The Missile Defense Challenge from Iran


2013-03-30 by Richard Weitz

Many questions remain regarding the actual capability of Iran’s ballistic missile program, especially the range and accuracy of the missiles, how rapidly Iran could arm them with a nuclear warhead, and Tehran’s intentions and strategy regarding the possible use of these missiles.

However, Iran clearly possesses the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and has effectively tested ballistic missiles that would prove capable of targeting U.S. allies in the Middle East such as Israel, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and U.S. forces and bases in the Persian Gulf area.

Iran started its missile defense program in the 1970. The following decade, Iranian forces launched more than 800 ballistic missiles during its war with Iraq.  Iran has since conducted numerous missile tests of increasing range and accuracy, while Iranian officials have issued a range of threats to employ these new capabilities against the United States and its allies Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) Aerospace Force, has described the dozens of U.S. bases near Iran as “no threat; rather we view them as an opportunity.”

General Morteza Qorbani, a senior advisor to the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, claimed in January 2013 that some 2,000 enemy targets now fall within the range of its striking power: “Iran has now reached to a point of progress that can target 2,000 enemy bases within a range of 2,000km.”

Iran’s arsenal of liquid- and solid-fueled missiles has grown steadily over the years.

Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of about 810 miles (1,296 kilometers) is seen during a parade ceremony in Tehran, Iran, in this Sept. 22, 2003 photo. Iran successfully test-fired a new version of its ballistic Shahab-3 missile on Wednesday Aug. 11, 2004, to assess the latest modifications, which is thought to be capable of reaching U.S. forces in the Middle East and produced in response to Israeli efforts to improve their own missile power. (AP Photo / Vahid Salemi) (AP Photo / Vahid Salemi)

It now possesses a portfolio of short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Iran’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) arsenal includes Scud B and Scud C variants. Iran’s Scud program dates back to the 1980s, when the Iranian government reportedly purchased Scud B missiles from North Korea. In 1988, Iran test launched its first ballistic missile, which was believed to have been a Scud-B variant, with a range of 320 km and a payload of 985 kg, developed with the assistance of either North Korea or China. This Scud-B variant was the Shahab-1, with a range of some 300 km. Iran has also manufactured a variant of the North Korean Scud C, known as the Shahab-2. It has a range of about 500 km. In mid-2010, Iran has several hundred Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles capable of reaching targets in neighboring countries.

Iran also possesses Chinese-made M-9 and M-11 SRBMs.

The M-9 has a range of 600 km and is equipped with a single warhead, which can in theory be either nuclear, high explosive, chemical, EMP, or sub munitions. Its tactical use is similar to that of the Iraqi Scuds launched during the 1991 Persian Gulf War–namely the bombardment of civilian areas. The M-11 has a range of 400 km and carries an 800 kg warhead similar to the M-9. The M-11 was designed for use against large, fixed targets. Its range easily outdistances most conventional weapons, and it has a mobile launcher. While it is insufficiently accurate to target individual military units, the M-11 is able to attack small areas such as military bases, airfields, and cities.

More recently, Iran has developed its own SRBM known as the Zelzal. However, since its range varies from between 150 to 400 km and it lacks a guidance system, it is useful only as an artillery system to bombard general areas or large targets. According to the Israeli press, Iran supplies the militant Islamic terrorist organization Hezbollah with Zelzal missiles, which were stored in bunkers in the Bekaa Valley.

In addition, Iran has built the road-mobile, solid-propellant Fatah A-110, which was intended to replace its aging Scud systems.

The program is based in Iran, although the missile is believed to incorporate components from Chinese contractors. The Fatah A-110 has a range of 300 km, although it is possible that Iran will add extra boosters to increase its range to 400 km. The missile carries a payload of some 500 kg and is most likely intended to deliver only high explosive, chemical, or sub-munitions warheads. The possibility remains, however, that Iran could deploy the Fatah A-110 with biological or nuclear warheads. Reports indicate that the missile entered low-rate production in October 2002.  According to Iranian state TV, the newest version of Fateh-110 has a quicker launch capability and can be used in adverse weather conditions.

The country’s medium- and intermediate-range arsenal includes Shahab-3 and its variants.

The Shahab-3 is based on the Nodong, which is a North Korean missile. It has a range of about 900 km and a nominal payload of 1,000 kg.  The road-mobile, liquid-propellant Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) has a range of 1,200 km, which is sufficient to target Israel, Turkey, the Indian subcontinent, and U.S. forces stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. It has a payload of 1,200 kg and is able to carry high explosives, chemical agents, or sub-munitions, although an unconfirmed Israeli report claims that a nuclear warhead is in development.

A modified version of the Shahab-3, renamed the Ghadr-1, began flight tests in 2004. The Ghadr-1 extends Iran’s reach to about 1,600 km as a medium-range missile, but it carries a smaller 750-kg warhead than the Shahab-3.  In recent years, reports have surfaced that Iran has developed a longer-range variant of the Shahab-3A know as the Ghadr-110. This missile has an increased range of between 1,800 km and 2,000 km, with an improved guidance system that would probably increase the value of the Shahab-3A for use against military targets.

Other Iranian MRBMs include the Ashoura, Fajr-3, and the Sajjil. In November 2007, Iran announced it had built a new missile with a range of 2,000 km, the Ashoura missile. The Ashoura represents a major breakthrough in Iranian missile technology. It is the first two-stage MRBM using solid fueled rocket motors instead of the existing liquid-fueled technology used on the Shahab. This development would dramatically reduce the setup and deployment time for the missile and hence shorten the amount of warning time for an adversary and increase its accuracy.

The Iranian-made Fajr-3 is believed to be a MRBM with an estimated range of 2,000 km. Iranian officials have said that the missile can avoid radar detection and has multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) unveiled the missile during the Holy Prophet war games on March 31, 2006 but did not specify the missile’s range, which varies with the payload.

Sajjil missiles are another class of MRBMs based on the Sajjil-2, a domestically produced solid-fueled surface-to-surface missile. It has a medium-range of about 2,200 km when carrying a 750-kg warhead. It was test fired in 2008 under the name Sajjil. The Sajjil-2, a slightly modified version, began test flights in 2009 and is the most likely nuclear delivery vehicle if Iran decides to develop an atomic bomb.

Iran could attempt to use Sajjil technologies to produce a three-stage missile capable of flying 3,700 km, but such a delivery vehicle is unlikely to be developed and actually fielded before 2015.

However, Iran would need to build a warhead small enough to fit on the top of this missile, which would be a major challenge. Still, it is noteworthy that Iran is the only country to have developed missiles of this range without first having developed nuclear weapons.

The Sajjil program’s success indicates that Iran’s long-term missile acquisition plans will likely focus on solid-fuel systems, which offer many strategic advantages over liquid-fueled missiles.

Solid-fueled missiles are less vulnerable to preemption because the launch requires shorter preparation time—minutes rather than hours. They are also more compact and easier to deploy on mobile launchers. Iran’s ICBM missile program is believed to center on variants of the Shahab, including the Shahab 4, 5, and 6. However, there is uncertainty as to whether these weapons programs are still active.

The road-mobile, liquid-propellant Shahab-4 IRBM uses technology similar to the older Shahab-3, but has an increased range of 2,000 km and probably has an improved accuracy based on more modern digital guidance systems.

Although the project is shrouded in secrecy, it is most likely an attempt to make Iran’s missile program less dependent on foreign materials.

If the Shahab-4’s reported range of 2,000 km range is correct, the missile will have the capability to target all of Israel, as well as Turkey, much of India, parts of Germany and China, and the Persian Gulf. 

In addition, a Shahab-4 launched against the closest targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Israel will be able to impact with greater accuracy and at a higher speed, thus increasing the missile’s effectiveness and ability to penetrate missile defenses.

Unlike its predecessors, the Shahab-5 IRBM is most likely based on the North Korean Taep’o-dong 2, which in turn is largely derived from Chinese technology. Some reports claim that the missile’s range will be around 4,000 km, which places the Shahab-5 among the new class of longer-range missiles currently being produced by Iran in conjunction with North Korea. The main drawback of the Shahab-5 is its likely inaccuracy, which will restrict the missile’s utility to attacking population centers or spreading radiation rather than hitting military targets. The Shahab-5 is thus probably more of a blackmail or terrorist weapon than a military asset.

In terms of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) a 2009 joint U.S.-Russia assessment by the East-West Institute estimated Iran was 6-8 years away from producing a ballistic missile capable of delivering a 1,000 kg nuclear warhead with a range of 2,000 km.

Given past precedent for technological cooperation with Russia, North Korea, and China, intelligence suggests that if Iran continues to maintain access to foreign technology, it could begin testing ICBMs by 2015,which gives little time for the U.S. and allies to acquire sufficient deterrent capabilities.

Iran is thought to have tried developing a Shahab-6 ICBM, which is reported to have a range of 6,000 km.

Similar to the Shahab-5, the Shahab-6 is based on technology from the North Korean Taep’o-dong 2. Featuring a two or three-stage liquid/solid fuel propulsion system, the missile uses most of the same components as the Shahab-5, but economies in weight and payload have increased its range. The missile is intended to carry one single warhead with a substantial yield, most likely in the area of 500-1,000 kg.  Like the Shahab-5, the Shahab-6 is reported to be highly inaccurate, and therefore will be restricted to attacking population centers. Nevertheless, it will be capable of targeting Russia, Asia, and most of Europe, including the United Kingdom. Moreover, many experts fear that Shahab-6 will be equipped with nuclear warheads.

Iran has made other threatening missile achievements.

It has been pursuing technology to support long-range missile development through its space launch vehicles.  Iran has obtained satellite-launch capabilities.  In 2011, Iran launched its Rashad-1 satellite into orbit using its Safir-II Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV); in 2010, plans were unveiled for a four-engine, liquid-fuel Simorgh rocket to carry a 220-pound satellite into orbit at an altitude of 310 miles.  Simultaneously, Iran claims to have tested and incorporated anti-BMD tactics and capabilities.

In addition to this vertical proliferation of missiles of increasing range and other capabilities, Iran is a serial horizontal proliferator of ballistic missile technology and expertise to other countries such as Syria or to non-state actors such as, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iran’s selling or giving missile technology to rogue nations or terrorist organizations presents another threat to the United States and its allies. Iran has already supplied Syria with missiles that are capable of acting as delivery vehicles for chemical weapons, and Hezbollah has received anti-ship missiles and Scuds capable of striking most population centers in Israel.  Moreover, Iran’s Shahab-3 missiles are stored and operated in underground sites under the complete control of the IRGC, which enjoys little outside supervision within Iran.  In July 2012, the IRGC test fired several missiles, including the Shahab-3.

To recap, Iran short-range ballistic missiles (up to 1,000 km) include the Fateh-110 and Shahab-2 (aka Scud-C) from North Korea and the CSS-8 from China — all of which can be transported on mobile launchers. In terms of medium and intermediate ballistic missiles (1,000-5,500 km) Iran has tested the Sajil missile, a multistage solid fuel missile that is easily transportable and can be readied in a matter of minutes. The Shahab-3 is Tehran’s primary medium-range missile (approx. 2,500 km). Intermediate range missiles like the Shahab-3 and its successors have the capacity to reach Israel, Turkey, and into Eastern Europe. A 2012 Pentagon study claimed that Iran’s new Ashura missile has a range of 2,000 km, meaning it could potentially reach parts of Central Europe.

Iran would present an even more serious missile threat to its neighbors if Tehran could arm these missiles with nuclear warheads.

Although Iranian officials continue to claim they will not acquire nuclear weapons, they could be biding their time until they have accumulated sufficient enriched uranium, plutonium, and expertise to produce a substantial number of nuclear warheads as well as the long-range missile capability required to deliver a nuclear warhead against more targets. They could then announce their nuclear weapons capacity and their withdrawal from the NPT simultaneously.

Iran’s current clerical regime clearly lacks support among large groups of Iranian society, but the prospects of Iranian opposition groups remain uncertain. It is also unclear whether a new Iranian government would or even could alter the country’s policies with regard to WMD. The current electoral rules allow the ruling clerical elite to limit severely the range of permissible presidential candidates. The experience of the June 2009 elections suggests the regime goes even further to ensure the election of its most desired candidate.

Even if the rulers would allow a presidential candidate who favored constraining Iran’s nuclear program to run, the experience with Khatami suggests that any new leadership might require some time to overcome their conservative domestic opponents, who appear to have established various entrenched power bases in key centers of power.

Another important consideration is that Iran’s nuclear program began under the Shah, so it is not evident that a new Iranian government would abandon Iran’s pursuit of WMD. Iranian strategists might plausibly see nuclear weapons as a plausible means to counter U.S. and allied conventional strength in the region.