The London-based Institute for International Security Studies (IISS) released a book entitled, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment,” that spoke of the Islamic Republic devoting substantial sums to missile development and said some of its achievements were impressive.
On the whole, however, the report described a program that in no way resembled the claims of the Islamic Republic to be able to smash Israel if the Zionist state should ever attack the Islamic Republic.
The IISS said Iran’s inventory of missiles able to strike other countries was puny.
The IISS estimated Iran had 200 to 300 Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles able to reach into nextdoor states—but not Israel. It did not give a number for the Shahab-3, which has a range of 2,000 kilometers and can reach Israel. But it said Iran has few transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), the trucks that carry and fire missiles. It put the number of TELs for Shahab-1s and 2s at just 12 to 18 and the number of Shahab-3 TELs at a mere six.
The study was done before Iran claimed to have built “numerous” missile silos. But silos are fixed locations that the United States can easily target, while the TELs are mobile and very hard to locate. In its two wars with Iraq, the United States was stymied in its search for mobile TELs. TELs worry American war planners far more than silos.
The IISS described Iran’s missile force as a political instrument rather than a military weapon.
The IISS said: “Iran’s ballistic missiles could be used as a political weapon to wage a terror campaign against adversary cities. While such attacks might trigger fear, the expected casualties would be low – probably less than a few hundred, even assuming that Iran unleashed its entire ballistic-missile arsenal and that a majority of the warheads penetrated missile defenses.
“The military utility of Iran’s ballistic missiles is severely limited because of their very poor accuracy. The confident destruction of a single, fixed-point military target, for example, would require Iran to allocate a very significant percentage, if not all, of its missile inventory to one specific mission.” Iran has threatened such an attack on Israel’s Dimona military reactor if Israel ever attacks.
“Against large-area military targets, such as an airfield or seaport, Iran could conduct harassment attacks aimed at disrupting operations or causing damage at fuel-storage depots, but the missiles would probably be incapable of shutting down critical military activities.” Iran has threatened such attacks on American bases in the region if it is hit by the US military.
“The number of TELs available and the delays necessary to reload would also be limiting factors to any massive attack.” In other words, Iran would only be able to fire six Shahab-3s at one salvo before stopping to load up new missiles. Any opponent would then be fully warned and could take defensive measures.
The biggest limitation is that missiles without nuclear warheads carry much less punch than a single fighter-bomber aircraft—or a truck bomb for that matter.
The institute said that Iran began its ballistic missile program in the mid-1980s, during its war with Iraq. It bought a limited number of liquid-fueled, Scud-Bs from several foreign sources to satisfy its immediate wartime needs.
The institute said Iran believed its had scored a success with its Scud-B attacks on Iraq and so bought additional 300-kilometer range Scud-Bs (which it named Shahab-1), 500-kilometer range Scud-Cs (which it named Shahab-2), and longer-range Nodong (called Shahab-3) missiles from North Korea, beginning in the late 1980s and extending to the mid-1990s.
The IISS says Iran relied on foreign supplies for a long time without really trying to build its own indigenous industry until the last decade. “Tehran’s decision to procure the Nodong missile (Shahab-3) from North Korea in the early to mid-1990s, rather than design, develop, test and produce a more capable missile based on a cluster of four-Scud engines suggests that its technical wherewithal and indigenous missile capabilities were at that time limited,” the report said.
“However, shortly after the turn of the century, Iranian engineers began asserting greater independence from foreign supply, starting with the major, foreign-assisted re-design of the Shahab-3, which resulted in the longer-range Ghadr-1. Iran’s technical prowess has continued to improve over the past decade, and by 2009, the Islamic Republic had successfully integrated a second stage on to a modified Ghadr-1 airframe to create the Safir space launch vehicle, which put a small satellite into low-earth orbit.”
The Islamic Republic has presented all these missile developments as entirely separate development programs, but the IISS describes then as an evolution from the same base.
The IISS concludes: “Iran’s accomplishments over the past five to seven years are impressive. The Islamic Republic is deemed to have the capacity to modify existing missiles, to produce indigenously a large percentage of the necessary components to go into a missile,… test new configurations, and fix the design or manufacturing flaws discovered during the development of new systems.
“These capabilities demonstrate unambiguously that Iran has created and applied a disciplined, structured engineering and program-management process to its missile and space-launcher development programs.”
But then comes an important qualification: “However, it is important to recognize that future progress may still depend on significant foreign support and the supply of key materials, equipment and components.” The long pole in the tent is engine technology, where Iran is not independent.
The IISS writes, “The nearly identical performance of the Shahab-1 and the Scud-Bs built in the Soviet Union (similarly the Shahab-2 and the Scud-C), and the uncanny similarities in the exterior features of the engines shown on Iranian television and those known to be of Soviet origin, point convincingly to a reliance to date on imported Scud and Nodong engines.”
What’s more, the production of larger rocket engines will impose significant challenges. “Because Iran’s propellant specialists acquired most of their experience and know-how from Chinese tutors, the depth of their tacit knowledge is assessed to be too limited to design, develop, test and validate a new, more powerful rocket motor for an intermediate-range missile in less than the two- to three-year timeline experienced by the United States, USSR/Russia, China, France or India. There exists no evidence to date to suggest that Iran can, on its own, develop or produce the individual components of a strap-down navigation and guidance system for ballistic missiles.”
The report goes on to say, “Iran’s ability to produce new liquid-propellant missiles will be constrained by a continuing inability to design and develop a new liquid-propellant engine. Moreover, the primary sources of such engines – Russia and Ukraine – are now closely adhering to Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines [an international agreement to stop the proliferation of missile technology].
“Consequently, Iran will almost certainly have to rely on the engine technology in its possession today for all future liquid-propellant missiles and space launch vehicles it may consider developing.”
If Iran were to go on to develop missiles capable of reaching the United States—something it denies having any intention of doing—it could not do so clandestinely once it reached testing stage. It would have to fire those test missiles far out to sea and deploy ships with tracking gear in advance of each test firing. The United States would know in advance of any work on a missile able to reach the United States.
The report concludes that any Iranian missile capable of covering 9,000 kilometers and reaching the US East coast “is more than a decade away from development.”