A new book casts much-needed light on the electronic and cyberwarfare postures of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It is no secret that we are big fans of the Lightning Press at Armada. The publishing house produces some of the best overviews of foreign militaries available in the public domain. In the past, we have had Norm Wade, the press’ owner and author, as a guest on our Radioflash! podcast. In late 2022, Mr. Wade’s book on the military of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) revealed how the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army uses Electronic Warfare (EW) to support its manoeuvre force.
You can image our excitement when Mr. Wade’s latest addition to Lightning Press’ OPFOR Smartbook series reached us. Published in June OPFOR Smartbook-4: Iran and the Middle East looks, in part, at the Islamic Republic of Iran’s military. Getting reliable and detailed information on the Iranian armed forces is difficult. Nonetheless, Mr. Wade’s book provides one of the most comprehensive assessments of Iran’s military, and some useful indications of her electronic and cyberwarfare postures.
The Iranian regime routinely uses cyberwarfare at the strategic level to “influence the (Iranian) population’s ideological and cultural exposure,” writes Mr. Wade. Cyberwarfare is also used internationally to harass and intimidate opponents of the regime based abroad, and to promote the Iranian regime’s official narratives. In November 2021, Armada reported on Iranian cyberoperations against her US and Saudi Arabian strategic rivals. As the article states, cyberoperations are also a favoured way for the Iranian government to perform espionage and intelligence-gathering.
What is less clear is the extent to which the Iranian military would employ cyberwarfare at operational and tactical levels. We reported in 2019 that US Cyber Command may have attacked elements of Iran’s Integrated Air Defence System. These attacks may have followed Iran’s shootdown of a US Navy Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk uninhabited aerial vehicle on 20th June 2019. Assuming this attack did take place, it would be surprising the Iranian military did not try to beef up the cyber defences of its military networks.
The book does reveal that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is responsible for offensive military cyberoperations. Iran has two groups of forces: The IRGC arose out of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and is responsible for defending Iran’s regime and Islamic theocracy. Iran’s other military, the Artesh, is more conventional, primarily focused on protecting the country from external threats. As one can image, the respective missions of the two services can overlap. Both the Artesh and IRGC possess full panoplies of sea, land and air forces. Mr. Wade reveals that the IRGC possesses a dedicated Electronic Warfare and Cyber Defence Organisation. Offensive cyber operations are also the responsibility of the country’s Cyber Defence Command.
Strategic-level electronic warfare in Iran, specifically Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collection, is the responsibility of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security writes Mr. Wade. He adds that one of the stated military modernisation goals of Iran is to improve the country’s electronic warfare posture. EW modernisation is one of the country’s goals outlined in its current five-year military plan. Beyond this, we have little additional information on how the Iranian armed forces organise and deploy their EW capabilities. We know little of Iranian EW doctrine nor exactly what electronic warfare systems are used. This is not a failing on the author’s part. One effects of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine is the ability to collect information from the theatre of operations on how the former’s armed forces are fighting in the electronic spectrum.
Scant information is available in this regard vis-à-vis the Iranian military. For example, no data appears to have reached the public domain on the use of EW by Iranian proxies during Yemen’s long civil war. Almost no public information on how Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon such as Hamas have used EW seems to exist. Where information on Iranian EW is publicly available, it often seems confined to blusterous propaganda reports. These reports gush about Iranian EW exercises or newly-introduced kit will devastated Iran’s rivals. Hardly material for rigorous analysis.
With Ukraine aflame and tensions running high with the People’s Republic of China, it is easy to forget that Iran still poses a clear and present threat to the strategic interests of the US and her allies. These threats are underscored by Tehran’s support of insurgents operating in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and her deep opposition to Israel. Iran’s ability to threaten closure of the Persian Gulf, a maritime choke point through which up to 30 percent of the world’s oil consumption flows through daily according to the Strauss Centre thinktank at the University of Texas, is a major cause of concern. Fortunately, the Lightning Press’ latest work helps us makes sense of Iran’s armed force, its current practices and the direction of travel for their electronic and cyberwarfare postures.
by Dr. Thomas Withington