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Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities

by Arda MEVLÜTOĞLU

Issue 106

Iran has built up a significant missile force over the past 40 years, a force which it has been actively and aggressively using as a psychological warfare asset, as a diplomatic leverage tool as well as a weapon of revenge, as seen in the retaliatory attacks after the assassination of Qasim Sulemani in early 2020. 

This missile force is arguably Iran’s main military and strategic asset, since the conventional inventory of the country largely composed of decades old platforms and equipment from the Shah era and their locally improved variants, capabilities of which are questionable.

Iran’s missile and drone capabilities, on the other hand, are worth taking into serious consideration, since the country has been diverting significant resource into these fields.

Background

The roots of Iran's work in ballistic missile technology dates back to the period of the Reza Pahlavi. In April 1977, Iran made a total of six agreements with Israel for the acquisition of missile technology and weapons in return for the supply of oil under "Project Flower". Within this framework, a missile test range in the south of the country was to be established. With the Islamic Revolution of 1979, this project was shelved.

During the Iran-Iraq War, which started shortly after the revolution, Iran initiated efforts to establish ballistic missile capability against Iraq, which formed up a formidable air and missile force with the support of Russia. Iran acquired missiles and relevant technology from China, North Korea, Libya and Syria in order to effectively respond to the attacks carried out by Iraqi bombers and ballistic missiles on major cities and industrial infrastructure, during the phase known as the "War of the Cities". It can be claimed that, with the procurement of SCUD B ballistic missiles from Libya in 1985, Iran laid the foundations for its own ballistic missile program.

In parallel with the acquisition of missiles from Libya, the two most important sources for obtaining the necessary know-how and technology for ballistic missile development and production were China and North Korea. The 1987 agreement with North Korea for missile technology was followed by another agreement with China the next year. With the 150km-range CSS-8 (M-7) missiles purchased from China in 1989 (designated Tondar 69), Iran took the first step into solid fuel technology for missiles. Following this acquisition, which constitutes an important step for the development of tactical ballistic missiles, China and Iran signed a ten-year military technical cooperation agreement in 1990. Furthermore, the SCUD B derivative Hwasong 5 and the SCUD C derivative Hwasong 6 missiles were also procured from North Korea. Iran started production of these missiles under the names of Shahab 1 and Shahab 2, respectively, in 1994. Iran also developed the Zelzal family based on the former Soviet FROG 7 during this period. The solid fuel Zelzal, with ranges around 150-200km, formed the backbone of the Iranian army's short-range tactical ballistic missile power.

Continuing its ballistic missile development program with the support of North Korea and China, Iran started to invest in cruise missiles since the mid-1990s. In 1996, Iran acquired C802 (NATO code "CSS-N-8 Saccade") anti-ship missiles from China for use with assault boats. The shipment of these missiles was left incomplete as a result of the US pressure on China, but Iran started to develop a derivative under the name "Noor". In the same period, Iran also procured C801K anti-ship missiles from China and integrated them on F-4E Phantom II fighter aircraft.

By the end of the 1990s, Iran started to get the results of these investments and efforts. During this period, Iran started to show indigenous designs, based on off-the-shelf purchased or licensed production, imported designs. The first test fire of the Shahab 3, derived from the North Korean Nodong 1 missile, was carried out in July 1998. The Shahab 3B emerged with the improvements made in the design of Shahab 3, which is considered to have a range of around 1,300km. In September 1998, the Zelzal 2, Nazeat and Shaheen artillery rockets and tactical ballistic missiles were demonstrated at a parade in Tehran: These were the first designs of Iran's indigenous missile family. While the test fires of the Shahab 3 were continuing, news appeared in the Western press that work on the Shahab 4 with a range of 1,500 km had started in 1999. However, in 2003, the Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamharni announced that the Shahab 4 missile was developed to put satellites in orbit, and that the work focused more on improving the performance and capabilities of the Shahab 3 family.

In the early 2000s, in parallel with Shahab 3 tests, Iran accelerated efforts on development of cruise missiles with advanced guidance and navigation technologies. In 2001, reports about the purchase of Soviet era Kh-55 (NATO code AS-15 "Kent") air-launched cruise missiles from Ukraine caused concern by the West. These nuclear warhead capable missiles, with a range of as long as 2,500km meant a great leap in capability for Iran. Ukraine admitted in 2005 that it had sold 12 of these missiles to Iran.

During this period, Iran also started developing successors of the Zelzal and Shahab missiles, resulting in Fateh 110 and Sejjil. The first test firing of Fateh 110 took place in 2001, followed by service entry in 2004. This missile was sold to Syria, where it has been produced under the name of M600 Teshreen and was used extensively in the civil war. Iran also developed anti-ship versions of Fateh 110, designated Hormuz 1 and Hormuz 2.

Unlike the liquid-fueled Shahab series, the solid fuel Sejjil constitutes another important milestone in Iran's missile capabilities. The maximum range of Sejjil is around 2,000km and it is considered to be capable of being equipped with a 500 - 1,500kg warhead. The first test of the missile took place in 2008 and a more advanced version, Sejjil 2 was also developed. 

In addition to the solid-fueled Sejjil family, development of the liquid-fueled Emad and the double-stage liquid and solid-fueled Ghadr missiles were started at this period. Underground production, assembly, and launch facilities are also being built for these missiles.

Shortly after the Sejjil missiles were put into service, Iran announced in 2012 that it was working on a cruise missile called Meshkat. It was claimed that the missile, which could be fired from land, sea and air platforms, had a range of 2,000km. Three years later, in 2015, a cruise missile called Sumar was introduced to the public. Sumar, which has great similarities with the Kh-55 missile purchased from Ukraine in terms of size and design, is considered to have a range of around 2,500km.

The Fateh formed a baseline for several missile designs. The first of these, the Zolfaghar was shown for the first time in 2016. The Zolfaghar is a single-stage, solid-fuel missile belonging to the Fateh family but is slightly larger with a diameter of 680 mm and a length of 10.3 meters. Thanks to the increased size, the missile is capable of carrying a 350kg payload to a range of 700km. Furthermore, the Zolfaghar is assessed to be equipped with a guidance system incorporating commercial GPS receivers, thereby increasing its precision.

Another important missile is the Dezful, which is a follow-on to the Zolfaghar. The Dezful was introduced in February 2019. Like its predecessor, it has a lightweight composite airframe. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps announced that the Dezful has a range of 1,000km and also assessed that the Dezful can carry larger warheads than the Zolfaghar. 

The Shahid Haj Qasem, which was first revealed in August 2020, is similar to the Zolfaghar but has a wider diameter, with estimates ranging from 880 to 910 mm. At the time of unveiling, the Fars News Agency claimed the missile had a 1,400 km range.

Space Program

A byproduct of the work on rocket and missile technology is Iran’s indigenous space program and incorporated satellite launch vehicles (SLV’s).

Shahab 3 formed the basis of the SLV development projects in late 1990's. The resultant two-stage rocket was called Safir. It had a length of 22m and a diameter of 1.25m. Safir, which had a maximum launching weight of 26-27t and a payload capacity of 50kg, was first test launched in August 2008, but was unsuccessful. The second firing of the rocket took place on February 3, 2009. The rocket successfully placed the first indigenous satellite called Umid, into orbit. Having successfully settled in orbit at an altitude of 245km, Umid remained active for about three weeks. Thus, Iran managed to enter the league of countries that placed their own satellite into orbit with its own means.

Safir's next task was to put into orbit the experimental Earth observation satellite, Rasad-1. The rocket was launched on June 15, 2011 and placed the 15kg satellite in orbit at a maximum altitude of 271km. The third mission, the transportation of the 50kg satellite named Nevid, was carried out on 3 February 2012. However, the career of Safir was not very bright after these missions. Three of the next four launches failed. The latest launch for Safir 1B+ with a satellite named Nahid 1, failed immediately after launch on 29 August 2019.

Shown to the public for the first time in February 2010 as a larger variant of the Safir rocket family, Safir 2 would later be called Simorgh and would constitute the new focus of the space program. Simorgh, with a length of 27m and 87t launch weight, is a three-stage rocket. Technical support and technology assistance was reportedly acquired from North Korea. Simorgh's first launch took place on April 19, 2016. However, the following three launches of the Simorgh were not successful.

Conclusion

Iran's nearly 30 years of efforts in the field of missile technology provide clues about the strategic role played by this country's military industrial complex and the country's defense policy.

First of all, the process started with the rapid inventory build-up through off-the-shelf procurement, and the establishment of an assembly-oriented production infrastructure in parallel. At the same time, with technological collaborations established with more than one country, experts were trained, critical subsystems and components were acquired, and manufacture capability was formed. After this incubation phase, which lasted from the second half of the 1980s to roughly the mid-1990s, the country began to develop indigenous designs in the second half of the 1990s. As a result, a huge leap was made in terms of both number and performance in the late 1990s.

Upon completion of this initial phase, with the advancements in the electronics industry, efforts were focused on guidance and navigation technologies, and therefore, guided ballistic and cruise missiles. It can be claimed that investments in the field of air and missile defense systems by regional powers contributed to this shift.

Therefore, by the 2010s, Iran possessed solid-fuel ballistic missiles with ranges between 2,000 - 3,000km. These missiles, because of their fuel systems, required short times for launch preparation, therefore providing short reaction times. In addition, Iran's ever-increasing capabilities in cruise missiles pose a serious threat to air defense systems due to their high speed and increased accuracy at the strike stage. Therefore, Iran has reached a considerable strike capability in the region with these missiles.

It is observed that Iran exports these technological gains and the missiles it produces to the region as an element of its foreign policy. The pressure exerted on Israel through Hezbollah is the most concrete example of this. The Syrian Civil War has become an important laboratory and test area for Iranian defense industry products, especially missiles in Iraq and Yemen. It is seen that Iran's defense industry is used as a foreign policy instrument in these conflict and war zones.

Iran's focus on precision guidance systems and cruise missiles after reaching a range of 2,000km in ballistic missiles will bring along a capability increase for the aviation and defense industry. It can be assumed that the country, which has so far achieved this capability by circumventing heavy embargoes under sanctions conditions, will be able to access advanced technologies much more comfortably in the relatively mild environment after the agreement on its nuclear program.