Amid tensions, Iran displays growing missile might
Beirut - It is generally accepted that the Islamic Republic has the biggest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, more numerous than Israel’s, though not as effective. But if what Iran has been boasting is true, its missile might is more formidable than thought.
Iran recently unveiled two new missiles said to be far more accurate than anything else in its arsenal. But the most sensational development took place October 14th, when the Aerospace Command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) unveiled on state television what was described as a secret missile complex reportedly carved out 500 metres deep inside a mountain at an undisclosed location.
The high-arched tunnels were filled with what appeared to be long- and medium-range missiles, some on mobile launchers.
Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s aerospace branch, which controls missile development and production, declared there are “many” such missile bases across Iran. “This is a sample of our massive missile bases,” he said. “The Islamic Republic’s long-range missile bases are stationed and ready under the high mountains in all the country’s provinces and cities…
“As of next year, a new and advanced generation of long-range, liquid- and solid-fuel missiles will replace the current product.”
Hajizadeh’s boasts cannot be independently verified but if they are only half true, Iran’s missile capabilities and, arguably more important, its ability to withstand US or Israeli attacks aimed at eliminating its missile arsenal, have improved to a degree that Iran’s adversaries will undoubtedly find alarming.
The depth of the complex displayed on TV would make it close to impervious to even the most powerful aerial bomb, the US Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, a 15-ton munition that can only be carried by the venerable B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 bomber. It is designed to take out underground bunkers, such as those housing Iran’s contentious nuclear programme.
The 7-metre-long MOP is reputed to be able to shatter bunkers 60 metres below ground level — well short of the depth of the missile complex shown on Iranian TV. However, the US Air Force is developing the tactic of using two or more such munitions, dropped one on top of the other, to blast a way into deeply buried facilities.
But it is the offensive capabilities of the reputed network of underground missile bases that the Israelis along with the US military facilities in the Middle East and the Gulf Arab states, the most likely targets of Iranian missile attacks, find most distressing.
Israeli officials say these bases allow Iran to secretly prepare ballistic missiles for launch and fire them through surface vents, away from prying US and Israeli spy satellites. Liquid-fuelled weapons take longer to prepare and are at their most vulnerable during that time to pre-empt strikes.
This would suggest the missiles reported to be deployed in the underground bases are liquid-fuelled, such as the Shahab-3 and Ghadr missiles, currently the mainstay of the Iran’s ballistic force.
Underground bases effectively prevent pre-emptive strikes and enable the Iranians to “carry out a surprise missile barrage attack”, said Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Centre at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies outside Tel Aviv.
On October 11th, Tehran announced the successful test-firing of its first precision-guided ballistic missile, the Emad (Pillar), and, if the claims are accurate, that greatly improves the precision of Iran’s growing long-range missile force.
The Emad test followed the unveiling in August of the Fateh (Victory) 313, a short-range, solid-fuel missile that Iran says has greater accuracy than earlier variants. This will allow the IRGC to use its missiles against military targets in Israel or the Gulf, which require pinpoint accuracy, rather than simply blasting the cities of Iran’s adversaries.
Inbar and other Israeli officials say development of these systems attests to the maturity of Iran’s aerospace industry.
Tehran’s recent emphasis on the growing strength of its missile forces and the pursuit of new weapons is widely seen as a challenge by the country’s hardliners to the landmark July 14th agreement between Iran and US-led global powers to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting international economic sanctions.
The nuclear accord does not include curbing Iran’s missile programme. But on July 20th, a few days after the deal was signed, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2231, which bars Iran from developing missiles “designed to carry nuclear warheads”. Tehran insists it does not seek to develop atomic weapons.
“What we’re seeing is Iran taking immediate steps to test its interpretations [of the nuclear pact and Security Council Resolution 2231],” cautioned Emily Landau, head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Programme at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“Iran’s testing the waters… to establish and ensure rules of the game for its future activities — like inspections at its military facilities and its presence in Syria.”