Friday, October 15, 2010

Made (Partially) in Tehran

It's no secret that missile and WMD technology are among the few viable exports of North Korea. That Syrian nuclear facility destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 2007 was a near carbon-copy of a similar complex in the DPRK. North Korean scientists and technicians are also involved in Iran's nuclear program and ballistic missile programs in a dozen countries owe some debt to Pyongyang.

Now, Kim Jong-il's friends in Tehran are returning the technology favor. According to David Fulgham and Robert Wall at Aviation Week, weaponry recently unveiled in North Korea suggests even closer cooperation with Iran:

The North Korean military parade last weekend does more than give world exposure to the heir apparent to Pyongyang’s leadership. It also revealed a new road-mobile ballistic missile – a variant of the BM-25 Musudan with a projected range of 3,000-4,000 km.

More intriguing, North Korea’s weaponry is showing design characteristics associated with the Shahab 3, Iran’s most advanced missile. Such evidence is leading some international analysts to the conclusion that the ballistic missile development ties between the two countries is active and producing improvements in the arsenals of both countries.

While it would seem doubtful that complete missiles or missile sections are being shipped – given the close scrutiny by the West of North Korea shipping – components and engineering data could move relatively easily by air and diplomatic pouch.

Though public display of the Musudan was considered the highlight of last week's military parade in Pyongyang, Fulgham and Wall note that a new variant of the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile was also display--featuring a nosecone design associated with Iranian systems:

The parade showcased a No-dong with a tri-conic nosecone. That configuration is typically associated with Iran’s Shahab-3, causing some analysts to suggest technical information gleaned by Tehran in flight trials is being fed to Pyongyang. Such a move would suggest Iran has made considerable progress in developing its indigenous missile engineering expertise.

And, the missile technology-sharing between Pyongyang and Tehran is no limited to the Nodong/Shahab programs. Iran acquired the BM-25 shortly after North Korea, although the intermediate range system has never been publicly displayed in the Islamic Republic, and no flight tests have been conducted.

As Aviation Week notes, the presence of the BM-25 in Iran creates security concerns in Europe. With its 4,000 kilometer range, the BM-25/Musudan is capable of striking targets in southern Europe, one reason the Bush Administration pushed hard for land-based missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Those plans were scrapped by the Obama Administration, in favor of a shield built around naval ships equipped with the Aegis battle management system and SM-3 interceptor missiles. The naval platforms will (eventually) be augmented by shore-based THAAD batteries and Patriot missiles belonging to the U.S. and other NATO countries.

The BM-25 also provides a perfect platform for the nuclear ambitions of both Iran and North Korea. As we observed in a recent post, the BM-25 (or Musudan, if you prefer) is based on the SS-N-6 sub-launched ballistic missile, developed during the Cold War by the Soviet Union. Moscow claims the technology provided to North Korea did not include nuclear warhead design or integration capabilities, but that knowledge can be easily acquired; after all, the Russian design bureau that created the SS-N-6 is the same firm that helped North Korea build its first Musudans. And, it's a sure bet that representatives from that company are also present in Iran.

For Israel--already living in the shadow of Iranian Shahab-3 medium-range missiles--the BM-25 presents a new targeting challenge. With its longer range, BM-25s can be deployed over a wider area of western Iran, making them more difficult to track down before they can be launched. Development of mobile launchers for the BM-25 make that task ever more complicated.

At some point, either North Korea or Iran will have to flight-test their intermediate-range systems. At that point, we'll get a better idea of just how advanced their missile technology has become. Incidentally, an Israeli expert tells Aviation Week that Iranian missiles are not showing greater range--their accuracy has improved as well. Some variants now have a CEP of only 100 meters--more than accurate enough for nuclear work.

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