London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies has released a new “dossier”: “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A net assessment,” produced by “an international team of experts.”
IISS says that while Iran’s missile program has made impressive progress in recent years, it remains heavily dependent on foreign support and supply of key materials, equipment and components. Certain key technologies it can’t build: “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.”
Tehran is still four or five years away from rigging some combination of liquid or solid fuel engines to build a longer range missile capable of ranging Western Europe, according to a IISS press release. As for a notional ICBM that could reach 9,000 kilometers and hit America’s east coast, Iran is still a decade away.
Iran is though to possess 200-300 Shahab-1 and -2 (Scud-B,C) with a maximum range of 500 kilometers. Iran has bought longer range Shahab-3 missiles from North Korea (No-dong) with a range of 900 kilometers. Iranian has been tinkering with the Shahab-3 to produce the Ghadr-1, with a longer range out to 1,600 kilometers, though with a smaller warhead of around 750 kilograms. Iran appears to be either very close or may already have developed a liquid fuel engine production line of its own.
Publicly available information indicates Iran has around six Shahab-3/Ghadr-1 transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicles and between 12 and 18 TELs for the Shahab-1/-2.
Iran is also developing a solid fuel missile, the Sajjil-2 (pictured), potentially capable of carrying a 750 kilogram warhead to about 2,200 kilometers, threatening Israel, Turkey and most of the Arabian peninsula. IISS assess the Sajjil-2 as still two to three years from operational deployment. The Sajjil-2 was “possibly” designed because Iran realized it needs a bigger rocket to carry what would likely be a one ton nuclear payload.
Iran has built solid fuel rocket motors weighing up to 13 tons. Since Iran is most likely constrained by an inability to design and develop a new liquid fuel engine, versus copying those it already has, it would have to build a missile using existing liquid fuel engine clusters.
Using Scud and No-dong engines, Iran could potentially build an intercontinental liquid fuel ballistic missile, it would be very large (on the order of 120 tons) and cumbersome, something akin to Soviet missiles of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Such a large missile would make for an awfully appealing target for a pre-emptive attack.
The wiser route is solid-propellant. Test flights have shown the Sajjil-2 works. So, hypothetically speaking, Iran could combine and reconfigure existing Sajjil rocket motors to create a new three stage missile, IISS says. It would be a risky build and would require flight tests to prove it works.
If Iran is able to build a rocket motor that could range the U.S., two big obstacles remain to developing a true ICBM: Iran would have to acquire tracking and telemetry systems that could be deployed on sea based platforms to monitor future test flights; and, it would have to develop technologies to protect the warhead on its high-speed re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
Flight testing will pose a problem, since those can’t be hidden from probing electronic eyes. Rarely are fewer than a dozen flights performed before a missile is deployed, IISS writes. So, the intel community should have a pretty good handle on Iranian progress toward developing a true ICBM, we hope anyway.