly include giving Iraqi tracking radar the ability to change operating frequencies. That would confuse allied planes, which know the current Iraqi systems' limited range of radar frequencies and configure their own electronic warfare systems to detect and jam them.

"[The] allied aircraft know the frequencies which the Iraqi missiles currently work at and if there are any changes to those frequencies, certainly for a few days there will be a great deal of ... potential confusion within the allied camp. Because, of course, this will effectively be a new missile system which requires a new series of electronic countermeasures, and that is of great potential risk to the allies."

The analyst says that equipment for the upgrades and technicians to carry out would most likely be smuggled into Iraq and the upgrade work done on-site in the country.

Vinson says that in the long run, Iraq would like to obtain more modern Russian missile systems -- the SA-10 up to SA-20 surface-to-air missile systems. These include highly sophisticated tracking technology developed over the past 10 to 15 years, such as forward-looking infrared, which picks up the heat image of a warplane to detect it even at night. That would erode the advantage allied planes currently have in being able to operate at night, which Western pilots have used so effectively in the last decade to carry out attacks with minimum losses.

But the analyst says there is no suggestion at the moment that SA-10 or higher level systems have been sold to Iraq. Still, he predicts that over the next five years, Moscow is likely to put such sophisticated systems on the market, and they would then present a considerable technical problem for the allies to overcome.

As Iraq seeks to upgrade its existing systems, there is evidence it also is seeking to learn from experience acquired by Belgrade in challenging NATO warplanes during last year's conflict over Kosovo. He says the types of weapons Baghdad and Belgrade have were remarkably similar but that the Serbs used them more successfully to down or hit several warplanes.

"The Iraqis have been known to be in negotiations with the Belgrade government both in terms of technology which could be employed -- one must remember that the integrated air defense system around Belgrade and indeed throughout Yugoslavia was far more advanced than anything the Iraqis have deployed in the last decade, so their technical expertise would be highly valued. Since the Yugoslavs have had a far more recent experience of countering a NATO air armada back in 1999, the Iraqis will be keen to learn the evolved tactics and strategy which the Americans or the United Kingdom may employ. And therefore it is not unreasonable to expect an exchange of both material and technical and tactical information between these two nations."

Vinson says that Belgrade's success came from extensive use of camouflage and dummies to hide the real locations of their air-defense systems, as well as frequently moving their mobile units and placing them in urban areas where NATO was reluctant to strike. By contrast, Iraq makes less use of mobile systems.

Baghdad's attempts to upgrade its air defense system come after U.S. and British planes have struck at it almost daily for two years. But Vinson says that, despite the strikes, it is almost impossible to know how much of the Iraqi system remains intact.

"Really from 1998 onwards, the [British] and U.S. aircraft have been striking almost once every few days against various surface-to-air missile batteries, command, control communications, relay sites, and other logistical points. It is almost impossible to gauge how much damage has been caused. ... It is the case with the older generation surface-to-air missile systems which Iraq has that the radar is physically separated from the missile, which means that when you fire an anti-radar missile in self-defense at it, you may hit the radar, you may knock it over, but you do no damage to the missile systems themselves. And therefore I suspect that, in fact, although it is not used particularly effectively, I imagine the majority of the Iraqi air-defense network is still there, is still hiding out, and is still waiting for a moment when it can just about guarantee that it will down an allied aircraft."

Vinson says the latest report Iraq is trying to acquire new technology is simply another stage in the continuing game of cat-and-mouse between the allied aircraft and the Iraqi air-defense batteries. The U.S. and Britain have vowed to continue patrolling the no-fly zones and Iraq has vowed to keep challenging them.