Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Another Dud

Aviation Week reports that Iran's recent flight test of a space launch vehicle was a failure. Information collected by Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites and the USS Russell, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer on station in the Persian Gulf, confirmed that the Safir rocket went out of control at high altitude and never completed its ascent.

Iranian state TV aired video of the rocket launch shortly after it occurred on 17 August, and suggested that the test was a success. According to government spokesmen, the Safir is designed to boost satellites into orbit. However, the same technology can be used for intercontinental ballistic missiles, and U.S. intelligence analysts believe that is the real purpose for the Safir program.

Readers will recall that the Russell is one of three destroyers involved in the tracking and shoot down of a derelict U.S. spy satellite earlier this year. Tracking data from the Russell was instrumental in the final intercept of the satellite by a Standard-3 missile, fired by another destroyer.

According to Aviation Week, U.S. intelligence had advance warning of the test, allowing optimal position of the Russell and other collection assets. That likely means that an RC-135 Cobra Ball aircraft was also on hand, providing optical tracking of the test.

While "The Ball" isn't mentioned in the Aviation Week story, the aircraft is typically deployed in anticipation of missile tests around the globe. Information from Cobra Ball, along with infrared data from the DSP platforms and radar tracking from the Russell, should provide some insights as to what went wrong with the Iranian launch.

Sunday's test marked the latest failure for Iran's Safir program, which is based on SCUD, No dong and Tapeodong (TD) missile technologies acquired from North Korea. In early 2007, another Iranian launch ended unsuccessfully, although there is some debate over whether the rocket was a Safir booster, or a Kavoshgar (Explorer) sounding rocket. There have also been other failures of extended range Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of striking Israel.

The Safir apparently consists of a Shahab-3 lower stage, topped by a second stage based on the TD-1 design, and a third-stage orbital insertion platform, based on Chinese technology. While Sunday's test was clearly a failure, it will enhance Iranian understanding of multi-stage missiles, and contribute towards eventual development of a crude ICBM, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

There's an old rule of thumb in missile analysis. Left to their own devices, a country that currently has medium range ballistic missiles can produce an ICBM within a decade. Iran is clearly moving down that path, following the example of North Korea. In that sense, last weekend's dud may represent only a temporary setback.

1 comment:

J.R. said...

There's a flaw in your old rule of thumb - the only three countries to actually progress from MRBMs to ICBMs were the USSR and the US during the space race.

China bought their way in; almost every development has been purchased or purloined from one of the two superpowers and then painstakingly integrated over years or decades. Depending on your point of view this may or may not constitute "their own devices".

North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan have all had purchased or home-grown MRBMs for well over a decade and none has successfully tested an ICBM from launch to impact.

I agree that Iran's progress is worrisome, but an Iranian or North Korean ICBM has been perpetually two to three years away since the 1998 Korean TD-1 launch. It turns out that building an indigenous ICBM really is rocket science... so don't hold your breath.