Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Missile by Any Other Name

Iran has announced that it has produced a "new" missile with a range of 1,200 miles, capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.

Tehran's claims, issued by the official IRNA news agency, said the Ashoura missile was produced by factories "associated with the Iranian defense ministry." Iran's Defense Minister, Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, did not say whether his country has test-fired the missile, or plans to do so.

As the Associated Press notes, "many of Iran's weapons development claims have not been independently verified." That would be an understatement; as we've observed in previous posts, many of Tehran's claims are little more than exaggeration or pure fiction.

A couple of recent examples come to mind. Not long ago, Iran's claimed that it had developed a missile that was invisible to radar. In reality, the "stealth missile" was nothing more than an existing model coated with radar-absorbing paint (which likely peeled off in flight).

Similarly, Tehran's much-hyped high-speed torpedo was copied from a 50-year-old Russian design, and uses a pre-calculated "firing solution" (familiar to anyone who's seen a WWII submarine movie) to reach its target. That means the super torpedo has marginal capabilities against maneuvering targets, or those utilizing counter-measures. Predictably, the glaring deficiencies of those weapons systems were omitted from press reports on Iran's expanding (and supposedly, more sophisticated) military arsenal.

While open source information on the Ashoura remains limited, there is little doubt that Iran is working diligently to improve the range--and capabilities--of its missile fleet. During its annual military parade in September, Tehran unveiled its new Ghadar (Powerful) missile, which has a reported range of 1,119 miles. That's a significant improvement over Iran's other, medium-range missile systems, most notably the Shahab-3. With a range of 800 miles, the Shahab-3 has been operational for the past two years, and Iran has built new underground bases at several locations to house the missile and associated personnel.

However, the early-model Shahab-3 has a couple of serious limitations. First, because of its limited range, the missile must be based in western Iran, to reach targets in Israel. Placing the missile closer to Iran's western border increases its vulnerability to air and naval attack. Secondly, the original Shahab-3 utilizes liquid fuel for its engines. Liquid fuel is highly volatile, and even a minor mishap can trigger a massive explosion, particularly when the missile is being fueled in an enclosed space, such as an underground bunker.

Based on the (limited) information provided by Tehran, it's difficult to tell the differences between the Ashoura and Ghadar. Earlier this year, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency revealed that Iran is working on at least two variants of the Ghadar, a "110" model with a range of roughly 1,300 miles--similar to that of the missile displayed in September, and a Ghadar 101, believed to have a range of roughly 500 miles. It is possible that the Ashoura is simply a new name for a Ghadar or Shahab-3 variant, or it may represent a completely different missile program.

If that latter assessment proves accurate, it suggests that Tehran is looking for a solid-fuel replacement for the older Shahab-3. With a longer range, the new MRBMs could more easily target Israel, and take advantage of basing options deeper inside Iran's borders, complicating targeting by potential adversaries. Under that scenario, some of the underground complexes in western Iran would become forward operating bases for Ghadar or Ashoura variants, with primarly garrisons located well away from the Persian Gulf.

Still, it's worth noting that Iran's missile programs have proceeded slowly, and large-scale deployments of the Ghadar and/or Ashoura are probably years away. In the interim, various Shahab-3 variants will remain Tehran's primary weapon for striking Israel and reaching other medium-range targets.

And, given Iran's desire to build a massive missile force, capable of firing "hundreds" of rockets and missiles in a single salvo, some of the Shahab-3s will probably remain in service after the Ghadar and Ashoura systems become fully operational. It doesn't make much sense from a budgetary or logistical stand-point, but given Iran's strategic aims (and with oil hovering around $100 a barrel), Tehran can afford multiple, over-lapping missile programs, at least for now.


ADDENDUM: The linked AP story still mentions the Shahab-4 as being under development in Iran. Many analysts believe that program has been terminated, in favor of newer, solid-fueled missiles and the BM-25 system, purchased from North Korea earlier this year. As missile analyst Charles Vick notes at GlobalSecurity.org, the Ghadar family of missiles will not only provide Iran with a medium and intermediate range strike capability, they could also give Iran a potential ASAT capability.

Bill Gertz offered similar thoughts in a Washington Times article earlier this year, noting the common "heritage" among various Chinese, Pakistani, North Korean and Iranian missiles. Not surprisingly, all of those countries are also pursuing an anti-satellite capbility (to some degree), and development of a launch vehicle represents a critical step in that process.


robmandu said...

I know it's juvenile to say this but...

Perhaps there's another undocumented purpose to the Ghadar missile? A little creative pronunciation, so that it sounds more like "Gaydar", and maybe the idea is to have a missile that can independently seek & destroy that (non-existent) minority in Iran?

Wanderlust said...

OMG I thought the same thing, about how close the name "Ghadar" sounded like "Gheydar" (laughing)...