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updated: 11/12/2012 7:48 AM

Iran's army drill to test new air defense system

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Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's military is to test a new air defense system modeled after the U.S. Hawk system as tensions with the West escalate over the country's suspect nuclear program, the Iranian state TV reported Monday.

The report quoted Gen. Farzad Esmaili, chief of Iran's air defense headquarters, as saying the surface-to-air system has been named "Mersad," or Ambush. The system is capable of locking a flying object at a distance of 50 miles and can hit from 30 miles away, using an Iranian-made missile dubbed Shahin, or Hawk, according to the report.

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The TV said Mersad will be tested during the military exercises that started last weekend. Billed as "massive," the week-long drill is also to include Iranian jet fighters, drones and about 8,000 troops, spanning over nearly the entire eastern half of Iran.

The drill is meant to upgrade Iranian capabilities amid rising tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's enrichment program, which can be a pathway to nuclear arms. United States and its allies fear the program masks Tehran's ambitions to obtain a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the claim, insisting the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

The ongoing military drill is also expected to test Iran's S-200 air defense system, which was first displayed in September. The S-200 is a Russian-made, medium to high altitude surface-to-air missile system designed primarily to track, target, and destroy aircraft and cruise missiles.

As part of the military maneuvers, Iran on Monday unveiled its first hovercraft vessel, dubbed "Tondar," or Thunder, capable of launching missiles and surveillance drones, the report said.

Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi told reporters during the inauguration of the amphibious assault ship that Iran now has joined a group of five other countries with the know-how for hovercraft production.

Tehran has tried to build a self-sufficient military program since 1992, manufacturing its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles, radars, boats, submarines, and fighter jets. More recently, Iran's military leaders have said they believe future wars will be air- and sea-based and Tehran has sought to upgrade its air defense systems and naval power in anticipation of such a possibility.

Iran regularly holds military exercises aimed at boosting its defense capabilities and testing new equipment. Tehran also occasionally announces additions to its arsenal, holds inauguration ceremonies, starts up new production lines and test-fires new missiles.

Iran's purported military advancements are impossible to independently verify because the country does not release technical details of its arsenals or rely on equipment from major international defense contractors.

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