Friday, October 15, 2010

The Big Bang?

A 3-D view of missile silos at the Imam Ali missile base near Khorramabad, Iran. The complex was reportedly damaged by a series of underground explosions this week (Google Earth photo via IMINT & Analysis)

While world attention has been focused on the recent copper mine rescue in Chile, there was (reportedly) another underground event-of-note, this one in Iran.

Israel-based DEBKAfile reports that a series of blasts occurred on Tuesday at the underground Iranian missile base near Khorramabad. While DEBKA's accuracy is sometimes spotty, the story--if true--is certainly compelling, and suggests that the covert war against Iran has entered a new phase.

Intelligence sources (almost certainly Israeli) tell DEBKA that three blasts hit underground facilities at the Imam Ali Base on Tuesday, the day before Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadiejad arrived in Lebanon. Interestingly, Tehran has acknowledge that a mishap took place at the missile facility, blaming it on a "fire" that spread to a munitions storage facility. Officially, Iran says that 18 soldiers--all members of the Revolutionary Guards--were killed in the blasts and 14 others were injured. Western intelligence officials believe the death toll was actually much higher.

Reports of underground explosions at Khorramabad immediately caught our attention. It was one of the first facilities built to support the Shahab-3, the first Iranian ballistic system capable of striking targets in Israel. Intelligence analysts believe at least 15 Shahab-3s are stationed at the Iman Ali Base, along with an unknown number of mobile launchers. Much of missile maintenance and storage activity at the installation is conducted underground, making it difficult for western intelligence to determine how many missiles are in garrison at any given time, and the overall operational posture of the Shahab-3 unit.

Security at the base is extremely tight, and the underground chambers are (presumably) equipped with blast doors, sprinkler systems and other protective measures. That makes the explosions even more remarkable. Assuming that DEBKA is correct, the Iranians must concede that one of their most important missile bases was crippled by an act of sabotage.

Readers will also note that no one (so far) has claimed responsibility for the blasts. In terms of the usual suspects, you can probably rule out Iranian opposition groups. Generally speaking, they lack the resources to carry out that sort of strike; besides, if one of those groups was behind the strike, they would likely claim credit, to enhance their stature within opposition community and score propaganda points at the expense of the Iranian regime.

It's also doubtful the CIA was behind the incident. We can't imagine the Obama Administration using the agency's covert operations assets to stage such a provocative attack against the Tehran regime--the same government it has been trying to court diplomatically (without success) for the past two years.

On the other hand, the Israel's Mossad certainly has the assets, the skill and the willingness to strike key Iranian targets. And, it certainly fits with the recent pattern of mysterious attacks against Tehran's WMD programs and delivery systems. Earlier this year, computer networks at key facilities--including Iranian nuclear complexes--were hit with a crippling cyber attack, using the Stuxnet worm. Now, one of its medium-range missile bases has been damaged in a daring strike. Operatives somehow penetrated the installation's multiple layers of security, then planted and detonated bombs that destroyed some of Iran's most important military assets.

Again, assuming the DEBKA report is correct, the counter-intelligence folks in Tehran must be going crazy. Stuxnet was bad enough; now a potentially crippling strike at a Shahab-3 base. The mullahs aren't happy, and they want answers--now. Look for a wave of arrests in the coming days, aimed largely at placating senior officials.

As readers will recall, there was a similar round-up in the wake of Stuxnet. According to state-run media, a number of "cyber-terrorists" were arrested by Iranian security officials, but the computer attacks have continued. Part of that reflects the nature of cyber-warfare; once unleashed, it's hard to get the genie back in the bottle.

But experts have also noted that once the malware is unleashed (typically through a flash drive or other external device), the scope of that particular infection is limited. Just one more indication that Stuxnet is not your typical bit of malware, but a brilliantly-designed--and executed--cyber strike. And, as the infections continue, Iran can only wonder how many more "terrorists" are out there, waiting to plug a flash drive into a targeted system.

And who might be waiting to blow up Bakhtaran, or some other missile base. Bakhtaran is the Shahab-3 facility with the "hole in the roof," allowing covert launches from inside its underground complex. Damaging Iran's "bolt-from-the-blue" capability might be the next move in this unconventional war.


ADDENDUM: Iran has constructed silos at the Imam Ali base in recent years, ostensibly for the basing and protection of Shahab-3s. At this point it's unclear how many of those silos house missiles; if any of the silos were targeted by the blast, and the number of missiles damaged or destroyed.


J.R. said...

DEBKA's report is riddled with other errors - like calling the triconic nosecone a "triple warhead", and saying the BM-25 looks like a Shahab - which call into doubt their ability to accurately convey the facts. But let's assume there was an explosion which reached a munitions storage area.

My first guess is not a super-secret sabotage mission by the Mossad's robotic ultra-ninjas, but rather a fueling accident. A few drops of nitrogen tet spilled on a puddle of fuel (or anything else organic - even a rocket maintenance man!) is enough to start a fire.

Unknown said...

J.R.--I've never said that DEBKA is a reliable source--far from it. And, your theory about a fueling accident is plausible; certainly, liquid-fueled systems are much more suspectible to that type of mishap.

But that hypothesis has its limits as well. As noted in the post, any underground munitions bunker/facility worth a damn has features designed to contain and mitigate such accidents. Multiple explosions in different portions of the UGF suggests a complete lack or failure of those systems--highly unlikely.

More interesting is Iran's confirmation of the incident. The easiest thing to do would be a denial. But that could be problematic, too; damage from multiple fires and/or explosions might be visible on EO imagery, suggesting the damage might be even worse that reported.