Iran launched massive military "wargames" on Monday, involving thousands of troops, aircraft and surveillance equipment aimed at testing the country's ability to repel an air attack against "hypothetical sensitive sites," according to its state news agency.
The maneuvers seem to have been planned before Iranian jets reportedly fired on an unmanned U.S. drone earlier in November, and come on the heels of Austere Challenge 2012 in Israel, the largest ever missile defense exercise organized by Israel and the U.S. that began in October.
The Iranians call their surface-to-air system "Mersad," or Ambush, says Gen. Farzad Esmaili, chief of the country's air defense headquarters, according to Iranian state TV. It is modeled after the U.S. Hawk system, and reportedly can lock on to a flying object 50 miles away and hit it from 30 miles away.
"The Iranians are demonstrating to themselves and the world that their air defenses are at the highest state of readiness," says Omar Lamrani, a military analyst with Stratfor.
"There's a psychological propaganda aspect to that, but there's also a real aspect to that," he says. "These exercises also serve the crucial role of training their pilots and training their air defense forces."
It is very difficult to believe that many of their claims are real, Lamrani adds. The Iranians say they have developed their own, improved version of the S-300 missile defense system, which Russia was close to selling to Iran before Israel and the U.S. lobbied to break the deal.
The alternative Iran boasts it created may actually be dummy trucks bearing worthless barrels, says Lamrani.
The maneuvers that began on Monday are more about demonstrating and developing existing capabilities, he says, which is particularly impressive with fighter jets that predate the Iranian revolution in the 1970s.
State-controlled Fars News Agency reported the "wargames" include U.S.-made F-4, F-5 and F-14 fighter jets, and Russian-made Sukhoi-24 fighters. The planes from the Iranian Air Force for Research and Studies will act in both defending roles, and as potential enemies.
But Iran continues to develop their capabilities, Lamrani says.
"What we know for sure is they are making progress," he says. "They are becoming more independent from foreign markets."
The games were scheduled to begin later in November, but seem to have been pushed up to Monday.
"These drills convey a message of peace and security to regional countries," said Iranian spokesman Shahrokh Shahram, according to a Reuters report. "At the same time they send out a strong warning to those threatening Iran."
The operating units will practice defending "hypothetical sensitive sites," Fars reports Shahram as saying.
"The other mission of the IRIAF planes is taking photographs from the entire wargames zone with high speed and precision and then transfering them to the operating central command of the wargames zone in the shortest time possible," said Brig. Gen. Hossein Chitforoush, deputy commander of IRIAF.