Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Still Not Ready for Launch

Yesterday, we noted the obvious contradictions in Iran's accounts of its recent rocket launch. At first, the director of the Iranian aerospace research center indicated that his country had successfully launched a "space rocket," suggesting that Tehran had gained the capability to put small payloads into orbit. That would represent a significant technological accomplishment, aiding Iran's efforts to develop long-range missiles and (eventually) multiple warheads for those delivery systems.

But Iran's original claim was quickly dashed. Just a few hours later, the deputy director of the aerospace research center stated that Iran had only lauched a "sounding rocket," used to collect atmospheric information. Obviously, there's quite a difference between a small research rocket and a full-sized space launch vehicle (SLV), so the "correction" was very telling. Despite recent boasts that it is about to attain a space launch capability, Iran still appears to be months --perhaps years--away from attaining that goal.

Now, there is even doubt about the sounding rocket claim. Pentagon sources tell AFP that U.S. Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) have no information on an Iranian rocket launch over the weekend. And, as one official noted, the odds of NORAD and SPACECOM missing an Iranian launch are virtually nil. The U.S. operates a constellation of Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, designed to detect missile launches around the world, and instantly relay that information to command authorities.

DSP coverage is supplemented with other space-based sensors, most notably COBRA BRASS, which provides multi-spectral coverage of missile launches and similar events. Additionally, an RC-135 COBRA BALL aircraft is often deployed to a region in anticipation of major launch events, and one of these platforms may have been on station over the weekend, ready to monitor the Iranian event. Given the collective capabilities of DSP, COBRA BRASS, COBRA BALL and other sensors, it's extremely doubtful that we would have missed a launch in Iran, even if it was only a sounding rocket.

I will give AFP credit for at least trying to corroborate Iran's claims, and publishing U.S. information that clearly refutes them. As for the stenographers at the other MSM outlets, their refusal to follow-up on Tehran's original statements is both predictable and appalling. When it comes to Iranian military capabilities, most journalists will report whatever Tehran says, no matter how contradictory--or incorrect--they appear to be.

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