Strategic missile forces
Iran has a rapidly maturing missile industry providing Iranian forces with credible theatre-level missile coverage. Whilst the range of the missiles may not qualify as strategic in some analysts’ minds there can be little doubt that potential recipients of Iran’s missiles and indeed Iran’s strategists see things differently. Being on the receiving end of a ballistic missile should not be trivialized, but by the same token Iran’s conventionally armed missiles offer little strategic advantage or war-winning potential. The lack of warning before a missile strikes and the perceived helplessness to protect yourself from it has terrorized thousands of people across many wars and decades, from the V2s of World War 2, to the Scuds of the ’91 Gulf War. In fact the people of Tehran know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Scuds having survived over a hundred in the Iran-Iraq war. Iran repaid Bagdad in kind with imported Scuds which actually laid the roots for Iran’s indigenous missile programmes.
However, despite their terrorizing nature, in every case where conventionally armed ballistic missiles have been used in war they have had no appreciable impact on the outcome of the war, being as often (more often!) employed by the losing side than the winning one. Some may dispute this citing the Iran-Iraq war where arguably Iraqi Scud/Al-Hussein missile strikes forced Iran back to diplomacy in the late ‘80s, but that can be argued either way. This is not a sound argument for dismissing their employment, but it provides some perspective on the often alarmist media reports of long range missiles. There is however a very simple way to turn even a single ballistic missile into a potentially war-winning strategic weapon and the answer lies in nuclear physics.
There is widespread agreement that Iran is pursuing nuclear arms, but the exact pace of development is open to debate – indeed like North Korea the Tehran government is probably considering the optimal time to conduct the giveaway nuclear tests which will invariably trigger another round of international sanctions and partial exile. The Iranian government denies it of course, but few even among Iran’s fans buy that tale. How much does Iran care about isolation? Probably not as much as it cares about restoring the strategic balance with its primary foe Israel. So why then is Iran appearing to drag its heels in nuclear development, and yet pursue a missile building programme that is geared first and foremost to nuclear deterrence? Israel, though undeclared, almost certainly has nuclear missiles of her own targeted at Tehran (Jericho II and III). In fact we can speculate that it is a feared first strike by Israel in the event of Iranian nuclear tests that is deferring progress. In the cold light of day it is obvious that militarily Israel has a substantial advantage over Iran in a ballistic missile exchange, with mature nuclear missile technology, anti-ballistic-missile defences and of course uncle Sam in the background. However, just one Iranian nuke getting through could at least provide a death-grip defence for Iran; a scenario that equates to ‘mutually assured destruction’ deterrence (MAD). Some hawks who either don’t remember the cold war, or where too young or too stupid to understand the inhumanity of the threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over people’s everyday lives, may theorize that Iran being the larger and more remote country can sustain relatively more nuclear strikes than the tiny densely populated Israel. Indeed, that was Chairman Mao’s logic for wanting a nuclear war with USSR (yes, he was a nutcase). However one nuke on Tehran is a humanitarian disaster not worth thinking about so it’s idiotic if Iran contemplates any sort of offensive nuclear action. However if we consider the Iranian governments’ sense of duty towards the anti-Israeli cause, and the fact that Iran herself is surround by nuclear powers (Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India as well as US, France, China and UK who have truly global reach), it’s easy to understand why the Iranian military is pursuing long range missiles.
Whilst Iran’s hostility to US is in plain sight, there is no credible evidence to suggest that Iran is pursing missiles that can reach the US. That may one day change, but for the moment intermediate-range missiles seem to be the primary concern. It is in this aspect that Iranian priorities differ from North Koreas; to paraphrase an expert on ACIG, North Korea is hoping for a chess piece to somehow checkmate the US with the threat of intercontinental strike, Iran is focused more on Israel. In order to hit US mainland targets Iran would require a missile with a range in excess of 9,000km:
In order to counter Iran’s missiles Israel developed the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system and other countries in the region are also arranging similar defences. UAE has reportedly ordered the equivalent US made THAAD system and the US is intending to base its own ABM systems in Poland (although Russia is a more obvious consideration for US, Poland happens to be on the direct route from Iran to NE USA).
Overview of main missiles
The Shahab-3 (aka Ghadr) is the main strategic missile in Iranian service. A clone of the North Korean NoDong-1, itself an evolution of the older Scud series. The Shahab-3 has a likely range in the region of about 1,500km although 2,000km+ is often claimed.
Unlike the Scud, the Shahab-3 is carried on a towed lorry trailer. The design of these trailers varies so greatly that it seems to me that each is a separate conversion of an existing articulated lorry trailer, rather than a mass produced product. Some launchers (“TELs”) are camouflaged to look like regular civilian trucks:
The Shahab family of missiles is quite confusing, in part because Iran frequently unveils ‘new’ versions some of which may not be operational variants, and because the Western media/defence observers are ****e to speculation, inventing their own names. Here is a short sharp explanation from ‘Eagle2005’ on IranMilitaryForum:
Shahab-3= NoDong missile imported/assembled from N. Korean kits (1000-1300km)Shahab-3A= First Iranian built version, better range thanks to various sizes of warheads and possible better guidance system (unconfirmed) 1300-1500km
Shahab-3B= Uses the "baby bottle" REV also known as Rocket-Nozzle that allows it to change its trajectory in flight and throwing off ABM systems and likely uses a INS/GPS aided guidance system (1700-2000km)
Ghadr-1= Identical to above but slightly longer and possibly slightly larger warhead (1800-2000km)
This is a more advanced version of the Shahab-3, also sometimes referred to as Shahab-3M. The main feature is a new re-entry vehicle, reportedly capable of maneuvering to thwart an anti-missile intercept such as the Israeli Arrow ABM system. Some sources say that this rocket is two-stage although it seems likely that the second stage refers to the re-entry vehicle which may have rocket thrusters. The missile possibly employs GPS (global positioning from satellites, has issues if US ‘turns off’ civilian GPS) and almost certainly INS (internal navigation) for greater accuracy.
The Shahab-3/3B give Iran the capability to hit targets in Israel:
For a great analysis of Saudi ballistic missile sites try here HERE
I’ve drawn Israel’s range at the commonly quoted 1,500km which is a fraction too short to reach Tehran, but I feel it’s likely that in reality Israeli nuclear missiles range all the way across Iran.
The most widely reported Iranian ballistic missile site appears to be at Tabriz in NE Iran:
Initially the missiles used an old HQ-2 SAM site:
Note, I am not confident in the ID of the vehicles, they are actually a bit on the short side for Shahab-3).
More recently at least two missile silos have been built to increase survivability. It’s not clear what type of missiles are hosed in the silos but it is most likely Shahab-3B based on the timing of their construction:
The Ghadr-1(’Might’, as in “mighty” rather than “might work”) is outwardly very similar to the Shahab-3B although about 300mm longer. The missile was also test launched on the pretext of the Iranian space program under the designation ‘Kavoshgar ‘. Fars news, a semi-government Iranian news agency, claim that this is solid fuelled and has a range of 2,000km, although video of the Kavoshgar suggest that it retains a liquid-fuel engine as per the Shahab-3; perhaps the solid fuel engine refers to a small second stage. Iran reported that the Kavoshgar rocket reached an altitude of 200-250 kilometers.
There is another “Ghadr” missile described as the Ghadr-110 although I have been unable to pin down exactly what that is.
Shahab-4, 5 & 6
There has been consistent speculation of increased range Shahab missiles, most likely using multiple stages. These have rumor increment the version number every few years; we are currently at Shahab-6. This assumption is often supported by the close links between the Iranian and North Korean missile programs. Ironically it is now Iran that is assisting the North Koreans with their “space” programme not vice versa, although North Korea is still employing its own rockets. Iran certainly has the technology to build multi-stage ‘Shahab’ rockets as proven by the successful launch of the Omid satellite on a ‘Safir’ rocket, really just a Shahab with an extra stage on it. The Safir is launched from a typical Iranian missile TEL although it was painted white to give a more civilian look to it:
We can theorize that the same approach could be employed for a much longer ranged missile, perhaps with a 5,000km range:
Yet no Shahab-4, 5 or 6 has ever been seen and there’s no proof that Iran is actually following the design path of ever larger liquid-fuelled missiles as North Korea is. Instead Iran has recently showcased a solid fuel missile, the Sejil:
The Sejil is a much more modern concept than the Shahab series, using a multi-stage solid fuel rocket motor. The missile is about the size of the Shahab, although probably a bit longer, and appears to have the same re-entry vehicle as the Shahab-3B.
There is speculation that the Sejil uses liquid fuelled thrusters for control but this is unconfirmed, more likely in my view it uses TVC paddles like other ballistic missiles. Range is unknown but likely to be similar to, if not greatly exceeding, the Shahab-3B. It is not yet clear if the missile is in operational service but it appears a more likely future development avenue than the liquid fuelled Shahab series.
As well as the medium ranged Shahabs and Sejil missiles, Iran still employs significant numbers of the older, smaller and shorter ranged Scud missiles, known as Shahab-1 (equiv: Scud-C) and Shahab-2 (equiv: Scud-C+). Iran likely received its first Scuds from Libya during the Iran-Iraq war but soon became a customer of North Korea for this technology, even setting up a Scud factory (North Korean Scuds have local designations such as Hwasong-6 ).
Although Iran employs the classic Soviet Maz TEL, there is at least one indigenous platform used for the Shahab-1/2:
Zelzal-1,2 & 3
The Zelzal series of battlefield rockets are loosely equivalent to the Soviet FROG series. A wide range of TELs are employed, some painted in civilian ‘disguise’.
The missiles caused some international amusement when four were fired simultaneously during a military exercise, except one failed to launch. The Iranian press photoshopped it out and added a fake missile launch, thus emphasizing the failure.
The Fatah A-110 is a guided missile similar in concept to the SS-21 ‘Scarab’ missile. The Fatah A-110 uses a solid fuel rocket and probably combines INS and GPS guidence (some sources say electro-optical guidance) and has a range of about 100km. The first missiles were mounted on an HQ-2 SAM launcher which further reduces mobility, but more recently truck-launched versions have appeared. The missile appears to be in widespread service.