Iran’s missile shield

Developing own missile capabilities has been the main priority over many years as part of Iranian defense strategy aimed at containing the USA and its regional allies. Sanctions of the UN Security Council remaining in force against Iran until autumn 2020 and banning supplies of many ordinary armaments including combat airplanes and helicopters have finally consolidated this situation.

As Iran’s AF fleet is quite old and its large-scale modernization is now impossible due to sanctions, it is only missiles that give Iran its only real possibility to launch powerful strikes on military bases and strategically important facilities of potential enemies in the event of war. Iranian missile forces are organizationally part of Airspace Forces under the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iran’s missile programs can be broken down into three main groups – ballistic missiles with liquid rocket engine, solid-fuelled ballistic missiles and ground-based winged cruise missiles. Large-caliber rocket artillery and anti-ship missile programs are related to the above-mentioned programs, but they need to be discussed separately.

Ballistic missiles with liquid rocket engine

Iran was interested in acquiring ballistic missiles already under the rule of Shah in the 1970s, however, the attempt to purchase them from the US failed and on-going co-operation with Israel in the “surface-to-surface” missile project was soon stopped due to the revolution in 1979.

Thus, the Iranian missile forces were established during the years of Iran-Iraq war and the first systems of this kind obtained by Iran were Soviet tactical systems Elbrus that were purchased in a small number from Libya. Then as the war progressed the purchasing of a copy of this system from DPRK called Khvason-5 started.

The production of these missiles with a range of up to 300 km was set up in Iran with South Korea’s help right after the war – under the name of Shahab-1. Then a modified version with increased range up to 500 km went into production under the name of Shahab-2. These missiles are considered to be outdated, they have low precision, however, certain amount of them has remained in service until now. There are upgraded missiles Shahab-2 with modified head part, but it is unknown how many missiles underwent this modification.

A further development of this line in the 2000s was a ballistic missile with shorter range, which was named Qiam-1, this missile was first presented in August 2010. This missile had a jettisonable warhead, new light weight fuel tanks and aluminum alloy body. Its navigation and control system was improved as well, which made it possible to dispose of tail aerodynamic stabilizers.

Due to these measures and with a slight increase in total weight up to 6,155 kg the maximum range of Qiam-1 has reached 800 km. The jettisonable nose up to 750 kg in weight makes it a very difficult target for missile defense systems because the burned-out rocket stage turns itself into a big false target. However, the precision of Qiam-1 is still not very high, because after having detached from the rocket the flight of its nose cone cannot be corrected on the final path.

Iranian engineers continued to improve the precision and the result of their efforts was a new upgraded version of Qiam missile, which in addition has received a new nose cone. The new nose cone is provided with aerodynamic rudders to control flight on the final path, which should greatly enhance its precision. This modernized missile was first showcased in 2018.

Iranian liquid fuel medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) from the family started with Shahab-3 missile have taken the same road from increasing range to enhancing precision. As before, Iran purchased the MRBM production technology from the DPRK, where these missiles were put in service under the name of Kvason-7, although they are better known under the name of Nodon, which was given to them in the West.

After a number of tests, the Shahab-3 missile was put in service in the first half of 2000s and its range reached 1,300 km. However, both range and precision of the missiles equipped with jettisonable nose left a great deal to be desired, therefore the work on optimization and design of new versions continued. As a result of these works during the 2000s first an improved version of Shahab-3 and then a new missile under the name of Ghadr with an increased range came to light.

The modified versions of Shahab-3 and Ghadr make up the majority of Iranian MRBM, in this case, it is known that the latter has at least three versions. The first one, Ghadr-1 with a range of up to 1,800 km came to light in 2007, but it seems that it was not widely deployed. Soon enough there were two other versions of this missile (Ghadr-F and Ghadr-H) with a range of 1,950 and 1,650 km, which since then were possible to watch on video coverage from training launches and parades.

Having reached the needed range Iran focused on further increasing precision of their medium range ballistic missiles. To achieve this a new missile under the name of Emad was developed on the basis of Ghadr missiles, this missile came with a new jettisonable nose and aerodynamic rudders. It was first showcased and tested in 2015 and as General Dehghan, Iran Minister of Defense said at that time, the Emad missile has become the first Iranian missile with such an operating range, which could be controlled up to the moment it hits a target and had capability of hitting target with more precision. The declared range of Emad missile with a 750-kg nose cone is 1,650 km with missile weight equal to 17,500 kg.

Since 2016, Iran has been testing the Khorramshahr MRBM, which is a new generation of Iranian liquid fuel ballistic missiles. A new liquid rocket engine and transition to more efficient fuel have made it possible to greatly increase the capabilities as compared with the previous generation missiles. With declared range of 2,000 km and weight of 19,500 kg it carries a jettisonable nose weighing 1,500 kg, or it potentially can carry a fractionated warhead. Early in 2019, at an exhibition in Teheran there were shown a poster with Khorramshahr-2, featuring a new jettisonable nose, and video footage of its successful trial launch.

Solid-fuelled ballistic missiles

Iran has got its own way in dealing with its solid-fuelled ballistic missile development and manufacture program, which roots from the first tactical unguided missiles developed during the Iran-Iraq war.

Their design was probably initiated by purchasing tactical missiles B610 (CSS-8) based on the air defense missiles of HQ-2 system from China at the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s. Most likely, Iran has then received their production technologies and the missiles were given Iranian name Tondar 69.

Although these modified air defense missiles with a solid propellant booster and a liquid cruise engine were not the best for the role of tactical missiles, however, Iran came to appreciate this idea and the obtained technologies of guided and relatively light-weight tactical missiles.

The work started in Iran earlier in the 2000s produced the first Iranian solid-fuelled guided tactical missile under the name of Fateh-110. And very few could imagine that it would lay foundation for a whole new family of missiles.

Initially the missile range was just 200 km and its precision was very moderate, however, the missile stayed guided until the very end. The missile’s precision and range have been improved and increased gradually with further development of Iranian industry. After the last modification, the Fateh-110 missiles have a range of about 300 km and warhead weight of 448 kg.

Besides, special versions were designed on the basis of this missile over the last years to hit standalone special targets such as large ships, radars etc. In order to make it possible to hit these objects the standard inertial guidance system has been supplemented with various target-seeking heads (TSH), which should guide a missile precisely at the needed target on the final path.

For example, anti-ship version Khalij Fars features allegedly an infrared TSH, another anti-ship version under the name of Hormuz-2 has an active radar TSH and the Hormuz-1 missile is equipped with a TSH, which is guided onto a powerful radiation source. The last one in this row is the Fateh Mobin, which was first showcased in 2018 and was declared to have had a new advanced “smart” guidance head for high-precision hitting both water and surface targets.

However, Iran has not stopped at developing special Fateh-110 version. Success achieved in designing and mastering lighter and more reliable materials, improved navigation systems, solid-fuelled engines made it possible to increase significantly the missile range due to some increase in their size.

In 2015, the Fateh-313 missile was introduced with a range of 500 km, but it served only as an intermediate stage before developing the Zolfoghar with a range of 700 km. Preceding missiles of this family hit a whole target retaining controllability on the final approach path, but this new missile has received a guided jettisonable nose and, in addition, composite materials are used to manufacture the missile body.

These and other changes made it possible to have a relatively moderate increase in the missile’s dimensions. Diameter of the Zolfaghar missile increased as compared with the Fateh-110 from 610 to 680 mm, its length – from 8.8 to 10.3 m and weight from 3,320 to 4,620 kg respectively. In this case, the warhead weight increased as well – from 448 to 579 kg.

However, the work has not stopped at that and the Dezful missile was presented with declared range of 1,000 km early in 2019. There is very little information about these missiles, however, the missile’s dimensions increased again.

Thus, the missile family designed on the basis of Fateh-110 make the most mobile and up-to-date stock of the Iranian missile capabilities related to tactical missiles and small-range missiles.

It should be noted that Iran still has the old unguided tactical missiles left, however, any effect can be only achieved if they are launched in big quantities and at the same time to hit large-area targets. That is why over the last years Iran started a comprehensive modernization program for its unguided missiles Zelzal turning them into guided ones by adding navigation and control systems with aerodynamic rudders etc.

Iranian solid-fuelled MRBM are represented by double-stage missiles Sejil-1 and Sejil-2, which, according to the declared data, have a range of 2,000 km with warhead weight of 500 kg and the missile itself equal to 23,623 kg. However, the status of this program is questionable as after series of tests conducted by Iranians in 2008–2011 there has been no information on trial or training launches of these missiles over the last years. However, the Sejil missiles are still demonstrated during parades, therefore there are different implications in this regard. One can only guess when there is no exact information.

Ground-based winged cruise missiles

Design history of the Iranian ground-based winged cruise missiles for hitting surface targets dates back to the early 2000s. It was when the six airborne cruise missiles X-55 were smuggled into China and Iran as a result of a big scandal with Ukraine.

The initial level of the Iranian defense industry did not allow making a replica of this X-55, but years went past and the Iranian industry continued to develop. As a result, in 2015 the new Soumar missile was showcased, it looked very much like the X-55 missile but equipped with a ground launch booster.

However, it has become known lately that the Soumar missile’s range is only 700 km, that is why the Iranians continued their works and presented a new version of the missile with declared range of up to 1,300 km in 2019. The reworked version of this missile was named Hoveizeh.

As far as it can be estimated, at the moment these Iranian missiles are still under tests.

As a basis for designing launch units both for ballistic and winged cruise missiles in most cases Iran does not use special chassis but uses semi-trailers or ordinary civil trucks. This may reduce their crossing capacity but this also decreases costs and increases camouflaging possibilities for these launchers.

In addition, Iran has built underground missile bases intended for missile storage and disguised deployment of self-propelled units through a network of underground tunnels and for launching ballistic missiles off special launch units located underground.

As a conclusion, it worth noting that the maximum range of Iranian missiles is limited to 2,000 km by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s decision. It is connected with the following political and practical circumstances. According to the technologies available for the Khorramshahr MRBM Iran is potentially capable of developing a missile with a range of 3,000 km or greater. With this range the Iranian missiles can reach and hit even Germany and Italy. However, this will not give Iran any critical military advantages over the USA, however this can seriously complicate relations with the European Union.

The range of 2,000 km is sufficient to have a possibility even from the deep mainland of Iran to hit both potential regional enemies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel and American military bases located in the region. That is why over the last years Teheran has not been working on an increase in range but have been focusing on making it possible to strike at targets in the region in case of any aggression against the country. Thus, Iran strives to maintain at least some balance of powers and ensure its security under sanctions.

Yuri Lyamin

©New defence order. Strategy  №1 (60) 2020

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