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OpEd – Michael Krull: Iran’s missile capability today versus 1980

A test-fire of the Fateh-110, an Iranian Ballistic single-stage solid-propellant, surface-to-surface missile. (Hossein Velayati/Wikimedia Commons)
May 17, 2019

As the United States increases pressure on the regime in Iran, our focus seems to be on the traditional military forces, naval assets, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units (IRGC) and the rogue non-state actors that Iran controls. We seem to forget that Iran has an enormous stockpile of short-, medium- and long-range missiles at its disposal.

While much is unknown about Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, it is widely believed to be one of the largest in the Middle East. An assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence states that many of Iran’s missiles are “capable of carrying a nuclear payload.” If they are able to master the technology of making the warheads small enough, this would be a huge escalation and dramatic development. In the past decade or so, Iran has made key technical advances in missile development: It has placed satellites into low earth obit using a two-stage launch vehicle; it has improved missile guidance systems; it has been able to use both liquid- and solid-fuels in its missiles; and it has worked to increase survivability of it’s missiles by making them both mobile launched and have built silos to protect multi-stage missiles.

Iranian Missile Development

Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States and Israel were helping Iran build missiles and deploy an air force. Following the revolution, the resources, technology and spare parts needed to continue these programs dried up. With the advent of Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980’s, Iran did not have the capacity either to defend against Iraqi missile strikes or to launch missile attacks on Iraq. For their own protection, the Iranians decided they needed to build their domestic missile capabilities.

Building capability takes time, so in the short term, Iran imported short-range Soviet-origin Scud type missiles from whomever would sell them: Libya, Syria, North Korea and China. From these early acquisitions, Iran began to copy them and build their own capabilities and expertise. China later sold missiles, components and technical know-how.

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In the Summer of 1988, Iran began to import North Korean No-Dong missiles. These single-stage missiles are liquid fueled, road mobile and nuclear-capable. Intelligence reports at the time indicated that the Iranians built and tested variants of the missile, making them longer range (about 1,200 miles); they were first successfully tested in the early 1990s.

After the war, U.S. intelligence began to detect shipments of more capable missiles from North Korea. At the time, the early 1990s, Israeli media reported that North Korea sold entire missiles, kits to assemble the missiles, and, designs and blueprints for producing their own missiles. North Korean technicians also went to Iran to help the Iranians master missile production.

In 2007, then-Defense Secretary Gates announced that Iran has acquired from North Korea a new missile, a modified version of the Soviet SS-N-6, with a range of 1,500 miles. This put nearly any target in the Middle East, Turkey and Southeastern Europe within range.

As a result, international sanctions were put in place. The U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1737, which banned the sale and supply of materials that might aid Iran in the development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. It also asked countries to freeze assets of Iranian companies known to be working on these technologies. Subsequent resolutions, 1747, 1803 and 1929, increased the sanctions.

In October 2005, a Russian rocket launched Iran’s first satellite into low earth orbit. This was the impetus for Iran to pursue a space program, and in 2009, Iran successfully launched a domestically built two-stage rocket that put another satellite into low earth orbit. This launch was followed by additional successful launches in 2011 and 2012. The largest of the rockets built by the Iranians is capable of carrying a 200-pound payload.

A joint U.S.-Russian assessment stated at the time that these successful launches showed that Iran “can exploit low-thrust rocket motors to build a two-stage rocket, and that it has qualified engineers who are able to make good use of the technology available to them.” The U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s assessment was that Iran’s launch vehicle could “serve as a test-bed for long-range ballistic missile technologies.” Uzi Rubin, former director of Israel’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, stated, “Iran is now poised to project power globally. If alarm bells aren’t yet ringing for [the United States], they should be.”

So, how do these developments fit into the present situation? Although Iran has worked to improve guidance systems, the current systems are deemed so poor that as the distance to target increases, the accuracy decreases. Estimates are that missiles fired at a target 800 miles away will miss the target by more than a mile. This makes them an ineffective battlefield weapon, but could be used for saturation strikes, and, of course, have a psychological effect, since nearly every Middle East capital and several U.S. and NATO bases are within range of their long-range missiles.

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Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles can hit targets between 75-5000 miles away. In recent years, many of these missiles have been deployed along the Iranian coast as defense against sea-borne attack. Also remember that every medium- and long-range missile can be used to deliver not only ordinance, but also chemical and biological agents; and nuclear, if they are able to develop the technology. Despite their inadequacies, we neglect Iran’s missile program and capabilities at our peril.

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