On the heels of a recent Israeli Air Force exercise — and cautionary words from the United States — Iran, quite literally, fired back on Wednesday. According to military and press accounts, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) units test-fired nine missiles, including a medium-range Shahab-3, capable of reaching Israel.
While the Iranian missile test was enough to ratchet up regional tensions (and trigger a new spike in oil prices), it is possible to read too much into the day’s events, at least militarily. First, this type of drill is hardly an unusual event; IRGC missile units conduct an average of two or three major exercises each year, and missile crews practice continuously at their garrisons. Preparations for the test had been underway for several days and, presumably, detected by U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
Secondly, reporting on the missile test — or at least the information available so far — ignores the salient question about the supposed “highlight” of the exercise: the launch of an extended range Shahab-3 that could target Israel. This is not the first time Iran has tested a longer-rage version of the Shahab-3; launches involving that type of missile date back almost a decade.
But many of those tests had something in common: they resulted in failures, ranging from missiles that blew up in flight, failed to achieve the desired range, or strayed badly off course. So far, Tehran hasn’t provided details on Wednesday’s Shahab-3 launch, only saying that it has a maximum range of 1250 miles and is capable of carrying a one-ton payload. If the extended-range Shahab-3 remains unreliable, it will pose less of a threat to Israel and other potential targets in the Middle East.
In fact, Iran reportedly stopped work on another missile program (dubbed the Shahab-4), replacing it with BM-25 intermediate range missiles from North Korea. The BM-25 — based on an old Soviet SLBM design — arrived in Iran more than a year ago but has not been operationally tested. Cancellation of the Shahab-4 and slow progress with the BM-25 suggest continuing problems with Tehran’s intermediate and long-range missile programs.
Deficiencies can also be found among operational systems. Media reports on Wednesday’s launch are wildly inaccurate in one important element: characterizing many of the missiles tested as long-range systems. The Shahab-3 is actually classified as a medium-range system; the other missiles tested appear to be short-range systems, capable of reaching targets less than 150 miles away — and with only limited accuracy.
In fact, the three missiles that were launched simultaneously (and highlighted in press photos) are unsophisticated battlefield rockets, probably a Zelzal variant. Iran first introduced the Zelzal in the mid-1990s; it was based on the Russian Frog-7 design, which dates from the 1950s. Not exactly state-of-the-art. But the western press accepts Iranian military claims uncritically and often inflates the threat, much to Tehran’s delight.
Remember that advanced fighter that Iran built, supposedly equal to our own F/A-18? It’s actually a remanufactured U.S. F-5, with a second vertical stabilizer and marginally upgraded avionics. Or that high-speed torpedo? It is based on a Soviet design from World War II, requiring precise pre-launch calculations. If the target changes speed, zig-zags, or does anything to upset the firing solution, the torpedo misses its mark.
But with the media unwilling (or unable) to call Tehran’s military bluff, the exaggerated claims continue. After Wednesday’s launch, a senior Iranian officer told reporters that “our missiles are ready for the shooting at any time or place.” He said the purpose of the exercise was to show “we are ready to defend the integrity of the Iranian nation.”
In reality, his claims about a “hair-trigger” alert status are a bit of a stretch. Under some scenarios, it would take Iranian crews several hours to mount a strike due to the technology used in their missile systems. For example, older Shahab-3 variants use highly-voliatle liquid fuel, which must be loaded onto the missile before it can launch. While a highly-proficient crew can prepare the missile for firing in about an hour, less-skilled personnel may need two or three hours to complete the same task.
That’s a critical concern because it means the missile will sit at a fixed site while the preparations are made, increasing its vulnerability to detection and air attack. The problem is further compounded by the limitations of some Shahab-3 launchers which cannot raise an already-fueled missile to the firing position. As a result, the missile must be elevated prior to fueling, making the Shahab-3 easier to detect.
However, those problems do not mean that Iran’s missile threat can be ignored or marginalized. Ballistic missile “hunting” remains an imprecise art, at best. In a country like Iran (which is roughly the size of Alaska), there are plenty of launch sites where Shahab-3 crews could escape detection and targeting. Tehran also has detailed knowledge of our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, sometimes scheduling missile movements and other activities during “gaps” in overhead coverage.
Iran has also invested in underground facilities for its missile units, allowing crews to conduct maintenance and training operations without being detected by intelligence systems. One such facility, built specifically for the Shahab-3, contains a vertical launch shaft, permitting the missile to be fueled and fired with minimal warning. Tehran has also begun building in-ground silos for some of its missiles, making it more difficult to monitor activity. These trends, coupled with Iran’s efforts to build more missiles and outfit them with nuclear weapons, are reasons for concern.
Still, it’s important to place events like the missile test in their proper context, at least from an operations perspective. Iran’s ballistic missile forces are improving, but they remain hindered by old technology and limited accuracy. It would be difficult (at least over the short term) for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon small enough to fit atop one of its existing missiles. Until that obstacle is overcome, Iran will lack a viable option for delivering a nuclear device, particularly against distant targets.
The bad news is that Iran has the cash, resolve, and technological access to overcome these obstacles. Liquid-fueled systems are being replaced by solid-fueled missiles and rockets (which can be launched in a matter of minutes) and left unchecked, Tehran will eventually get its hands on technology for smaller nuclear warheads, ideal for short and medium-range missile systems. Measures aimed at concealing missile and nuclear activity are also improving.
From a technical and military standpoint, Iran revealed nothing new in Wednesday’s test. Indeed, the event was (to some degree) an exercise in opportunism, allowing Tehran to grab some headlines, boost oil prices, and send messages to its adversaries at the end of a G-8 summit and in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign. While preparations for the test began weeks or months ago, it is possible that Iran delayed the launch until the “right” political moment arrived.
And that brings us to a pair of salient points, with clear implications for our future dealings with Tehran. First, it would be reassuring to know that our intelligence community wasn’t fooled by today’s launch. A good barometer in that area is the presence of an RC-135 Cobra Ball aircraft, which tracks missile tests at long range. With sufficient warning from various intel sources, “The Ball” is usually in position ahead of time, ready to collect data with its infrared telescopes and other on-board systems. The appearance of Cobra Ball (or other intel platforms) also sends a powerful message to our adversaries: we know what you’re up to. On the other hand, if our sensors weren’t in position, it would raise the dire prospect that we’re losing track of the Iranian missile program and other, more ominous activities.
The final point focuses on the larger question of dealing with Iran and its WMD ambitions. Not long after Wednesday’s missile salvo was revealed, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama called for more sanctions against Iran and direct negotiations. But we’ve been trying that approach for several years (largely through the European Union), with no appreciable progress. Why does Mr. Obama believe the failed policies of the past will now work with the clerics in Tehran?
If anything, the missile test is a reminder that there are limits to diplomacy, and at some point the next commander-in-chief may be forced to try something else. Senator Obama’s refusal to consider those other options will only embolden Iran, and likely lead to further acceleration of its missile and nuclear programs. There’s no way you can read “too much” into that reality.