An Assessment of the Iranian Ballistic Missile Arsenal and Regional Preparedness

Miguel Miranda is the founder of 21st Century Asian Arms Race.  He frequently writes about modern weapons and the different conflicts being fought across the world today.  He also runs the Twitter account @21aar_show to scrutinize arms fairs and military/security conferences.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of the Iranian Ballistic Missile Arsenal and Regional Preparedness

Date Originally Written:  September 17, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 8, 2018.

Summary:  As battle lines are drawn across the Middle East, the U.S. is sinking deeper into a protracted struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  But any plans to confront the neighbourhood’s penultimate rogue actor don’t acknowledge its single greatest capability—an enormous ballistic missile stockpile that can strike the capital cities and military bases of its enemies.

Text:  In August 2018, Iran’s defence ministry unveiled two new weapons.  One was a long-range air-to-air missile called the Fakour[1].  The other is the latest addition to the Fateh-series of short-range tactical ballistic missiles called the “Fateh Mobin[2].”

Then in September 2018, a barrage of Fateh-110B missiles launched from northwestern Iran struck a target 200 kilometres away in Iraqi Kurdistan[3].  Although condemned by press statements, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) attack on a Kurdish militant base had zero repercussions from a docile Iraq.  The Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) countries struggling to defeat the Houthis in Yemen are in the same pickle.  Try as they might, continuous Iranian support for the Houthis means regular launches of guided and unguided munitions aimed at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Iran’s missile activity is reason enough for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to start thinking about anti-ballistic missile defences in the region.  After all, DoD outposts in Eastern Syria are very close to local Iranian proxies.  Meanwhile, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs controlled by Tehran have quietly acquired large diameter battlefield rockets and perhaps a few missiles[4].  Keep in mind, DoD air defences are legacy “platforms” such as the Avenger ADS and the MIM-104 Patriot.  Neither legacy platform is suited for intercepting large diameter rockets, much less current generation ballistic missiles.  Then consider the almost two dozen DoD bases in the Gulf and the Levant.  What protection do they have from Iranian missiles?

Since 2000 at least two new large diameter rockets or ballistic missiles are unveiled each year by the Iranian media, who are complicit in spinning these as homegrown “innovations.”  While it’s true some Iranian weapons are blatant fakes[6], there are two niches where Iran’s state-owned military industries excel: drones and missiles.

Iran’s obsession with missiles dates to the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1980-1988.  Towards the end of the bitter conflict an exhausted Iraq launched its Scud A rockets at Iranian cities[8].  With its air force crippled by attrition and a lack of spare parts, Iran’s war planners concocted an elaborate scheme to acquire the same capability as Iraq.  In an arrangement whose details remain muddled, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Hafez Assad, and North Korea’s Kim il Sung all agreed to supply Iran with hand-me-down Scud B’s after years of selling conventional weapons to Tehran.

As both Iraq and Iran endured economic sanctions in the 1990s, Tehran kept spending vast sums on its missiles because its airpower and naval fleet had atrophied.  Since the advent of the first domestically produced Shahab missile, which was modelled after a North Korean Scud C variant called the Nodong/No Dong[8], Iran persisted in improving its conventional missiles on top of an immense rocket artillery arsenal.  Imitating Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean doctrine, both the Artesh (regular army) and the IRGC have a multitude of short, medium, and long-range rockets whose quantity now surpasses those of neighbouring countries.  In recent years, only Azerbaijan’s bloated defence expenditures has produced an inventory to rival Iran’s battlefield rocket stockpile[9].  When it comes to missiles, however, there are no specifics on how many Iran has, but a total above four digits is the lowest estimate[10].

For the reader’s benefit, below is an easy guide to Iranian ballistic missiles:

Fateh-100 “family” – Comparable to the Soviet SS-21 Scarab and even the SS-26 Stone (Iskander) surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.  Fatehs are made in eight variants, with the Fateh Mobin and the Zolfaqar being the deadliest with ranges of 700 kilometres[10].

Scud C – North Korean Hwasong 6 or “Scud C” missiles with a range of several hundred kilometres.  It’s assumed Pyongyang also helped build a production facility somewhere in Iran.

Shahab “family” – Introduced in the 2000s, the Shahabs resemble the Scud C 6 but have varying capabilities.  The Shahab-3 is considered a nuclear capable medium-range ballistic missile that can reach targets more than a thousand kilometres away. 

Khorramshahr – This road mobile medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is suspected to have been developed with North Korean assistance and its range covers much of South Asia and the Middle East.  Analysts acknowledge its resemblance to the Musudan MRBM that Pyongyang showed off in its annual parades until early 2018[11].

Soumar – A land-based variant of the Soviet Kh-35 naval cruise missile.  In December 2017 Houthi fighters launched a cruise missile resembling the Soumar at a nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi.  Although the result of the attack is unknown, it proves how Iran can strike its enemies anywhere[12].

Although the U.S.-developed Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries are in service with Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, these don’t count as serious anti-ballistic missile defenses as a layered network is best.  So far, only the UAE  is close to achieving this layered network with its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries complemented by short-range SAMs.  Of course, Israel is in a better position to stop Iranian missiles since it built a network for the PAC-3 together with its own Arrow 2/3 long-range SAM, the David’s Sling, and the Iron Dome[13].

Remarkably, Saudi Arabia is the most vulnerable to an Iranian missile barrage.  Since 2016 not a month has gone by without the Houthis in Yemen sending either large diameter rockets or ballistic missiles into the Kingdom, with successful intercepts by Saudi air defences up for debate[14].  Even with a defence budget considered the third largest in the world, Saudi Arabia’s collection of Patriot’s won’t be able to thwart multiple launches at its major cities and energy infrastructure[15].  Worse, Riyadh’s orders for either the S-400 Triumf or the THAAD have yet to arrive[16].

If the Trump Administration is serious about confronting Iran in the region, it’s doing an abysmal job preparing for the small and big fights where the IRGC and its proxies can bring asymmetric weapons to bear.  Whether or not Gulf allies agree to host a top of the line DoD ballistic missile defense capabilities like AEGIS Ashore[17], genuine layered anti-ballistic missile defences[18] are needed to protect U.S. bases against hundreds of potential missile and rocket attacks by Iran in a future war.  Thousands of American servicemen and women are at grave risk without one.


Endnotes:

[1] Miranda, M. (2018, July 29). Iran made a big deal about a copycat missile. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/07/29/iran-made-a-big-deal-about-a-copycat-missile/

[2] Miranda, M. (2018, August 14). Iran unveiled a juiced up ballistic missile this week. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/08/14/iran-unveiled-a-juiced-up-ballistic-missile-this-week/

[3] Miranda, M. (2018, September 11) Iran just bombarded kurdish rebels with missiles. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/09/11/iran-just-bombarded-kurdish-rebels-with-missiles/

[4]  Karako, T. (2015, August 10). Getting the GCC to Cooperate on Missile Defense. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://warontherocks.com/2015/05/getting-the-gcc-to-cooperate-on-missile-defense/ 

[5] Irish, J. (2018, August 31). Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-iraq-missiles-exclusive/exclusive-iran-moves-missiles-to-iraq-in-warning-to-enemies-idUSKCN1LG0WB?il=0

[6] Miranda, M. (2018, August 26). Iran military industries are promoting fake modernization. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/08/26/iranian-military-industries-are-promoting-fake-modernization/

[7] Press, A. (1988, March 14). ‘War of Cities’ Truce Ends as Iraqi Missile Hits Tehran. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1988-03-14/news/mn-734_1_iraqi-news-agency

[8] No-dong. September 17, 2018, from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/musudan/

[9] Miranda, M. (2018, July 12). Azerbaijan is showing off new weapons again. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/06/12/azerbaijan-is-showing-off-new-weapons-again/

[10] Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. (2017, September 21). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/06/iran-ballistic-missile-capabilities-170621125051403.html

[11] Iran Inaugurates Production Line Of New Missile. (2016, September 26). September 17, 2018, from http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/iran-inaugurates-production-line-new-missile

[12] Musudan (BM-25). September 17, 2018, from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/musudan/

[13] Yemen’s Houthis claim to fire missile toward unfinished Abu Dhabi nuclear reactor. (2017, December 3). September 17, 2018, from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/12/03/world/yemens-houthis-claim-fire-missile-toward-unfinished-abu-dhabi-nuclear-reactor/#.W56g0_ZoTIU

[14] Defense, I. (2018, February 19). Israel Successfully Test Fires Arrow 3 Missile System. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/33120

[15] Gambrell, J. (2018, March 26). Videos raise questions over Saudi missile intercept claims. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2018/03/26/videos-raise-questions-over-saudi-missile-intercept-claims/

[16] Riedel, B. (2018, March 27). What you need to know about the latest Houthi attack on Riyadh. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/03/27/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-latest-houthi-attack-on-riyadh/

[17] Saudi Arabia wants Russian help for its arms industry. (2017, October 7). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2017/10/07/saudi-arabia-wants-russian-help-for-its-arms-industry/

[18] Larter, D. (2018, June 20). The US Navy is fed up with ballistic missile defense patrols. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/06/16/the-us-navy-is-fed-up-with-ballistic-missile-defense-patrols/

Assessment Papers Iran Middle East Miguel Miranda Rockets and Missiles United States