All posts in “Iran”

Commander: “IRGC Mass-Producing Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles”

What they want you to think:

“The IRGC’s smart ballistic missiles are now in mass-production and this type of missiles can hit and destroy targets with high-precision,” Jafari told reporters in a news conference here in Tehran on Monday.
“These new missiles enjoys supersonic speed and cannot be tracked or intercepted by enemy,” the commander said, adding that missiles can hit targets 300km away with high-precision.
He added that the IRGC will provide the media with the footages of the new missile, named “The Persian Gulf”, in coming days.

The awful reality:

The DF-21, it ain’t.

As my mom used to say “Talk’s cheap…”

Iran, Venezuela and MRBMs

According to some reports from various locations (I’ll begin with Hudson Institute’s as that is where I first read it with a h/t to Xformed for his heads-up) it would appear that back in October, Iran and Venezuela signed an agreement that, among other things, would establish a joint base in Venezuela as well as jointly developing and deploying ballistic missiles of varying ranges, up to and including the SHAHAB-3 with a nominal range of 1500-1800km. Reaction in the blog-sphere was limited, but along expected lines with many comparisons being made to the Soviet’s foray into Cuba and followed with demands for actions ranging from blockades to offensive operations.

Let’s step back for a minute and try and examine this from a couple of standpoints, beginning with the political, followed by an assessment of the threat missiles and then a little historical compare and contrast. We’ll wrap with a a short discussion on extant conventions and declarations that have bearing on this case and which may offer some avenues of approach and action.  

1. Political.  

   Iran is increasingly economically and politically isolated as a direct result of its nuclear program.  Yet Iran is still able to link with other states also finding themselves on the list of international pariahs (e.g., Syria, North Korea) and in so doing, looks for ways to export energy while importing the technical, scientific and engineering knowledge (and cash) needed to finance that nuclear program as well as others – such as its very active ballistic missile program.  Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez, has managed to antagonize a long list of neighbors and regional powers, including Colombia, Brazil and the US.  His appeal to and support from radicalized elements in Venezuelan society deepens the enmity and suspicions as to his true intents and purpose.  Like Iran, Chavez too is looking for aid and assistance in developing the domestic gas and oil industry, suffering in the wake of his nationalization that sent so much expertise home.  To this end, Iran and Venezuela have already launched joint ventures (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing, housing, and infrastructure) beginning with a finalization in 2007 of a $2 billion joint-fund for their numerous projects. As a major investor in the Ayacucho oil field joint project ($4 billion), Iran has agreed in 2008 to invest an additional $760 million in Venezuela’s energy sector and in 2009 and Venezuela agreed to invest $760 million in Iran’s South Pars gas field. In late October 2010, Venezuela offered an additional $800 million investment package in Iran’s Pars Field gas sector. Iran has also invested in Venezuela’s uranium mining industry – a necessary move on their part given the paucity of native uranium. Left unsaid, but not unnoticed, is the manner in which these large investments may be used to cover and facilitate the flow of cash, arms and people potentially used to promote and support “revolutionary” aims. Venezuela is one of the few countries permitting direct flights to/from Iran, which in itself increases the degree of difficulty in tracking persons of interest.

But economics isn’t the whole of it — in the run-up to the NATO Summit in Lisbon back in November, there was considerable effort on the part of the US to elevate discussions on missile defense to assume a major role in the conference with a desired outcome of the European partners agreeing to the necessity for missile defense in general, and regional defense in particular, something they had been studying for the better part of a half-decade. Until the eve of the conference, the basis of the discussion was focused on the threat presented by the growing numbers of Iranian medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and the threat they constituted to peace and stability in the Middle East as well as the threat to many cities in Eastern Europe. I say until the eve of the conference, because in a move to get Turkish buy-in to the concept of regional defense, specific language referring to Iran was removed from the table and substituted with more generic wording about the general threat presented by ballistic missiles, assuaging Turkey’s concerns about singling out Iran. How does this tie-in with Venezuela? Just as Syria provides a kind of diplomatic/military/economic breakout for Iran (of albeit limited means), so too does a feint with Venezuela. On the one hand, there is the opportunity it provides for domestic agendas and consumption — ongoing defiance of the US-dominated West and associated institutions, for example, continuing to trade on the one-sidedness of UN sanctions. Coming on the eve of the Lisbon Summit it was seen as an opportunity to preempt the NTO minister’s regional missile defense announcement with a bit of strategic tit-for-tat as well. On the other is the opportunity for the aforementioned hard currency.  

2. The Threat.


What type of threat set then would be presented by deployment of ballistic missiles to Venezuela? Primarily, they will serve to heighten tensions in the region, but chiefly with Venzuela’s immediate neighbors – Colombia and Brazil. There are long standing disagreements between Venzuela and Colombia over border areas and Colombia’s assertion that Chavez is providing assistance to rebel forces in the shared border regions. The majority of the missiles mentioned as part of the deal will have ranges of 600 km or less and thus, be of principal interest to states immediately bordering Venezuela. Among these are the Fateh 110 and ZelZal solid fuel, mobile rockets (up to 400 km range), SCUD C (up to 600 km range) and SHAHAB 3 (up to 1500 – 2000 km range though most estimates focus on the 1500-1800 km range).

 By far and way, the most attention has been focused though on the SHAHAB 3. The SHAHAB (derived from Persian: شهاب-Û³, meaning “Meteor”) is a domestically produced and modified, liquid-fueled SR/MRBM derived from the SCUD B, first obtained from Libya during the Iran Iraq war. Over time, the Iranians have modified the basic SCUD to improve range and accuracy with new or modified airframes, tankage, up-rated engines and most notably, changes in the nosecone shape for dealing with aerodynamic loading and heat dissipation. The longer-range variants (over 1000km) were alleged to have been tested in 2008 as part of the Great Prophet II wargames, though some subsequent test claims have been disputed. Nevertheless, Iran is moving towards a larger MRBM force as a strategic deterrent to Israel and the US (primarily) and as a means for coercion in the region. The missile is transportable, though the continued use of liquid fuel (and extremely toxic fuel at that) impacts the ability of the missile to be a truly mobile deterrent.

In view of these characteristics, Iran appears to be following a dual track approach for deployments using on the one hand, underground storage with dispersal to pre-surveyed sites as tensions increase and a presumably smaller cohort based in semi-hardened shelters (similar to the early Atlas deployments) for a more rapid response. With a range of 1500-1800km, the SHAHAB 3 is able to cover Israel from northern/central Iran as well as US and allied forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the better part of the region. Because the missiles are presumed to armed with conventional explosives only (Iran is a long way from producing a nuclear device, much less one that will fit in the RV of a SHAHAB 3) and have a pretty large Circular Error Probable (CEP), a preemptive or response launch would entail large numbers of mssiles to both overwhelm defenses as well as offsetting their poor accuracy and would be limited primarily to countervalue-type targets (so-called “soft” targets). All this sets the stage to examine the real threat potentially posed by these missiles. Presuming the SHAHAB is deployed to Venezuela (and there are indicators it won’t), the credibility of the threat is negligeable considering the extreme range required to reach the continental US (and southeast Florida in particular) and the amount of damage potentially to inflicted vs the guaranteed response by US, if not a combined US-regional force. Absent a nuclear or other WMD-type warhead, and with the limited numbers likely to be deployed (more token than credible deterrent) this threat, unlike that of the nuclear armed SS-4s and FROGs in Cuba would have little if any credible deterrence. In that case, there was a potential threat set that provided nuclear coverage of most of the southeastern US and incorporated short flight times (less than 15 minutes) enabling a decapitating first strike, substantially delaying or preventing a response.

3.  Options

As alluded to above, there is every likelihood that this agreement will not proceed beyond mere tokenism – Venezuelan VIPs at Iranian launches, a drawn out site construction process, etc. There may even be delivery of a certain number of the shorter-range missiles (e.g., Fateh 110) though we have not seen export of these except to Syria and possibly to Hezbollah forces in northern Lebanon . Nevertheless, assuming deployments proceed, there are a range of options under the DIME (DIplomatic/Military/Economic) umbrella to work with. Two venues are of particular note where ballistic missiles are involved – the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and applicable UNSCR resolutions.  The MTCR is:

“(A)n informal and voluntary association of countries which share the goals of non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, and which seek to coordinate national export licensing efforts aimed at preventing their proliferation. The MTCR was originally established in 1987 by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Since that time, the number of MTCR partners has increased to a total of thirty-four countries, all of which have equal standing within the Regime.
The MTCR was initiated partly in response to the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), i.e., nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The risk of proliferation of WMD is well recognized as a threat to international peace and security, including by the UN Security Council in its Summit Meeting Declaration of January 31, 1992. While concern has traditionally focussed on state proliferators, after the tragic events of 11 September 2001, it became evident that more also has to be done to decrease the risk of WMD delivery systems falling into the hands of terrorist groups and individuals. One way to counter this threat is to maintain vigilance over the transfer of missile equipment, material, and related technologies usable for systems capable of delivering WMD.
The MTCR rests on adherence to common export policy guidelines (the MTCR Guidelines) applied to an integral common list of controlled items (the MTCR Equipment, Software and Technology Annex). All MTCR decisions are taken by consensus, and MTCR partners regularly exchange information about relevant national export licensing issues.
National export licensing measures on these technologies make the task of countries seeking to achieve capability to acquire and produce unmanned means of WMD delivery much more difficult. As a result, many countries, including all MTCR partners, have chosen voluntarily to introduce export licensing measures on rocket and other unmanned air vehicle delivery systems or related equipment, material and technology.”

As a voluntary association, however, it carries little in the way of ability to enforce sanctions against member states – some of whom have only acceded to part of or earlier provisions of the regieme (e.g., China). Non-member states presumably would be prevented from obtaining the necessary technology and engineering knowledge and equipment – but that presumes an informal alliance between non-member states would gain little. Unfortunately, we are seeing a growing linkage between the programs in Syria, Iran, and North Korea which may be a slower path, is still providing the necessary ingredients for successful programs, especially in the case of Iran. Alternately, the sanctions outlined by UNSCR resolutions provide for actions in the event they are ignored or subverted. In particular, for Iran, this would focus on UNSCR 1737 et al which provide legal ground for actions like interdiction, should we choose to do so:

“7. Decides that Iran shall not export any of the items in documents S/2006/814 and S/2006/815 and that all Member States shall prohibit the procurement of such items from Iran by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran;
“8. Decides that all States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran, from or through their territories or by their nationals or individuals subject to their jurisdiction, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, or related materiel, including spare parts, or items as determined by the Security Council or the Committee established pursuant to resolution 1737 (2006) (“the Committee”), decides further that all States shall prevent the provision to Iran by their nationals or from or through their territories of technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance related to the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms and related materiel, and, in this context, calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel;”
“9. Decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities;”
“17. Calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and prevent specialized teaching or training of Iranian nationals, within their territories or by their nationals, of disciplines which would contribute to Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities and development of nuclear weapon delivery systems;”

Under similar provisions stipulated for North Korea, the Spanish navy stopped an unflagged merchantman that had been tracked leaving North Korea and bound for Yemen with a load of SCUD parts concealed by bags of concrete.  

 Clearly, Iran would have to undertake a notable effort to ship airframes, support equipment, warheads and personnel to establish and maintain a joint base of operations in Venezuela – one for which it (a) is resource poor but more importantly (b) could rebound decisively against the regime if a growing segment of the populace, increasingly afflicted under sanctions, perceives this as an unnecessary foreign adventure. Likewise, overt moves and measures taken by Chavez utilizing these weapons will equally threaten his government’s survival in a region where suspicions already are elevated over previous purchases from abroad. As much as we tend to paint both leaders as wildly irrational, at their core, self-preservation rules and one expects a certain degree of self-limiting rationality to be imposed.  Unlike the case of the Soviets installing nuclear armed IRBMs in Cuba, this threat is still talk only – affording the US a wider range of options to employ without the urgency of a Cuban Missile Crisis.  And while both parties (Iran and Venezuela) should take the time to thoughtfully reconsider COAs, one party in particular ought to be especially thoughtful about pushing beyond heated rhetoric – because, afterall, there is still the Noriega option if someone in this hemisphere gets too far out of the box.

Iran’s Long-Range Missile Program: New Launch Facility Revealed

Simorgh SLV/ICBM (Feb 2010)

TD-2/Unha-2 (April 2009)

Last month Iran unveiled a new long-range missile, the Simorgh, as a follow-on to the Safir SLV.  Putatively identified as a space launch vehicle, it bears strong familial ties to the TD-2 prototype SLV/ICBM launched last April (2009).  Since then, some analysts have noted that while the airframe has made an appearance sooner than the NIE’s from 2008/2009 suggested, much still remains to be put in place for the program to reach flight test stage.  Chief among those items would be a launch site as something of this size requires a much larger complex for support than the Safir.

According to press reports over the weekend, it appears that too is well underway and sooner than many had expected:

Iran is building a new rocket launch site with North Korean assistance, Israel Radio quoted IHS Jane’s as reporting overnight Friday.  The new launcher, constructed near an existing rocket base in the Semnan province east of Tehran, is visible in satellite imagery, according to the report.  The defense intelligence group said the appearance of the launcher suggests assistance from North Korea, and that it may be intended to launch the Simorgh, a long-range Iranian-made missile unveiled in early February and officially intended to be used as a space-launch vehicle (SLV). SLV’s can be converted to be used as long-range ballistic missiles for military purposes.  Both the missile and the launch pad, which according to Jane’s is large enough to accommodate it, point to cooperation from Pyongyang. (Jerusalem Post, 6 March 2010)

Firing up GE, we locate the site fairly quickly:

Semnan Missile R&D Complex

Semnan Missile R&D Complex

Continue Reading…

Iran Announces New Space Launch Vehicle (SLV)


We are about one-third of the way through Iran’s annual “Ten Days of Dawn” observation which celebrates the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.  The occasion serves as a platform for Iran to boast about progress under the Islamic Republic and demonstrate military, scientific and technical prowess.  This, despite the West’s attempts to limit technology transfer in key areas, such as missile technology.

    Day 3 of the celebration is set-aside as “Space Day” and yesterday, Iran’s President Ahmedenejad had three items of note/accomplishment to announce that:

  •  Iran had launched a payload of animal specimens (a mouse, turtles and worms) into space and recovered them on a new research rocket named Kavoshgar-3 (Explorer-3);
  •  Three new satellites were unveiled: the Tolou (Sunrise), the Mesbah 2 (Lantern 2), and the Navid (Promising Sign) and
  • A new space launch vehicle, Simorgh-3, which will serve as the launch vehicle for those satellites.

Kavoshgar-3 ("Explorer-3")

Simorgh SLV


Of these announcements, the last is the most interesting and perhaps, troubling.  With the ability to loft 220 lbs into a 310 mile earth orbit (if it indeed works), that would move Iran into a new capability category with a nascent ICBM.  The implications for the US and allies would be the impact on the European PAA and near term planning for the global BMDS, all of which (along with the BMDR) were predicated on a slower timeline for Iran to develop an ICBM capability, 2015 or ‘mid-decade.’  Tied with Iran’s continued intransigence on the nuclear front (aided and abetted by China’s continued refusal to support a sanctions regime) this is one announcement that has little upside to it.   Russia, at least, is coming into alignment with the US:

“Mutual understanding between Russia and its international partners on additional sanctions has clearly improved,” Kosachyov said in an interview with state broadcaster Rossiya 24 today. “The situation is beginning to alarm us increasingly.”

 A successful launch will likely bring pressure to bear on the US to step up the rate of deployment and development of both the sea- and land-based elements of the European PAA, leveraging increased deployment time on units that are already HDLD in nature and turning up the burner on the SM-3 Blk IIa program.  It may also cause a reassessment of the plans for the ground-based BMD system to see if it still serves as a hedge in its current configuration as per the BMDR. 

The continued advancement of Iran’s missile programs stands in defiance of the MTCR, a voluntary consortium of 39 countries regarding the export controls on technologies central to missile development.  Of course, neither China nor North Korea are members and they are among the worst of the serial proliferators, North Korea especially so in the case of cooperative ventures with Iran.   Also neither China, North Korea or Iran are parties to the follow-on regime, the  International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.  The enablement of this unholy alliance of proliferators brings us to the Simorgh.  Below are two images, one of the boost stage of the Safir-2,  which placed a small satellite into earth orbit last year.  The second image is what is presumed to be the business end of the Simorgh’s first stage — a cluster of four liquid-propelled rockets.   

Safir 1st stage (Feb 2009)

Simorgh booster engines (Feb 2010)

 Again, clearly it seems the Iran’s indigenous program is well underway in spite of these regimes. 

 The leading question then becomes, given the historical record of cooperative effort between North Korea and Iran, how related is/will be the Simorgh to the TD-2:

TD-2 Safir comparison (2009)
TD-2 Safir Comparison (2009)

 . . . and that, as the saying goes, is the $64,000 question.

BMDR Release and BMD Deployments to the Gulf

Gulf BMD Deployments

Lots in the news today – let’s start in the Gulf:

US officials have let it be known that it now has Patriot batteries in four Gulf states – Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. US anti-missile ships are also being stationed in the Gulf.  All this comes as the impasse over Iran’s nuclear activities continues and amid efforts by the US and other Western countries to increase sanctions on Iran. (BBC)

The outreached hand has obviously been slapped away once too often.  Iran’s continued intransigence on the nuclear issue combined with its growing inventory of ballistic missiles poses an implicit threat to the region.  PAC-3 battery’s deployed to the four GCC states provide a tangible, visible presence on the ground with regional friends and partners.  BMD configured cruisers and destroyers, armed with SM-3s extend that reassurance with a measure of deterrence for the region with their ability to intercept longer range MRBMs in the Iranian inventory.

All of this falls into two of the four priority objectives outlined in the 2010 QDR, released today:

  • Prevail in Today’s Conflicts
  • Prevent and Deter Conflict
  • Prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies
  • Preserve and enhance the All-Volunteer Force

Still, there are some who think that such a response will only strengthen the hand of extremists in Iran, emboldening them to crack down even harder on dissidents in general and the Green revolution in particular.  The line of thought is that the hardliners believe that the absence of a viable alternative to the current rulers will prevent the West (and the US in particular) from effecting regime change as it did in Iraq.  To wit, having observed Saddam survive the West’s repulsion of Iraqi forces in Kuwait (and suffering substantial damage at home to boot), only to be overthrown later in OIF the lesson they took away was Saddam survived the first encounter because the West believed there was no viable alternative government to take his place.  Now, with a hardening of the US stance (ref: President Obama’s mention of growing consequences if Iran did not comply with UN resolutions) and apparent increase of forces in the region (“missiles are missiles and warships are warships whether their intent is defensive or not”) this might be the time to come down even harder, scattering those who would support Moussavi and thus insulate themselves from a US-led invasion.

Bit of a stretch, to be sure.  But then, the survival instinct is a dominant feature not only in nature, but in politics too – especially in regimes characterized by tyrannical rule.

In the meantime, the deployment of BMD ships to the Gulf also offers us the opportunity to look at the BMDR —

2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review

The stated intent of the BMDR is to align U.S. missile defense posture with near-term regional missile threats, and sustain the ability to defend the homeland against limited long-range missile attack.  In essence, this formalizes the change in direction announced last September by the Obama Administration and categorized under the so-called Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) for Europe.  The PAA (or EPAA as it is known in some circles) stepped away from a GBI system deployed in Europe (mid-course radar in the Czech Republic and 10 2-stage GBIs based in Poland) to one more focused on meeting the extant threat presented by MR- and IRBMs to our European friends and allies using tested and proven systems, like Aegis BMD.  That shift however, did not place the current BMDS providing protection to the homeland in a decommissioned state.  In fact, under the BMDR’s terms, that system can and will continue – with some provisos.

Supporting that change are six precepts that will serve to guide and direct US policy for development and deployment of missile defenses.  Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, today described those six major priorities  at a Pentagon news conference:

The first goes to the heart of defense and that is to defend the United States from a limited ballistic missile attack. The second is to defend against growing regional threats. A third priority is “to test new systems under realistic conditions before they’re deployed to ensure their effectiveness,” Flournoy said. The fourth priority is to develop new fiscally sustainable capabilities, while the fifth is to develop flexible capabilities that can adapt as threats evolve. Finally, the United States wants to lead expanded international cooperation on missile defense, she said.

“We believe this approach will provide reassurance to our allies that the United States will stand by our security commitments to them,” Flournoy said, “and will help to negate the coercive potential of regional actors attempting to limit U.S. influence and actions in key regions.”

It’s been said before on these pages that ballistic missiles have been a growth industry this past decade and the trend line has a positive slope to it.  Not only are numbers increasing, but so too are ranges and sophistication.  The old SCUDs of Gulf War I are rapidly being supplanted by solid propellant, mobile long-range missiles that have the payload and throw-weight for a variety of WMD, not least of which could be nuclear.  Kinetic kill missile defenses remain but one (albeit an important one) way to defeat that threat.  The BMDR looks to guide and direct efforts in that direction too as well as bringing others onboard in a a cooperative approach to defense.  According to Flournoy, Russia and China (the latter one of the more egregious proliferators of missile technologies) factored into the review with an eye towards engaging them on a strategic level.

For now, color me skeptical on that point…

BMDR as of 26JAN10 0630_for Web

Say Hello to Ashura

(aka Sejil-2) Iran’s new MRBM and the latest complication in the brewing nuclear arms race in the Middle East:

OFRWR-IRAN-MISSILE-20090520 (source: Rueters photo)WASHINGTON (AP) – The missile test-fired by Iran is the longest-range solid-propellant missile it has launched yet, a U.S. government official said sejil-2Wednesday, raising concerns about whether the sophistication of Tehran’s missile program is increasing. The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss technical details of Iran’s missile program, said Tehran has demonstrated shorter-range solid-propellant missiles in the past. Solid-propellant rockets are a concern because they can be fueled in advance and moved or hidden in silos, the official said. Liquid-propellant rockets have to be fueled and fired quickly, which makes preparations for launches easier to monitor and would allow a preemptive strike if necessary.

So this is the response to the proffered hand and talk of open dialogue -  launch of  liquid-fueled SLV that  has MR/IRBM range and capability, continued intransigence on international oversight of a “peaceful” nuclear program, and now a successful, indigenously developed (no doubt with close cooperation and sharing with North Korea) solid-fueled missile with an initially assessed 1200 nm range.

What’s next?  Undoubtedly this only raises Israel’s concern over Iran’s direction and intent where nuclear weapons are concerned and if Ahmadinejad successfully stands for re-election (he faces three other candidates and the launch comes a mere two days after the election cycle began), it is safe to say we will only see more of the same from Tehran.  Israel?  Given the action versus Iraq and the Osiraq nuclear reactor, how long before Israel decides that the only recourse is a pre-emptive strike?  As far as US actions, if there needed to be an underscore to the re-direction that US missile-defense research, development and deployment is taking towards greater regional and theater capabilities, this certainly would seem to fill the bill.

The Missiles of Winter – Part II: Rampant Proliferation

Previous: The Missiles of Winter (I): International Conventions


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…

The Missiles of Winter (I): International Conventions

09broad190If news reports coming from South Korea and echoed through the West are to be believed, North Korea is moving towards another attempt at launching a Taepo Dong – 2 IR/ICBM, ostensibly as a space launch vehicle (SLV).  This would be the third such attempt, with previous attempts in July 2006 and Sept 1998 ending in failure. (Note that the 1998 launch was with what is now considered to be a shorter range variant identified as a Taepo Dong -1).  Most of this is speculation, albeit likely informed speculation based on the gleanings of what few bits of information have fallen through the cracks in the intel world’s wall.  Such speculation – and the concern raised by the DPRK’s typical silence or disinformation campaign, would be alleviated were the DPRK to hew to the collection of five conventions governing the access to and use of outer space and celestial bodies, as acceded to or  ratified by major space-faring nations including the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, China, Indonesia, India and Israel.  Notable by their absence as well is the most recent member of the group of states able to place an object on orbit, Iran.  Given their respective histories of collaboration and lack of transparency to the outside world for their missile and WMD programs, one supposes this should not be surprising.  Unfortunately, it generates needless tension and promotes an atmosphere conducive to misinterpretation and over-reaction where it need not be present.

This need not be the case were the DPRK and Iran to accede to the Outer Space Treaty and the other international conventions regarding space access and use.  The five treaties and agreements constituting this convention on space use include:

These five treaties have established a series of legal precedence whose purpose, similar to those governing the Antarctic continent and the seas, seek to establish a set of rules and principles of behavior for the use of the commons of outer space by all nations and peoples. Specifically, they provide for non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, arms control (e.g., agreement not to place nuclear or other WMD on orbit or on celestial bodies like the Moon), the freedom of exploration, liability for damage caused by space objects, the safety and rescue of spacecraft and astronauts, the prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, the notification and registration of space activities, scientific investigation and the exploitation of natural resources in outer space and the settlement of disputes.
Of particular concern and interest in the current case is that principle of “notification and registration of space activities” as established by the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.  Under that convention, member states are requested to place information on what they are placing into orbit in a public repository.  To date, the US, for example, has over 2005 objects listed – sample documents are here (including the first Vanguard satellite still on orbit) and here (includes Apollo 13) – the searchable database is available here .
All of this serves a couple of purposes.  One, with the information obtained, is to serve to hopefully de-conflict orbits and ensure there are no unintended collisions with subsequent consequence management efforts to mitigate debris. (Alas, as Low Earth Orbit is increasingly populated with active and inactive satellites and “launch debris” (the latter of which could consist of anything from retaining bolts to entire, defunct upper stages) the likelihood of “inadvertent encounters” like the recent one between an inactive Soviet-era store-and-dump COMSAT and an active satellite that was part of the Iridium-constellation, will probably grow more common.)  Another is to bring a measure of transparency into space launch operations thereby ensuring SLV launches are not mistaken for a hostile IR/ICBM launch as in many cases, the SLV may be derivative of the latter.  One will notice while reviewing the documents linked above that the purpose of the vehicle is generalized enough that concerns over inadvertent compromise of classified missions may be mitigated.
While these conventions do not necessarily preclude irresponsible behavior (cf: PRC 2007 ASAT test), for the most part they have provided a beneficial condominium for operations by space-faring nations.  Unfortunately, neither Iran nor DPRK are parties to any of the above and as such, inject uncertainty and concern with their operations, nascent as they maybe.  Where tensions are already high, as is the periodic case on the Korean peninsula, the opportunities for miscalculation are rife.  Consider – during the July 2006 launch attempt, the DPRK also fired a number of short- and medium range missiles within a few minutes of the launch of the TD-2.  Claiming the TD-2 was an SLV launch vice a test of an ICBM in that context, underscores the provocative nature of the evolution, generating mistrust and enforcing concern – leading to heightened states of alert for subsequent evolutions, like the one presumably in the offering. If these two states, generally considered to be poster-children for the prototypical “rogue state” wish improved engagement on the world stage, one step in the right direction would be accession and adherence to these five conventions.  Certainly it would be welcomed as one small step in the direction of normalization of relations each claims to seek.

Next: International counter-proliferation regimes

Iran’s Successful Space Launch

aleqm5hlgtsf39svsxtns-le7m-b-xarfwComes word over night of an apparently successful attempt by Iran to place a satellite in orbitusing the Safir-2 space launch vehicle (SLV).  The Safir (“Ambassador”) was ingeniously developed as part of Iran’s growing rocket and missile program and has direct links to its attempts to develop extended range missiles in the IRBM and ultimately, ICBM range.  Periodicity of the satellite, named “Omid” (“Hope”) is said to be 14 orbits in every 24-hrs according to IRNA, Iran’s press agency.

 While congratulations are presumably in order for this accomplishment, one must step back and review its implications.  Begin here – as we have previously looked at regional implications of a successful Iranian space-launch and Iranian intransigence on the nuclear front, especially where Israel is concerned.  While one presumably successful space  launch (still awaiting independent confirmation) does not a missile force make, the fact that the Iranian program marks this success, that it is outside the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and is known to have strong ties with the North Korean  and Syrian programs, bodes ill for future proliferation schemes.  As the US and its European partners gather this week to review the way ahead for continued engagement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, this shot, coming on the eve of that meeting and near the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution should give the assembled party pause to consider just what are  Iran’s intentions, particularly vis-a-vis negotiated agreements and arms control.

 In 1985, then speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated that acquisition of a viable ballistic missile force was a national priority and Iran would become “…a missile power second only to the superpowers.”  As the primary supplier of material and technical assistance to Hamas’ rocket campaign against Israel, as a nation that went from zero capability to conducting operational launches against Iraq during the war of the cities in less than two months in early 1985 and now as one that has joined the handful of other states to have built and launched an indigenous space launch vehicle while actively blocking inspection of its nuclear program, Iran’s challenge to regional peace and stability has just been ratcheted up another notch.  Not just Israel, but now Europe, especially the southern tier should and must be more aware of the implicit threat embodied in yesterday’s event.

 Madam Secretary, Mr. President  – your phones are ringing…



From Norbert Brugge’s excellent space vehicle site are a large collection of photos of the Safir as released by IRNA.  Note the size/scale of the missile compared to the nearby humans.


Arms Control Wonk has analyses of the intitial orbital parameters as well as a graphic here and here.  See especially the comments – some rudimentary (back of the envelope) calculations seem to yield a range of 2500 km w/a 1,000 kg payload   (representative nuke payload).

1270Finally, apropos the significance of this event in the larger scheme of things, comes this observation in an editorial column in today’s Ria Novosti:

The first sputnik was designed to distract a government that was bent on nuclear arms development.

The effect exceeded all expectations, but that is a different story…

…things that make you go “hmmm…”

An Israeli Tipping Point?

Shahab-3 F-16I Safur

The term tipping point describes a point at which a slow gradual change becomes irreversible and then proceeds with gathering pace. It is derived from the metaphor of a rigid solid object being tilted to a point where it begins to topple.

Couple of observations from the region…

Iran to launch 1st domestic satellite soon – Ahmadinejad

(16 August 2008, IRNA)  Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad added in his press interview in Istanbul Friday that Iran would in near future launch its first domestic satellite to the space.  According to IRNA, President Ahmadinejad said addressing the audience, “I want to inform you of a first hand news today. The Americans sanctioned us 28 years ago, but that is not the whole story.”

“They also imposed a number of sets of embargoes, whose single purpose was the block the path of our progress. But thanks to all those sanctions, we are now a nuclear country, and will by grace of God very soon launch our first Iranian made satellite.”

The Iranian president reiterated, “This satellite, the rocket that would launch it, and the land station from which it would be launched are entirely made in Iran, by the talented Iranian scientists and technicians.”  He pointed out that the Islamic Iran is today also among the top five world countries with advanced bio-technology expertise, the top in nano-technology field, and that the Iranians have achieved all such high objectives thanks to the US, and US backed sanctions, which our nation is decided to resist against.

Shahab 3Safir (via Rueters)

Presumably a modified version of the Shahab-3 would be used to loft a nominal 35-40 lb object (ostensibly named Safir – Persian for “emissary’) into low orbit.  Recall that America’s first  satellite, Explorer, was about 53 lbs and was launched on the Jupiter-C,  a derivative of the Redstone MRBM which itself was derived from the V-2.  Ironically, the Shahab is a derivative of the SCUD which itself was derived from…the V-2.  We would expect the launch to be fairly soon. Still, given Iran’s past history, there is a reason they call it rocket science.

Update: Iran says it launched satellite into space

or maybe not

And the Pentagon says “not so fast…”:

“The Iranians did not successfully launch the rocket,” a senior U.S. defense official told CNN Monday. The two-stage rocket could have been capable of launching a satellite into space, but the U.S. intelligence assessment shows that the second stage “was erratic and out of control,” said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the intelligence. The rocket “did not perform as designed,” (more)

Meanwhile, over in Israel:

Israel Takes Delivery of First F-16I Sufa (‘Storm’)

The long-awaited Israeli F-16I Sufa (‘Storm’) rolled off Lockheed Martin’s production line in Texas last week into the waiting hands of Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was on scene to receive the new aircraft, the first of 102 ordered by Jerusalem in 1997.

The F-16I is a heavily modified two seat version of the U.S. Air Force’s F-16D Block 50/52-series fighter. In addition to the new and more powerful Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engine, the F-16I boasts numerous internal and external advancements and modifications. For example, the Sufa has been customized with new avionic technologies, internally mounted FLIR (forward looking infrared) viewers, and cutting edge weapon system hardware provided by the Israeli defense company Lahav – a division of Israel Aircraft Industries.

Complementing the upgraded weapon systems is a dorsal compartment containing enhanced mission avionics and chaff and flare dispensers, enabling it to conduct either pilot training or combat missions. In addition, removable conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) have been added along the fuselage and above the wing roots, freeing-up underwing hard points for additional armaments. The F-16I has an unrefueled combat strike radius well in excess of 500 miles. The extended flight range allows Israeli forces to attack targets well within Iran and Libya without having to refuel.

Three squadrons of the new aircraft are expected to be operational from the Ramon airbase deep inside the Negev by 2008 with the first strike aircraft arriving next month.

An Israeli opinion…

And while the world has been focused on Beijing and South Ossetia/Georgia:

IRAN: The United States said yesterday that Iran had left the United Nations Security Council no choice but to increase sanctions on the Islamic republic for ignoring demands that it halt sensitive nuclear activities.

The US declaration came a day after an informal deadline lapsed for Iran to respond to an offer from the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia for talks on its disputed nuclear programme. “It is clear that the government of Iran has not complied with the international community’s demand to stop enriching uranium and isn’t even interested in trying,” said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the US mission to the UN.

“They leave the Security Council no choice but to increase the sanctions, as called for in the last resolution passed.”

Tehran has not formally responded to the offer. But Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday that Tehran would not back down in its nuclear dispute with the powers, which have supported three rounds of Security Council sanctions.

“In whichever negotiation we take part . . . it is unequivocally with the view to the realisation of Iran’s nuclear right and the Iranian nation would not retreat one iota from its rights,” he said.

A successful space launch with the implicit declaration of an operational MRBM able to loft a nascent nuclear payload.  More stalling on the nuclear front.  The US distracted and entwined elsewhere.  Israel’s vow not to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons and an expanded long-range strike capability being added to its inventry….

Not a matter of weeks, but perhaps a few short months.  Time will tell…