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Iran’s Air Defense System Hit, New Satellite Image Shows

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Analysis on satellite imagery obtained by Iran International confirms media reports that a central part of an air defense system at an Iranian air base in Isfahan was hit by an Israeli attack on Friday.

The overnight attack has been a subject of intense speculation and debate, fueled partly at least by Israel’s customary silence in such instances. Confirmation has come from unnamed US officials who say missiles were fired from Israeli fighter jets over Iraqi airspace and “hit” their intended target. This has been disputed by Iranian officials who say the explosions heard in Isfahan early Friday local time were caused by Iran’s defense systems hitting three “quadcopters”.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told NBC News the drones took off from inside Iran and flew for a few hundred meters before being downed. “They’re … more like toys that our children play with, not drones,” Amirabdollahian said.

The image –taken by SkyWatch on 20 April 2024– shows an air defense system in Eighth Shekari Air Base, about 20 km northeast of Isfahan and 150 km south of the nuclear facility at Natanz, the central part of which seems to have been hit.

Satellite images before and after the strike

“The image shows clearly that the system’s engagement radar, which guides the surface-to-air missiles, has been destroyed,” Farzin Nadimi, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Iran International after analyzing the image. “Destruction on this scale can’t be caused by “toy quadcopters”, as Iranian officials suggest.”

A similar assessment was offered by New York Times earlier. Analyzing satellite imagery, the paper concluded that “the precision attack at the Eighth Shekari Air Base damaged or destroyed the “flap-lid” radar, which is used in S-300 air defense systems to track incoming targets.”

This was also suggested by Chris Biggers, a former U.S. government imagery analyst, who published on X an image taken within a few hours after explosions were heard in Isfahan.

“Imagery acquired 0648Z 19APR2024 showed evidence of damage to the Iranian S-300PMU2 strategic surface-to-air missile battery in Isfahan,” Biggers wrote. “Other battery system components however have been withdrawn from the site. Their status and location is currently unclear.”

It may be impossible to say what exactly happened in Isfahan early Friday local time without detailed disclosures from Iran and Israel. But there’s growing evidence –and growing consensus among experts– that the target of the attack was Iran’s S-300 air defense system, and it was hit.

The S-300 is a Russian long-range surface-to-air missile defense system that can track objects 300 km afar, including ballistic missiles. It has four components: surveillance radar (tracks), command vehicle (identifies target and orders launch), engagement radar (guides missiles), and six launch vehicles that surround the engagement radar, and each fires two missiles. The system can therefore target up to 6 targets with 12 missiles at once.

Russia completed the delivery of S-300 to Iran in October 2016, after years of negotiation and several postponements, mainly due to pressure from western countries and Israel –which has long claimed Islamic Republic of Iran to be an “existential threat” for Israel.

Tension has increased between Iran and Israel in recent weeks following a presumed Israeli airstrike on April 1, which destroyed a building in Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus and killed several Iranian officers.

Tehran retaliated by firing hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel on April 13, marking the first-ever direct attack on Israel by the Islamic Republic, although no casualties were reported.