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A Useful Guide To Iranian Ballistic Missiles

January 15, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

On January 8 the Islamic Republic proved it can strike US military sites at will using its ballistic missiles. There might not have been any casualties from the attacks on Ain Al-Asad/Al Assad airbase and uninhabited spots outside Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan but the damage left an impression; charred buildings and large craters were a testament to the missiles’ effectiveness. Other than being forewarned several hours before the attacks, the lack of countermeasures to protect US forces stationed in Iraq is surprising. In Al-Asad, where as many as 10 missiles landed, 1,500 soldiers waited out the barrage in concrete shelters leftover from the Iran-Iraq War that ended 31 years ago.

Whether Tehran and Washington, DC escalate or not the threat posed by the former’s ballistic missiles is so severe they demand to be understood in depth. Here’s a quick guide to [almost] all of them.

THE CONQUEROR FAMILY

Judging by their looks the Fateh or “Conqueror” missiles of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ooze menace with pointed stabilizer fins and canards jutting around their warheads. The original Fateh 110 entered service 20 years ago and these are believed to be the deadliest missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal. Upgraded to multiple variants since, the Fateh-series SRBMs are deployed on wheeled transporters (these used to be 6×6 Mercedes trucks) and require no preparation before launch.

The Fateh 110B and 110C have ranges of 300 kilometers. The Zolfaqar (a historic sword) and Fateh Mobin (“bright conqueror”) are able to reach targets within 700 km. The Dezful unveiled in 2019 is the largest in the family, with a range claimed to be in the 1,000 km envelope. The variety and recent use of the Fateh-series suggests they’re inexpensive to mass-produce and are sanctions proof. The negative effects of the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2017 had little to no effect on the IRGC’s willingness to use Fateh-series missiles on their enemies.

The Fateh Mobin and Dezful SRBMs are superior to most MTCR compliant surface-to-surface missiles and are on par with Russia’s formidable Iskander-M. Two anti-ship missiles based on the Fateh 110–the Hormuz and the Khalij Fars–have radar tracking guidance systems for surface vessels. Their ballistic trajectory means they approach a target at supersonic speeds that render anti-aircraft countermeasures useless.

Since 2019 the IRGC have used a specially made 8×8 transport able to carry and launch two Fateh-series SRBMs. Via Iranian media.

FROM PYONGYANG, WITH LOVE

Near the end of the Iran-Iraq War a serious attempt by Saddam’s military to terrorize Iran’s populace with ballistic missiles triggered unexpected consequences in what became known as the “War of the Cities.” The experience motivated Tehran’s hurried acquisition of improved R-17 or “Scud B” SRBMs from North Korea and Syria. By the 1990s Iran possessed the know-how to assemble Scud B (300 km range) and Scud C (500 km range) missiles and eventually its own Shahab or “Meteor” road mobile missiles. Whether or not Chinese technical assistance also contributed to the Shahab’s R&D is unverified but the similarity with Pakistan’s own road mobile Shaheen missiles–developed with Chinese help–is hard to ignore.

If the Fateh-series are the IRGC’s short-range precision weapons of choice, the Shahabs are their taller medium-range siblings that put the greater Middle East under Tehran’s shadow. The Shahab-1 and 2 may have similar characteristics to Scud C’s but the later Shahab-3 and its offshoots the Emad and the Ghadr, if positioned in Western Iran, are capable of reaching Israel with ranges between 1,300 until 1,900 km. This puts them on par with the US Army’s defunct MGM-31 Pershing II’s that shielded Western Europe in the 1980s. It’s clear how Iran’s progress with its Shahab-series in the 1990s and 2000s gave it a real medium-range missile arsenal.

An outlier among the Shahabs is the short-range Qiam that’s devoid of any stabilizers or fins around its boosters but keeps the same airframe, giving it the appearance of a giant crayon. Qiam missiles are suspected to have been used on Al-Asad together with Fateh 110’s.

TARGET ISRAEL

Trying to learn about Iranian ballistic missiles can be frustrating because of the nomenclature preferred by the IRGC. Yet two specific models inspire dread among those concerned with proliferation risks. Since Iran doesn’t possess nuclear warheads all of its surface-to-surface missiles are conventional. But when examining the Sejjil and the Khorramshahr one can’t help wonder if these are destined to become road mobile IRBMs someday.

Named after a crucial battle in the Iran-Iraq War, the Khorramshahr is suspected to be the result of a clandestine joint venture with North Korea. Without nuclear warheads to arm it, however, the IRGC have little use for the Khorramshahr since other missiles (the Fatehs and Shahabs) are better at hammering Iran’s enemies. This fuels speculation the Khorramshahr is being readied for a “breakout” role when Tehran announces it has assembled a nuclear warhead and quickly arms a missile type with the farthest range–the Khorramshahr.

The Sejjil-1/2 are no different despite being smaller than the Khorramshahr. The Sejjil-series are notable for being two-stage missiles with ranges extending to 2,000 km or enough to cover the Middle East and Central Asia. There’s too little credible information about the Sejjils at this point and they’re still deemed experimental models although their known characteristics overlap with Israel’s own Jericho 2 nuclear missiles. The advancement of Iran’s missile technology is one reason why its national space program draws the West’s consternation. If unchecked, its homegrown expertise may lead to nuclear-capable weapons.

The status of the Sejjil-1/2, seen above on its 12×12 transporter, is unclear but it’s the only two-stage ballistic missile in the Middle East today. Via Iranian media.

THE UNGUIDED ONES

Iran’s state-owned weapons factories mass-produce an unparalleled variety of large diameter battlefield rockets. Some are sent to Tehran’s proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah while others are kept at home for deterrence purposes. The Fajr or Fadjr-series are the larger siblings to the prolific 107mm and 122mm rockets embraced by the IRGC and the regular armed forces. The 240mm Fadjr-3 is comparable to the Soviet BM-27 Uragan and probably originated from North Korea. Each of its unguided rockets have a maximum range of 70 km. The 333mm Fadjr-5 flies twice farther and its latest variant is equipped with GPS guidance and canards, turning it into a missile. At this point Iran’s military have the tools for making their “dumb” rockets precise, whatever the caliber.

Aside from the Fajr/Fadjrs there’s the Nazeat and Zelzal rockets carried by single launchers on trucks. The Nazeats are often compared to unguided Soviet FROG rockets from the early years of the Cold War. Unsophisticated in appearance and rather anachronistic, Nazeats seem out of place in the 21st century, although the Iranian army or Artesh have stockpiled at least dozens. When launched, unguided Nazeat rockets follow a ballistic trajectory (a high flight angle until it plummets with supersonic force) and inflict greater damage with a saturation effect–whether bomblets, fragments, or sheer explosive force–over the target. The Zelzal-1/2/3 are the same, albeit with longer range. The unguided Zelzal-3, for example, is estimated to reach 200 km and is modular to an unknown extent.

In 2019 evidence of precision upgrades for Iran’s rocket artillery came to light. There are now photos circulating online of new unnamed missiles redesigned to match the external characteristics found on the Fateh-series. Iran’s unrestricted development of precision weapons gives it a fearsome edge over its adversaries. The US military and its allies should take this knowledge to heart.

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