TEHRAN, IRAN — Iran has successfully tested a newly developed air defense missile system during the country’s biggest ever air defense drill, an Iranian military official said Thursday.
Gen. Hamid Arjangi, a spokesman for the five-day exercise, said the system — known as Mersad, or Ambush in Farsi — was developed by Iranian scientists and is capable of identifying and hitting targets at low and medium altitudes.
“This medium-range air defence system can identify and destroy modern planes flying at low or at medium altitudes,” Arjangi said, according to the state IRNA news agency.
He described the Mersad, which allegedly is already being mass produced, as a valuable asset in defending Iran’s air space from planes or drones flying at those altitudes. Arjangi did not elaborate.
The exercise, which started Tuesday, is meant to showcase Iran’s capabilities in defending its nuclear facilities from possible attack.
Iran conducts several war games every year, as part of its military self-sufficiency program that started in 1992, and frequently unveils new weapons and military systems during the drills. Its claims often cannot be independently verified.
The drill followed an announcement by the Iranian Air Force saying its troops earlier this year conducted an exercise at several nuclear facilities — the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, the under-construction enrichment site at Fordo, the nuclear uranium conversion facility near Isfahan and the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
When Iran’s Defense Ministry announced Mersad’s development in April, it said the system will be used to launch Shahin missiles, a local version of the 1970s-era U.S.-manufactured Hawk missile. The Hawk has a range 24 kilometres with a 54-kilogram warhead and was sold to Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Iran has been looking to upgrade its air defences, especially as Israel has refused to rule out an airstrike over concerns by the United States and its European allies that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons.
Iran denies the charge and insists the program is only for peaceful purposes. It has also said Israel would face a “devastating retaliation” if it attacked the Islamic Republic.
The Shahin missile is likely Tehran’s response to Moscow’s refusal to deliver the advanced Russian S-300 air defense system amid U.N. and international sanctions on the country.
The S-300 missiles are capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads at ranges of over 145 kilometers and at altitudes of about 27,000 metres.
On Wednesday, IRNA quoted Arjangi as saying that unidentified foreign planes had violated Iran’s airspace six times but that the intruders were intercepted and forced back by Iranian jets.
However, the Iranian state-run English-language Press TV late Wednesday said the incident was a mock intrusion that was part of the drill and not a real violation of Iranian air space, and accused Western media of distorting reports on the exercise.
There was no way to confirm either of the reports, and Arjangi could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based just across the Persian Gulf in the island kingdom of Bahrain, said he had no information on the purported airspace intrusion