By Sourav Roy
"Our production lines are running very smoothly and we are capable of producing an endless number of ballistic missiles," announced Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in a recent interview with the Iranian national news agency Fars. "We have made phenomenal progress in air defence capabilities and the current slew of sanctions means nothing more than a soft encouragement for us to acquire 'self-sufficiency'," he added.
Salami's comments clearly resonate with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's claims in February that Iran's enemies remained unsuccessful in their attempts to devise an interception system capable of breaching Iran's "impenetrable" missile shield. Iranian political and military top brass have repeatedly claimed flamboyant military accomplishments and technological advancements, only to maintain silence later on.
Iran's defence minister, Ahmad Vahidi, also boasted earlier this year that Iran's Qaem missiles - semi-heavy laser-guided missiles with an ability to destroy targets flying at low speeds and altitudes - were out of reach of its enemy's electronic warfare and tracking systems. He credited this incredible stealth ability to the Qaem's advanced laser-guidance systems.
Are Iran's military and ballistic claims just histrionics scripted to accentuate a power-play? Or is there some truth lurking behind the self-glorification?
While Iran has consistently denied any interest in nuclear weapons and claimed its missiles were strictly defensive in nature, Western powers have accused it of harbouring nuclear weapons ambitions. In February 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared: "Iran's activities are related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."
Missiles in Iran's inventory are believed to be inherently nuclear capable, if it could develop sufficiently compact warheads. Its longest range missiles are capable of reaching Israel, Turkey, the neighbouring Arab Gulf States, southern Russia and south-eastern Europe. In 2003-04, concerns were raised about Iran's nuclear intentions and its designs for a missile re-entry vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Since then, Iran has made considerable progress in the production capabilities of fissile material (enriched uranium and plutonium) and ballistic missiles. In November 2008, Iran test a solid-fuelled Sajjil missile, capable of delivering a 750 kilogram nuclear weapon over 2,500 kilometres. Subsequent Sajjil tests - in May, September and December 2009 - were reported as successful by Iranian authorities.
February 2009 witnessed Iran launching a communications satellite, Omid, into orbit by employing a long-range missile. It thus became the first Muslim nation to put an indigenously-built satellite into space. By this time, Iran had successfully exhibited its prowess in developing liquid-filled missiles such as the Shahab-3 and the Ghadr-1. All this indicates that Iran has established the industrial infrastructure and technological foundation to begin indigenous development of a larger, more powerful rocket propulsion mechanism.
The last 10 years has seen the US and other nations deploy silo-based missile interceptors in Poland, tracking radar mechanisms in the Czech Republic, and a national missile defence system in Alaska and California, supposedly to ward off potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). America's threat perception of Iran has grown steadily over the years. In 2007, US President George Bush cited US intelligence agencies that, "with continued foreign assistance", Iran could develop an ICBM capable of targeting the United States and all of Europe before 2015. But this was just re-packaged propaganda. As early as 1998, the Rumsfeld Commission, also known as the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, concluded that Iran "has the technical capability and resources to demonstrate an ICBM-range ballistic missile [with a range greater than 5,500 kilometres]... within five years of a decision to proceed." Ten years later the story remained the same but the worst-case scenarios projected by the US had not played out.
Based on an updated intelligence assessment in September 2009, US President Barack Obama decided to reconfigure the European missile shield in the town of Morag in Poland. The decision was based on a White-House fact sheet - Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy. A "Phased, Adaptive Approach" for Missile Defense in Europe. The Fact Sheet said: "The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles is developing more rapidly than previously projected, while the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities has been slower to develop than previously estimated." This was a volte face from the line of approach adopted by the Bush administration.
While the world witnessed a focused momentum among Western nations to restrain Iran's missile capabilities, the stark truth was that there was not a single international treaty banning ballistic missile development or acquisitions. The most successful initiative to regulate missile technology was established in 1987 by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the initiative had 34 member states by the end of 2001. It initially sought to limit the spread of missiles, rockets, cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft and other delivery systems for nuclear weapons capable of delivering a minimum 500 kilogram payload over a minimum distance of 300 kilometres. In 1993, the guidelines were changed to cover delivery systems for all weapons of mass destruction. Iran became a prime target for MTCR member nations, and, in 2003, they restricted export of items believed to be used for missile proliferation programmes, such as those at the Iranian facility producing Shahab-3 missiles. However, countries such as China, North Korea and Libya, with whom Iran has had more favourable military alliances, were not signatories to the MTCR. In 2004, the Chinese government's application for MTCR membership was rejected on the grounds that it had not ceased exporting missile technologies to Iran.
Further obstacles to Iran's ballistic programmes were instituted in 2002 and 2003 in the form, respectively, of the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (ICOC) - subsequently known as the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). To date, 130 countries are subscribed to the HCOC; Iran is not among them. It was also the only country to have voted against the UN General Assembly resolutions in 2005 and 2008 that endorsed this code. On the 23 December 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1737 that directed states to prohibit the transit of missile technology to Iran from their territories or by their nationals.
The journey, thus far
Iran's acquisition of ballistic-missile technologies began in the mid-1980s when it purchased Soviet-made, liquid-fuelled, Scud-B missiles from Libya, North Korea and Syria to satisfy an immediate wartime need during the Iran-Iraq war. In March 1985, Iran executed its first Scud-B missile attack against Iraq from a base in Kermanshah. Over the next three weeks, it fired seven more missiles at Baghdad and one at Kirkuk. Following the success of the Scud-B missile attacks, Iran purchased additional 300-kilometre range Scud-Bs and 500-kilometre range Scud-Cs from Libya, Syria and North Korea, which it later modified into the Shahab-1 and the Shahab-2 respectively. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the then-Speaker of the majlis (parliament), led diplomatic missions to the above countries in pursuit of the additional missiles. The acquisition of this second batch of missiles allowed Iran to launch eight more Scud-Bs against Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the second half of 1986.
In November 1987, Mohsen Rafiqdust, the Revolutionary Guards Minister, claimed that Iran had successfully begun copying Scud-B missiles, and, with the help of North Korean engineers, Tehran was assembling and maintaining missiles. North Korea emerged as Iran's chosen military partner as it easily reverse-engineered the Scud-B missiles in the early 1980s, and was one of the first countries outside the Warsaw Pact to produce the missiles locally. In the mid-1990s, Tehran also purchased No-Dong medium-range missiles from North Korea. It quickly established the infrastructure to assemble a domestic version of the No-Dong, and called it the Shahab-3. The production of the Shahab-3 is still believed to be dependent on critical components imported from North Korea, Russia, and possibly China.
By 2004, Iran had modified the Shahab-3 by increasing its range, lengthening the propellant tanks, reducing the warhead mass, reconfiguring the re-entry vehicle, and, most importantly, replacing the heavy steel airframe with a lighter-weight, high-strength aluminium alloy. The new missile was called the Ghadr-1. As if to demonstrate its improving ballistic advancement to the world, Iran added a second stage to a modified Ghadr-1 platform to deploy a satellite into low-Earth orbit with the help of the Safir space launcher.
It is estimated that Iran has approximately 200 to 300 Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles, each capable of reaching targets in neighbouring countries. Using the Shahab-3, which has a payload of 1,000 kilograms, Iran can also hit targets as far as 900 kilometres from its border. The Shahab-3 has been successfully commissioned in the Iranian army since 2003.
In 2004, Iran began flight tests of modified versions of the Shahab-3/Ghadr-1, which had an extended range of 1,600 kilometres, albeit with a smaller, 750 kilogram, warhead. Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran has six Shahab3/Ghadr-1 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles, and between 12 and 18 Shahab-1/2 TELs. Despite Iran's growing ballistic prowess, its liquid propellant missile programme remained dependent on foreign supply of key components, including antiquated Soviet-era engines. These missiles were also turning out to be cumbersome, immobile and vulnerable to pre-emption.
The solution for Iran lay in a high-growth potential, indigenously designed and produced, solid-propellant missile industry. In what could be considered a turning point in Iran's ballistic history, Tehran designed, developed and produced a solid-propellant missile, the Sajjil. After two decades of secret efforts and substantial technical and material support from China, the Sajjil boosted Iran to a new level in missile development. It had better acceleration, shorter motor-burn time that reduced chances of boost-phase interception by potential adversaries, and could be launched faster than other missiles.
Iran's progress from liquid-fuelled missiles, Ghadr and Shahab, to solid-propellant missiles such as Sajjil has profound strategic implications. As Iran masters solid-propellant production technologies, it inches closer to its goal of manufacturing long-range missiles designed to meet specific strategic objectives. It is now developing the operating system of a new medium-range solid propellant missile, the Sajjil-2, which will be capable of delivering a 750 kilogram warhead over a distance of 2,200km. The Sajjil-2 has successfully been flight-tested and is only two to three years from being commissioned in the military. However, Sajjil-2's consistency and reliability under a variety of operational conditions is yet to be proven. Iran is the only country in the world to have developed a missile of this range without first having developed a nuclear warhead or nuclear weapon.
Despite all the brouhaha and advancements in ballistic missile development, Iran is not known to have developed appropriate nuclear warheads that can be delivered by an ICBM or a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM). Some observers believe that China and North Korea are helping Iran to achieve this ability.
While most missile design and development activities can be hidden from public view or initially concealed with commercial space-launcher development programmes, flight tests, which must be undertaken to verify and document a missile's performance and reliability, cannot be kept hidden. Factors such as gyro-stabilisation, down-range dispersion, range and payload thresholds, aerodynamic stability, strike and flight accuracy, and combustion/propulsion efficacy with and without the warhead can only be studied when the missile is in flight.
With current satellite tracking systems, it is impossible for any country to conceal flight-tests, which are an absolute necessity to verify and document a missile's performance and reliability, uncover design and construction flaws and validate system performance under a variety of operational conditions. On average, at least a dozen flights have to be performed before any missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead is deployed or commissioned. Additional tests are sometimes required to fix flight failures during the test programme. Iran can, thus, not avoid detection of its missile-testing activities.
In 1998, when Iran secretly test-fired a missile from a barge in the Caspian Sea, the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, confirmed that a missile was launched from a cargo vessel in the Persian Gulf. "They took a Scud, put it on a transporter-erector-launcher, lowered it in, took the vessel out into the water, peeled back the top, erected it, fired it, lowered it and tried to cover it up," he said.
Much of Iran's military prowess and advancements are known to have been acquired with considerable foreign assistance in the 1990s. North Korea's missile cooperation with Iran is well-documented. Besides providing the bulk of Iran's missile imports, it is believed to have tutored Iran in the reverse-engineering process of developing and producing missiles and rockets from existing operational systems.
Russia's role in providing technical assistance to Iran is amply substantiated by reports of Russia's Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute collaborating with Iran's Defence Industries Organization and the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group in developing specialised wind-tunnels, data collection systems and scale models for testing aerodynamic properties for shorter-range missiles. According to a dossier by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Roosvoorouzhenie, the official Russian military equipment export agency, Nikolia Kuznetsov Engines - a former manufacturer of liquid-fuel engines, and the Bauman National Technical University - one of Russia's leading research centres - all played a role in developing the propulsion, guidance and control systems of Iranian missiles. Iranian students also took rocket engineering courses at the Baltic State University in St. Petersburg.
China is also alleged to have provided equipment, technology and expertise to Iran to develop its long-range solid-propellant missiles. The IISS names Chinese institutions such as the China Precision Engineering Institute and Great Wall Industries as having helped Iran develop more accurate and reliable missiles.
With an arsenal of such lethal missiles, how does Iran intend to maximise its benefits? All Tehran's ballistic missiles are assigned to the air-force units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In 2003, IRGC chief commander, Yahya Rahim Safavi, revealed that Iran had organised five ballistic missile groups. In 2004, the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) claimed that Iran was fielding two brigades for the Shahab-3 missile, the fifth Raad Brigade stationed at the Sajjad Base near Karaj, and the fifteenth Qaem Brigade. It is also widely believed that Iran built underground silos in the Tabriz and Khoraramabad areas, from where Iran's Shahab and Ghadr-1 range of missiles would put Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Qatar and other countries in the Persian Gulf at easy strike range. Presumably, once the Sajjil-2 is fully developed and operative, it too could be deployed to the silos near Tabriz, placing parts of south-eastern Europe within reach as well.
Utility of the missile arsenal
Iran could use its ballistic missile programme as a political weapon to wage a terror campaign against adversary countries or cities. While the attacks could trigger a wave of fear, the resultant casualties would be lower than imagined. One of the principal reasons is that Iran's ballistic missiles are severely limited due to their poor accuracy, despite Iran's tall claims. Iran could conduct harassment attacks aimed at disrupting operations or causing damage at fuel-storage depots, airfields and seaports, but it would be incapable of shutting down critical military activities or bases.
The distance from Western Iran to Israel is about 1,000 kilometres, a distance that plays a critical role in determining Iranian military might. Operational security and pre-launch survivability prevent Iran from deploying missiles near its border with Iraq, extending the minimum required missile range by an additional 300 kilometres, the approximate surveillance distance of the American E-3 Advanced Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) air-plane patrolling the Persian Gulf or along Iran's border with Iraq.
The maximum range of a Shahab-2 missile is 500 kilometres, less than half the distance to Israel. Its range could be increased to 700 or 800 kilometres by expanding the fuel tanks and lightening the payload. This would, however, diminish the military utility of the missile by reducing the warhead mass to inconsequential levels. A poor warhead mass means the impact is not as powerful. The range of a missile is inversely proportional to the mass of its warhead. The greater the range, the less the warhead mass on board. Iran does not seem to have figured out a solution that produces a perfect mix of the two parameters.
When Iran tested the Shahab-3/Ghadr-1 in July 2000, the missile impacted some 800 kilometres short of its maximum range. Such failures suggest that the missiles do not provide a stable flight path or satisfactory strike accuracy. Another important parameter that indicates a missile's control and accuracy is the Circular Error Probable (CEP). The CEP precisely calculates a weapon's accuracy. For short-range tactical rockets, an accuracy error of one to two percent of the total flight range is permissible, but for longer-range strategic systems, even if armed with a nuclear warhead, such a margin of error is unacceptably large. A one percent error for a 2,000 kilometre range missile would result in a warhead missing the target by as much as 20 kilometres. Therefore, to be strategically effective, medium- and long-range missiles require more precision. The Sajjil-2 has many shortcomings to be overcome before Iran can even dare to field it against Israel.
An accurate delivery of the warhead also requires the missile's propulsion system to shut down at precisely the right moment. Iran is still struggling with this in its existing liquid-fuelled missiles. The CEP also denotes the kill probability for a missile. Iran's Shahab and Ghadr missiles have very low kill probabilities, and their military utility is very poor. Thus, assuming that each of these missiles carries a one-tonne, high-explosive warhead and Iranian target planners require a destruction level of 50 percent, 800 Shahab-1 would be required to fulfil the mission. If the Ghadr-1 was used, more than 3,000 would be required. If Iran wanted to damage Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona, for example, and achieve 50 percent success, it would require more than 3,500 Ghadr-1 missiles. For 90 percent success, more than 10,000 Ghadr-1 missiles would be required. As things stand, Iran's ballistic abilities are, therefore, not much of an imminent threat to Israel.
When it comes to casualties, the strategic value of ballistic missile attacks is more on the fear factor than on a realistic assessment of risk. As a result of the 1,115 German A-4 missile attacks on Britain during the Second World War, 2,754 civilian deaths occurred; that averaged to two persons per missile. In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq launched 88 Al-Hussein missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia, killing 31 people. Hizbullah launched more than 4,000 rockets against Israel during the 2006 war, resulting in 53 Israeli deaths. That was just over one casualty for every 100 rockets.
Admittedly, there have been unique cases where the kill-rate was more than 200 people. Examples are Antwerp and London during World War II. Similarly, in February 1991, an Iraqi Al-Hussein missile attack against US military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killed over 28 and injured nearly 100 soldiers. The fact is, however, that more harm is inflicted by the panic and terror than the number of casualties caused by the actual strike. If we extrapolate these numbers, we find that if Iran were to use its entire arsenal of Shahab, Sajjil and Ghadr missiles, the attacks would cause the deaths of 100 to 500 people.
Moreover, theatre missile defence systems deployed by the US, and launcher interdiction efforts are bound to reduce the number of missiles actually striking population centres. Consequently, casualty figures will be much lower than suggested. Therefore, the probable threat perception that the West projects regarding Iran is exaggerated. Similarly, the heroic tales of its ballistic might that Iran churns out should also be taken with a pinch of salt.
* Sourav Roy is a Singapore-based researcher and analyst of international geo-political and strategic affairs
** This article is published as part of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre and the Doha-based Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies.