March 1985. In the high desert, west of Tehran, an element of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps Air Force (IRGC AF) is going about their business in the early morning darkness. The object of their attention is a SCUD-B SRBM fixed to a MAZ-543P transporter-erector launcher, both brought over from Libya in the preceding few months. Following intense training by Libyan and Syrian instructors, the IRGC airmen are loading the caustic liquid propellant and oxidizer into the missile, preparatory to opening a new phase in a war that has already lasted nearly five years.
Raised to its firing position, the missile hesitates for a moment, and then in a crescendo of fire and thunder, arcs heavenward on its journey to the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. In the span of a few short months – four to be exact, Iran has made the transition from a state which could only impotently rage against the indiscriminate missile and rocket attacks launched by Iraq, to one that could now fire back. That such capability came via secret deals and agreements made between the pariah governments of Iran, Syria and Libya bespoke volumes of the rapid expansion and proliferation of ballistic missiles and associated technology in the coming decades. This state of conditions came to exist despite the best attempts of a cohort of nations to thwart said proliferation.
Like many things associated with modern ballistic missiles, the proliferation of missiles and technology can be traced back to German efforts prior to and during World War Two. Virtually ignored at home, the works of pioneering rocket scientist Robert Goddard were closely studied and expanded upon by a group of scientists and engineers in Nazi Germany under Werner von Braun, with almost a straight line being drawn from Goddard’s frail demonstrator to the first vehicle to touch the outer edges of the atmosphere in its destructive journey, the V-2 rocket. After the war, the first major proliferation event may be said to have occurred when US and Soviet forces rounded up people, missiles and equipment to ship back to their respective territories and forming the core of their ballistic missile programs. The extent of this effort was subsequently revealed in the ICBM and space exploration programs of each nation, beginning with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 and culminating in the American moon landing in 1969, while in the background the legions of land- and later, sea-based missiles of all ranges grew exponentially until the first arms limitation treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty (or SALT) was signed in May 1972 (in actuality there were two documents signed – the ABM Treaty and the Interim Agreement on strategic offensive arms).
Important as the SALT I accords were, they barely scratched the surface in the variety and numbers of ballistic missiles being rapidly developed and deployed, especially on the part of the Soviet Union. While the West relied on large, well developed and qualitatively superior air forces, the Soviet Union pressed with a wide range of missiles – from unguided battlefield rockets to a particularly lethal and controversial mobile IRBM, the RT-21M Pioneer (NATO: SS-20 SABRE). While the RT-21M would garner the glare of publicity, center stage in the brewing nuclear missiles controversy in Europe, it was another missile, the SS-1 SCUD that would have implications that would echo down the corridors of decades to come.
So, here is where the plot thickens. The SS-1 SCUD was the first successful Russian-origin design that ended up being built and widely deployed, both by the (former) Soviet Union and its alliance partners and proxies around the world, with some 7,000-plus alone thought to be of Soviet origin. In the early 1970′s, Egypt became the first Middle Eastern country to obtain the Scud-B variant and proceeded to use a small number in the 1973 war with Israel. The early 70′s saw the Soviets busily exporting the SS-1 to other countries as well -Syria in 1974 as part of a $2B arms package, and Libya in particular. These states were key because of the role they would subsequently play. North Korea gained a small number of SCUD-B’s from Egypt, around 1979 or 1980 and immediately began to reverse-engineer them. By 1984, the program had progressed to where a small series of tests were conducted on the Hwasong 5 prototype (essentially an ingenuously produced SCUD-A). During this time frame, a visit in October 1983 by then-Iranian Prime Minister Husayn Musavi and Defense Minister Colonel Mohammad Salimi to P’yongyang presaged future cooperation between the two countries in ballistic missile development.
In the meantime, Iran was also working on an agreement with Libya that was concluded around November 1984 for the purchase of missiles and transporters. By March 1985, the Iranians were trained via the services of Libyan and Syrian instructors and opened the first “War of the Cities” with the strike against Kirkuk. One of the fall-outs of this action was that the Soviet Union, which had given strict instructions to the Libyans about not selling their missiles to another state, cut off further supplies. Losing this source of supply pointed the Iranians back east and into a cooperative venture with the North Koreans for supply of missiles and assistance in establishing an indigenous production capability. Of more immediacy though, was the supply of large numbers of North Korean-built missiles that Iran employed in the second “War of the Cities” which ran for almost 2 months in 1988. At the same time, Egypt was providing significant assistance and support to the Iraqi’s in their indigenous production and development. Of particularly grave concern to other nations in the region as well as the superpowers was the prospect of WMD warheads being fitted and employed with these weapons. Iraq had already shown little temerity in employing chemical weapons and Iran was known to be working on development of a chemical weapons and the North Koreans aided in the design of a warhead.
But it wasn’t just the Egyptians, Koreans, Syrians or Libyans who were busy proliferating. China jumped in with sales of the M-9 and M-11 ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia and, in a move that directly affected stability on the Asian subcontinent, to the Pakistanis as well. It was clear as the 1980′s progressed and the US and Soviet Union were wrestling over arms control measures aimed at limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons, that something would have to be done to stem the tide of tactical- and medium-range ballistic missiles whose numbers were spreading like a contagion in the most unstable areas of the world.
From that concern arose the Missile Technology Control Regime – MTCR, which sought to limit transfer of technology, weapons, parts and manufacturing tools. The success, or failure of this regime will be measured in the next installment.
Next: Proliferation Control – Or Not…