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Assessing the Iranian Missile Threat

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On 17 September, US President Obama announced a considerable change on US plans for the deployment of BMD assets in Europe. 

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The planned fixed-site elements in Poland and the Czech Republic will be replaced by land-mobile/sea-based systems. Both the President and Defence Secretary Robert Gates stressed that these changes are in view of Iranian mid-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs or MRBMs) being now perceived as the main potential threat against forward-deployed US forces as well as allies and partners “in Europe and the Middle East region”.

Which begs the question of whether Europe is actually within range of existing or projected Iranian ballistic missiles? On 20 May, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - which is in charge of the diversified missile-programme(s) of the Islamic Republic - announced the successful launch-test of a new two-stage missile, designated SEJIL-2 (“Baked Clay” in Farsi). Since then, an heated debate has been going on between international ‘think-tanks’, research institutes and defence media revolving around the attempt to mathematically assess range and payload of the new design. Data by official Iranian releases and TV clips, as well as information provided by the Iranian (exile-)opposition and gathered from US intelligence are evaluated.

One fact is noteworthy: both stages of SEJIL are powered by solid fuel, this being recognisable by the particles trail in its exhaust plume. This makes it more user-friendly and gives a safer handling and much quicker launch preparation as opposed to the previous liquid-fuelled SHAHAB 3 (“Comet” or “Meteor”). The missile on its TEL could thus only be discovered by surveillance satellites or other reconnaissance assets a very short time before launch, giving a much reduced warning time for Israel or US forces in the region.

The former director of Israel’s missile defence programme and ‘father’ of the ARROW system, Dr. Uzi Rubin, stated in a late August briefing at Huntsville (AL), that SEJIL will in fact have a range of 2,500km and not 2,000km, as previously calculated. His critical analysis contradicts a report by the East West Institute, published on 19 May by a known critic of George Bush’s missile defence plans, MIT Prof. Theodore Postol. A range of 2,500km, assuming a launch position in the extreme north-western portion of Iran, would bring Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and the eastern parts of Poland (including Warsaw), Hungary and Slovakia into SEJIL’s range.

Dr. Rubin main issue of disagreement with Postol’s report is that it includes the following quotation: “There are no credible or verifiable information on the table about the current state of the Iranian attempts to develop solid-fuel engines, and therefore no basis for an assessment to be made.” Only the very next day, SEJIL thundered off from Saman range, with not one but two solid-fuel stages.

Dr. Rubin said: “They have programme managers and engineers who know what they are doing. Within only 18 months, two separated teams at two test locations did six launches of new or modernised, but anyway multi-stage missiles. One was a three-stage platform which put a payload into low orbit. If there was a challenge for them to meet, they have achieved it…!”

In the cheerful releases which accompany every launch, Iranian officials made contradicting statements on the range of SEJIL. In November 2007, when the predecessor design, ASHURA failed in a test launch due to a defective second stage, “more than 2,000km” was given. After two further successful tests last October and this May, “up to 2,000km” was mentioned. In a Congressional hearing, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates quoted “2,000 to 2,400km, but because of some engine problems we know of, I would stick to the lower figure“.

Ten days after the May 20th launch, Prof. Postol suddenly published an added amendment to its study, this being completely dedicated to SEJIL. He now estimates the missile at 18.21m in length, 1.25m in diameter and a MTOW of 21.5 tons. On the basis of these figures, he derives that “a true Iranian solid-fuel ICBM missile on the basis of the SEJIL would be an immobile monster of some 65 tons.” He concludes that “from that level of technology Iran simply could not develop an ICBM able to reach NW Europe or the CONUS.”

Dr. Rubin publicly countered Prof. Postol’s conclusions. Drawn from his time-distance measurements of the available TV footage by seconds, he takes a burning-time of the two stages (55,699kg/f of thrust from 12.5 tons of fuel and 21,800kg/f from 4.9 tons of fuel, respectively) of 50 seconds each. From this data Rubin extrapolates a range of 2,500km, which means that from north-western Iran SEJIL would be able to reach as far as from Vienna in the West to deep into India to the East just 14 to 18 minutes after launch. His conclusions are that it would be “no big challenge for Iran to develop a compact and survivable ICBM with a MOTW of ca. 40 tons and a range of approximately 3,900km out of SEJIL within a few years.” What he does not tell us is how and into what spaces the IRGC would test such a weapon, including .e.g. the need to forward-deploy telemetry vessels and other necessary measurements. Dr. Rubin closes: “Leaving aside both our calculations and conclusions, Europe should begin to shape and establish a kind of ballistic missile defence - and better today than tomorrow.”

On 31 Shahrivar 1388 (22 September 2009), the SEJIL was paraded in front of the Iranian political and military authorities for the first time. The cheering speaker described it as being “in production”, and the accompanying press release for the first time mentioned a 1-ton warhead. Military payloads were also officially praised in connection with the series of missile tests on 6 Mehr 1388 (28 September 2009) as part of a military exercise named ‘The Great Prophet IV’.

“Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran”, IRGC-AF Commander General Hossein Salami stated in announcing that the exercise had achieved its goals. “All the test-fired missiles managed to accurately hit their designated targets without any errors and with precision”, he told the FARS press agency. A TV speaker commenting on the exercise said that what he described as an ‘optimised’ SHAHAB-3M missile had a range of up to 2,000km, while SEJIL was an even greater improvement.

Deliberately left out of this discussion is the question of whether or not Iran would be in a position to deploy nuclear or other WMD warheads for the SEJIL, and if so in what future timeframe.

By Georg Mader 
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