Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Through the Roof

Iran's latest missile drill began today, with a literal bang. From Reuters, via Haaretz:

Iran's Revolutionary Guards tested 14 missiles on Tuesday, the second day of war games intended a show of strength to the Islamic Republic's enemies in Israel and Washington.

The Iranian-made surface-to-surface missiles, with a maximum range of 2,000 km (1,250 miles), were fired simultaneously at a single target, the offical IRNA news agency reported.

The head of the Revolutionary Guards' aerospace division emphasized Iran's preparedness to strike Israel and U.S. interests in the event of any attack on Iran.

"The range of our missiles has been designed based on American bases in the region as well as the Zionist regime," Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh told the semi-official Fars news agency.

The missile launches were anything but unexpected. Iran often conducts war games in the early summer and had previously announced plans for military exercises this week. Participation by the IRGC and its ballistic missile forces were a virtual certainty.

Still, the current drill (or at least video from the exercise) appears to confirm a long-suspected capability with Iran's missile forces. Take a look at footage that accompanies the Reuters article (you can also see it on YouTube). Most of it appears to be a VIP tour of an underground missile silo, along with video of actual missile launches.

And, as is sometimes the case, the Iranians forget a few important details. If you watch the video closely, you'll see cables running from the missile, through the open silo access door. Some of the cabling appears to be attached to the missile itself. In that configuration, neither the silo nor the missile is operational. However, Iran clearly has built underground silos for its medium-range missiles and it is believed that some of today's launches were conducted from underground complexes.

From our perspective, the most intriguing element of the video begins at about the 2:41 mark. You'll see a very brief snippet of a missile launching from an underground facility. But the complex appears to be larger than a typical missile silo and the roof appears a bit irregular. That suggests the launch came not from a silo, but a larger subterranean bunker.

The intelligence community has been following Iran's underground missile facilities program for many years. Imagery of at least two complexes (one near the central Persian Gulf coast, the other outside Khorramabad) revealed a rather interesting feature: large portals in the "roof" of each facility. Analysis suggested those openings were too large for such normal functions as ventilation. Given their size (and location), experts concluded the portals were intended for another use--the underground launch of a missile.

For years, there has been some speculation as to whether Iran had ever launched a missile through one of those portals. There were some indications of a possible launch more than five years ago, at the facility near the Persian Gulf. That complex is believed to be associated with Iran's Scud force; if the footage was taken at that facility, it was almost certainly a Scud-type airframe.

But the missile UGF at Khorramabad supports a Shahab-3 unit. That medium-range missile is capable of striking Israel (and U.S. targets throughout the Gulf region), so Khorramabad has always been a high-value target. Interestingly, that complex (part of the Iman Ali Missile Base) was heavily damaged by a series of underground explosions last year. Tehran never officially confirmed the blast, but it occurred not long after computers at several Iranian nuclear facilities were hit with the Stuxnet virus. Those events raised suspicions about possible Israeli sabotage, aimed at crippling Iran's long-range strike and nuclear capabilities.

If the launch in that video was from the current exercise (and recorded at Khorramabad), it would suggest the launch chamber was unaffected by the blast, or has since been repaired. On the other hand, it's difficult to determine the type of missile in that snippet; if it is a Scud derivative, it could have come from the other complex, which was unaffected by the blasts that struck Khorramabad. We should also note that while it's impossible to tell when the video was recorded, there have been no previous confirmations of launches from the larger launch chambers, so the footage may have been recorded during this week's exercise.

With construction of actual missile silos, the larger, underground launch chambers may be viewed as something of an anachronism, but they still figure in Iran's strategic planning. The larger UGFs allow for the sheltering of larger numbers of missiles, and the full range of support functions can be carried out below ground as well. And in some respects, it's more difficult for us to monitor the bigger complexes, which have multiple entrances and provide concealment for missiles, support equipment and personnel. Additionally, the convergence of those elements give Tehran another "bolt from the blue capability," allowing them to launch a surprise attack on Israel (or U.S. interests in the region) with minimal warning.

Obviously, a missile silo gives Iran a similar capability. But in some respects, a silo is more easily monitored. Missile loading, unloading and certain maintenance functions can be detected by overhead platforms, with the appearance of support equipment and personnel providing an immediate tip-off. We never really know what's beneath those portals at Khorramabad and the Scud facility along the coast. It may be an empty chamber--or a missile loaded and ready to be fired against the enemies of the Islamic Republic.

1 comment:

J.R. said...

Best bet on ID'ing the missile in the video is by comparison with the (approx. 1.7m) humans at 3:23, and measuring the humans against the missile-and-blast-door tableau seen at 2:38. The SCUD and Shahab families differ in outer diameter by 30% or more, so even a rough estimate should be able to tell you which one you're looking at.

Both systems are fueled with seriously toxic fuel/oxidizer combinations that make for career-ending accidents. If I were on the hook for a VIP tour in the Islamic Republic, I'd definitely show off an unfueled missile in a "groomed" launch bay for the cameras and then launch from a nearby operational silo to get the wide-angle shots.