Artillery: Iran's Imaginary Super Missile

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April 10, 2006: During recent large scale military exercises, Iran announced that it had test fired a new, short range, ballistic missile that not only had multiple warheads, but stealth features as well. This puzzled missile experts, because the announcement made no sense. But for those who have followed Iranian announcements of new weapons developments, this recent one is the usual combination of lies, exaggeration, wishful thinking and propaganda. The missile described, for the most part, sounded like the Russian Iskander E (the export version of the SS-26) ballistic missile. Last year, Russia was caught trying to sell these to Syria, and reacted by denying everything, especially when the United States threatened economic retaliation if Syria got hold of Iskanders. Syria has very little money for new weapons, which raised questions about who would finance such a deal. The Iskanders would probably cost several hundred thousand dollars each, depending on which warhead and guidance system they were equipped with. Syria could use Iskanders to make precision attacks on Israeli military targets, although the Israeli Arrow anti-missile system could probably knock down all, or most, of the Iskanders fired. What makes the Iskander dangerous is someone firing a lot of them at once. A dozen incoming Iskanders would overwhelm the Israeli Arrow anti-missile system. Last year, Russia began offering financing for weapons sales, in an effort to sell large quantities.

The Iskander is a new missile, whose development has just been completed. The 3.8 ton missile has a range of 300 kilometers, and a half ton warhead. Russia sells several different types of warheads, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electro-magnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. Russia developed the solid fuel Iskander to replace its Cold War era SS-23 battlefield ballistic missiles (which in turn had replaced SCUD). The SS-23 had to be withdrawn from service and destroyed by 1991, because the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty prohibited missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,300 kilometers. Iskanders are carried in an 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. Each truck carries two missiles. The export version of Iskander has a range of 400 kilometers. This could not reach Israel from Iran, but could be used to hit American bases in the Persian Gulf region, as well as other countries oil facilities.

Cold War financial problems slowed down development of Iskander, but now the missile is ready for use. However, the Russian army can't really afford it, so the Russians are eager to find export customers. The blowback from the West, and other Persian Gulf countries, for selling Iskanders to Iran, would be enormous. Clearly not worth the trouble to Russia. Then again, the Russians might be selling missile technology to Iran. Things like solid fuel fabrication (a tricky process, first mastered by the U.S., and decades later by Russia). Warhead construction is another area where Russia has technology Iran would like, and is willing to pay a lot of money for. Same with guidance systems. The missile Iran was describing may be their own design, assembled from Iskander components and technology. This is something the Russians might think they could get away with.

 


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