Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Strapping It On

Strategy Page is reporting that Iran has improved the accuracy of its Zelzal 2 rockets, and it is providing the same capability to Syria.

The Zelzal 2 is an Iranian copy of the old Russian FROG-7 battlefield rocket. FROG is actually an acronym (Free Rocket Over Ground), which tells you something about its accuracy. Properly stabilized, the FROG can land within 800 meters of its target, making it useful against large facilities like ports, airfields, or massed troop concentrations.

Now, Iran is offering a strap-on guidance kit for the Zelzal 2, improving the rocket’s accuracy from 2400 feet, to just 300 feet. The Zelzal still isn’t a precision weapon, but a CEP (circular error of probability) of 100 feet represents a quantum leap in the system’s accuracy, particularly when you consider that the rocket can carry chemical or biological weapons.

Details on the new guidance system are still sketchy. The strap-on kit may contain a small inertial navigation unit, or it may utilize data from U.S. GPS satellites, Russia’s GLONASS system, or the European Galileo constellation, which is still under construction. There is also the outside chance that the strap-on guidance system may accept data from all three systems, improving performance in a jamming environment.

Strap-on guidance technology is hardly new—it’s the basic difference between a “dumb” bomb and smart weapons like JDAM. But the new kit represents a major advance for Iran, which has hundreds of older SCUD missiles and battlefield rockets that could be outfitted with the system.

Where did the technology come from? It’s only a theory, but we’d guess China. While Iran could develop a guidance kit on its own, Beijing has shown tremendous interest in strap-on guidance systems in recent years. Some reports suggest that scores of older (and somewhat inaccurate) missiles have been outfitted with the new guidance systems, greatly improving their accuracy. Most of the Chinese missiles are within range of Taiwan, and they are nuclear-capable. The sudden acquisition—and export—of a strap-on guidance system for the Zelzal suggests that Tehran had outside assistance with the project.

Potentially, there’s a large market for an “after-market” guidance kit for various ballistic missiles and battlefield rockets. Scores of countries around the world operate older SCUD and FROG-7 variants. Compared to the cost of newer (and more accurate) systems like the Russian SS-21, it’s far easier—and cheaper—to upgrade FROG or Zelzal airframes with a strap-on guidance kit.

Syria already has a limited number of SS-21s in its inventory, but the Iranian deal allows Damascus to upgrade its older rockets, giving them a CEP similar to that of the newer missile. That, in turn, would allow Syrian to target Israel with a more accurate rocket and missile barrage, using chemical and biological warheads.

No comments: