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Iranian Rocket Artillery Just Got More Dangerous

August 15, 2021
Fateh large diameter rocket artillery systems on display. Via Iranian media.

With the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy committed to perpetual undeclared war against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) are enjoying a broad modernization of its arsenal. The past few years each had at least two events where current and upcoming military technology were displayed for exposure by the national press. This serves to inspire a sense of pride and advertises the country’s hard power. A huge exhibition for the IRGC’s top brass took place in July at a military base for the same reasons. The impressive amount of equipment parked outdoors and shown indoors featured weapon systems that have never been seen until now.

A real standout was a ballistic missile erector-launcher that fit inside a shipping container. The erector-launcher was large enough to be armed with a pair of Fateh-series ballistic missiles. Another type of road mobile launcher defied easy description. (See photo above.) It was obviously based on a commercial trailer but modified to carry an erector-launcher with six tubes, each containing an unspecified munition. Apparently, the entire truck bed is concealed with tarpaulin that’s stretched along its length. A large canvass sheet was draped over the front of the truck to hide its cab; this is a common practice during exhibitions to obscure the IRGC’s reliance on imported trucks repurposed for its weapon systems.

It matters that Iran’s growing arsenal of locally made road mobile weapon systems have crucial differences among them. For its anti-ship missiles (AShMs) and surface to air missiles (SAMs) the munitions are often exposed on their launchers. The newer generation of AShMs and SAMs, however, have the munitions loaded into rectangular containers. SAMs in particular have small radars integrated with their launchers. Iran and Israel are the only countries in the Middle East that developed comprehensive air defenses. Egypt was once on the same track but its indigenous missile development has gone fallow. Turkey, on the other hand, is now laying the ground work for its own short, medium, and long-range SAMs.

The same launch tubes were seen at an underground storage depot of the the IRGC. Via Iranian media.

When it comes to Iranian rocket artillery their munitions are loaded inside cylindrical or tubular launchers except for the large diameter types mounted on rails. The designation “Fajr” is used with a corresponding numerical value to organize their varying calibers by size. For example, Fajr-1 represents the smallest type of rocket artillery in Iran’s armed forces, the ubiquitous 107mm Type 63 originating from China. The Fajr-5, on the other hand, is an enormous long-range 333mm rocket that’s upgradable into a ballistic missile. The IRGC and the regular armed forces employ other names for their rocket artillery. “Falaq” refers to a selection of downsized short-range but larger caliber rockets while “Nazeat” and “Zelzal” each apply to large diameter rockets carried by transporters.

Iranian media covered the exhibition in July but very few details were provided explaining how this new weapon system is employed and deployed. Its designation turned out to be “Fateh” and each of its rockets travel as far as 120 kilometers depending on their warhead type–air burst, high explosive, or anti-fortifications. The purpose of this road mobile system became apparent months later when tensions flared along the Iran-Azerbaijan border. A sudden mobilization of the IRGC and Artesh saw mechanized units gathered for exercises and these same launchers were spotted in viral footage–confirming how fast the IRGC adopts its latest equipment. Furthermore, reviewing footage shared from IRGC-affiliated media this past year does unearth some clues on this weapon system’s purpose. In March a video clip of an alleged “missile base” was shared by Iranian media showing a tunnel with concrete walls used for storing AShMs. A curious unnamed munition seen in the clip was found loaded inside rows of cylindrical launch tubes similar to those found on this truck at the exhibition in July. It’s now clear the launcher and its munitions are rocket artillery for complementing other precision weapons.

Iranian AShMs are derived from Chinese models and if this weapon system has a coastal defense role aside from bombarding surface targets then its deployment looks similar to the Russian-made Bal-E coastal defense system. The difference is the Bal-E is armed with eight missiles although it’s possible to install at least four of its launchers inside a shipping container. This Fateh rocket artillery system looks like it’s meant to launch barrages of precision rockets in short notice. Its choice of transporter allows it to travel undetected as a “commercial truck” and then be quickly prepared for multiple launches before it evacuates its position. A potential drawback of this rocket artillery system is the launcher’s weight when fully loaded. If each munition has a diameter between 400mm and 500mm, having six rockets loaded on the erector-launcher, the resulting heft will definitely strain the truck chassis during travel.

Iran’s military-industrial sector does manufacture a line of cargo trucks for military use, including 8×8 trailers that are best suited when assembling a road mobile launcher. The combination of 8×8 transporters and large diameter rocket artillery is common enough. But the IRGC emphasized concealment and deception with this Fateh rocket artillery system and went with a commercial truck instead. The names for its varying munitions are unknown but, as a weapon for long-range strikes and coastal defense, its flight characteristics should follow a ballistic trajectory accurized with some combination of GPS and inertial guidance. The real danger of these munitions are their course correction and when the terminal phase–the missile is on its dive or downward trajectory–reaches supersonic speeds, making them impossible to track and neutralize for traditional ship-based air defenses.

It’s clear how maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea are at severe risk because of this weapon system.

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