Thursday, September 20, 2007

Too Good to be True?

A SCUD missile and its transporter-erector-launcher (TEL)

In its current edition, Jane's Defence Weekly (subscription required) is reporting that "dozens" of Iranian engineers and at least 15 Syrian officers were killed during recent accident involving a chemical warhead on a SCUD missile.

We haven't seen that edition of Jane's, but details of the article have been published by the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Channel 10 television and other media outlets. According to sources who spoke with JDW, the accident occurred on 23 Juy at a facility in Syria. Members of the joint Syrian-Iranian team were attempting to mount a chemical warhead on a SCUD missile when an explosion occurred, "spreading lethal chemical agents, including Sarin nerve gas.

Reports of the accident apparently circulated at the time. However, Jane's reports that the Syrian government never released details of the accident and there was no hint of an Iranian connection until recently.

Still, something about this account doesn't quite add up, for several reasons. First, it doesn't take a team of 30 (or more) people to mount a chemical warhead on a SCUD, even if the Iranians and Syrians were experimenting with some sort of prototype. An experienced load crew consists of roughly than a dozen technicians, with a small crane and a limited amount of support equipment. Missile warheads are designed to be loaded quickly and efficiently, under combat conditions, and with a minimal "signature." If the Syrians and Iranians had a small crowd involved in the loading operation, they were inviting trouble.

Beyond that, the Syrians have decades of experience in handling chemical munitions, and they use safety protocols similar to those of other nations. For any sort of loading exercise involving "live" agents, all personnel near the missile would (presumably) wear a full chemical warfare ensemble (mask, hood, protective suit, gloves and boots). Observers would be positioned a safe distance from the missile, wearing the same type of protective gear, or in an hardened, over-pressurized facility. Personnel near the warhead would also carry nerve agent antidote, which could be administered in the event of exposure, potentially saving their lives.

Additionally, there's the matter of what caused the reported explosion. There is the remote chance that the warhead somehow detonated. According to various estimates, Syria has the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the Arab world, including as many as 200 missile warheads. Iran's inventory is slightly smaller, and they're less proficient in missile/CW operations than their Syrian counterparts.

But the SCUD chemical warheads used by both countries have something in common; they're based on proven (if dated) technology, and "accidental" warhead explosions are virtually unheard of. Missile warheads are designed to detonate after certain criteria are met (recorded time of flight and altitude settings, to name a couple). Assuming that sabotage wasn't involved, the chances that the warhead exploded prematurely are decidedly slim.

That would suggest that the blast was caused by the missile itself. While Damascus has reportedly experimented with solid-fuel SCUDs, most of its SCUD force is liquid-fueled. Filling a SCUD's propellant tanks is a time-consuming process, requiring up to 45 minutes to complete (for some missile variants). And the liquid fuel is volatile; any accidental or uncontrolled mixing of the propellant and oxidizer could easily trigger an explosion that would destroy the missile--and those near it.

But that begs another question: why would the Iranians and the Syrians perform a warhead mating drill on a fully-fueled missile? Conducting both events--at the same time--described as rare during SCUD training, for obvious safety-related reasons. Additionally, the process described in the JDW report seems to be backwards. Given the time associated with fuel loading, that process usually occurs after the warhead has been mated with the airframe. If the Jane's account is correct, the Iranian-Syrian team was attempting to load the warhead onto a missile already filled with volatile fuel. Under those circumstances, it would be easier to puncture a fuel tank, creating conditions for a massive explosion.

Unfortunately, that only raises other, answered questions. Where did the accident happen? Syria has a long history of testing chemical munitions (and conducting crew training at isolated ranges. At explosion at one of those ranges would be detected by overhead sensors, and imaged by commercial and intelligence satellites. So far, there's been no report of any overhead platform detecting blast craters, scorch marks, debris or other tell-tale signs of an explosion. Additionally, the interaction of chemical agents with the ground produces distinctive, colored marks which have not been detected in connection with the reported event.

And while Syria has a number of underground facilities (UGFs) supporting its missile force, an accident at one of those locations would also provide certain signals. To date, there has been no evidence of blast marks at any UGF entrances, and we've seen no other indications of an underground explosion, such as fire or decontamination crews outside the facility, or equipment pulled outside for salvage, repair or cleaning. There's also no sign of attempts to cover up such operations, through the erection of camouflage netting or other denial and deception (D&D) techniques.

There's no doubt that Syria and Iran are cooperating in a number of areas--including ballistic missiles and WMD--the JDW report sounds a little too good to be true. Jane's is certainly a respected publication; in the defense and private intelligence arenas, they have few peers. But absent more specific information, the story sounds a little pat, particularly when the scenario described violates SCUD operations, and a lack of definitive "proof" to confirm the accident.

Call us skeptical (for now)--and we'd certainly like to know more.


ADDENDUM: An explosion of the missile airframe--potentially caused by a fuel leak--would incinerate both the warhead and its contents. If that's an accurate description of what happened, then the amount of chemical agents "spread" by the blast would be minimal. You'll also note use of the plural; that suggests that more than one CW agent was in the warhead, another break with long-established operational procedures. The use of a binary munition would explain multiple chemicals, but with that technology, the ingredients aren't "mixed" into a deadly poison until after launch (in the case of missiles) or the round is fired (in artillery shells).


gr8scott said...

Whatever happened - if it's true, praise be to Allah.

gr said...

I'm no expert on this, but isn't it possible that the Syrian/Iranian technicians were just a bunch of screw ups? There is the right way to do something, the wrong way, and the dumbass way. Didn't Lockheed screw up a metric conversion that resulted in a probe to Mars to miss the planet entirely?

RobC said...

I believe this is the Syrian cover story for the Israeli air raid. Gotta keep face you know...

warhorse said...

IIRC, storeable liquid rocket propellants tend to be exceedingly nasty stuff in and of themselves. Is it possible that some of the "lethal chemical agents" are simply propellant residues?

Corky Boyd said...

There are many scenarios that could have occurred, but we shouldn’t assume what could or couldn’t have happened based on western safety procedures. Non-western countries tend to use shortcuts we never would consider.

Case in point: I was a junior officer and a special team member aboard a ship in October 1960. We were keeping tabs on a Soviet missile tracking ship, the Sibir, in the central Pacific. In that case the Soviets were attempting to launch a new ICBM which failed on the launch pad, killing design team head Marshall Nedelin and dozens of others. The Soviets used a block house in the immediate vicinity for launch control (the German practice), where we used remote launch centers several miles away. When the countdown was delayed, Nedelin and others left the block house to get a better look at things. The missile blew up, killing Nedelin and the top members of the design team. This disaster wouldn’t have happened at a US missile test range and God knows we had a number of major mishaps during that time period.

To know the cause of the Syrian incident, we need to know many more details such as whether the countdown had begun or whether it occurred outside of the countdown. These are things we can only speculate about. Missiles the size of a Scud are normally mated to the warhead in a horizontal position and you would think the warhead would survive a 4 foot drop. There is no reason to believe the Syrians would use binary agents. Again this is a far safer technology the US used, but just another complication to less advanced societies. One drop of Sarin on your skin will kill within minutes, so even a small spill would be lethal to anyone nearby unless they had instant access to atropine and decontamination facilities.

My thoughts: Probably happened pretty much as described. Warhead fell (oops) and small amounts leaked. Without protective suits and decontamination facilities, anyone in the area was doomed. The chemical warheads were probably designed and fabricated in Iran (most likely) or Syria using their technology. The Russian do stupid things at times, but I doubt they would sell advanced chemical warhead technology to a client state within range of their homeland.

OmegaPaladin said...

What about a missile storage facility doing multiple operations simultaneously? You could have had a fuel explosion which damaged other missiles, causing the contamination. Perhaps I'm just unfamiliar with Scud protocol, but multiple operations would explain the large crew complement and odd mode of failure.