On 24 February 2010, the Russian Defense Ministry officials made a presentation to a high-level US delegation on Iran’s missile program. Russia’s narrative and the pursuing US discussions and assessments are summarized in a cable between the Secretary of State and the US Embassy in Moscow. The cable is one of the many published by WikiLeaks. The following are the document’s highlights. We invite comments from our readers.
- Iran’s leaders view acquiring a missile capability as a deterrent to external threats. They also consistently exaggerate Iran’s achievement in missile production.
- The core of the Iranian missile program has been the evolutionary development of liquid-fueled missiles based on Soviet Scud technology. With assistance from North Korea, Iran has acquired production capabilities for Scud B and the Scud C. The latter, called Shahab-2 by the Iranians, has a range of 550 km with a 700 kg payroll.
- Iran has also developed and commissioned a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) called the Shahab-3. Based on North Korean No Dong-1 and using Scud-based technologies. The Shahab-3 has a range of 1,500 km with a 700 kg payroll.
- An improved version of Shahab-3, called Shahab-3M, has a confirmed range of 1,600-1,700 km (claimed as 2,000 km by Iran). The improvement was achieved by reducing the re-entry vehicle weight to 250 kg and an improved engine.
- By developing Shahab-3M, Iran has nearly exhausted the potential to increase the range of the Shahab-3, or any further improvements to Scud-based missile technology.
- Iran has been developing solid propellant MRBMs/IRBMs since 2000, including a two-stage intermediate (2000 km) solid propellant missile. Russia believes that despite Iran’s claim of a successful 16 December 2009 test of this missile, the test was only successful for a prototype, which allowed Iran to practice the first stage operation and stage separation. Russia believes the missile could not be deployed for 5-6 years. [Uskowi on Iran: Iran has named this missile Sejil-2].
- Iran has also launched Safir-2 space launch vehicle (SLV) in 2009, putting Omid (26 kg) satellite into orbit. Russia believes due to low throw weight of the system, it is unviable to develop combat/offensive long-range missile based on SLV technology.
- Despite the successful launch of a 26-kg satellite into orbit and launching of a solid propellant MRBM, Russia believes Iran’s success in its missile program boils down to creating Shahab-3-class liquid propellant missiles with an accuracy of several kilometers that can reach targets in the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. But with their conventional warheads, these missiles cannot do substantial damage. Russia believes Iran could develop 3,000-5,000 km range missiles no sooner than 2015. However, Russia believes Iran would not develop such capability, and its missile program will continue to be based on regional targets.
After the Russian presentation, which included a review of North Korean missile program, the US delegation offered the following discussion:
- US and Russia have similar assessments of short-range Iranian missiles. On medium-range missiles, both sides agree there is the original No Dong and a modified No Dong with longer range, although US and Russia have different ideas on how Iran’s modifications achieved longer range. And both sides seem to agree that Iran is developing a two-stage solid propellant missile. Beyond that US and Russian assessments seem to diverge.
- The US believes the modified Shahab-3 has 600 kg re-entry vehicle mass at a range of 2,000 km (Russian estimation was for a 250-kg RV mass). Russia responded the 250-kg was at the low-end of Russia’s estimate. But Russia emphasized that the low weight of Shahab-3 warhead makes it pointless as a military weapon. Russia also believes that with a warhead of 600 kg, the missile range is 1,300 km (not 2,000 km as US believes).
- The US said the 2,000 km range for the Shahab-3 is achieved through the use of an aluminum airframe instead of steel, and increased engine thrust. The US assessment of the use of aluminum is related to Iran seeking various aluminum alloys. The UK and France also believe Iran is using aluminum airframe and it has continually attempted to procure aluminum for this purpose. US is seeking to add the types of aluminum sought by Iran to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Annex.
- The US noted that the first stage of the Safir SLV is the Shahab-3. Both sides agreed that a very low weight satellite (the Omid) was all that the Safir could put into orbit. But the US assessed that even orbiting such a small satellite could only be done using an aluminum airframe.
- The US assessed that Shahab-3 could be used as a long-range weapon depending on how the rocket is used. If clustered or stacked, the Shahab-3 could be used as a longer-range system. Using Shahab-3 as only a first stage is not the only option. Russia emphasized that talking about the Shahab-3 as a long-range combat missile is unrealistic. The US agreed it is not realistic for a mobile missile, but it would be realistic in a silo or underground.
- Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum. Iran can build prototypes, but will not be able to produce them in mass quantities to be a security threat. The guidance system for Shahab-3 is also outdated and does not allow for precision steering. Russia believe the Shahab-3 precision system at a range of 2,000 km could veer as much as 6-7 km off its target. At 5,000 km, the accuracy could be off by 50-60 km.
- The US assesses the Iranian solid propellant MRBMs, having been tested four times in the past two years, will be ready to be fielded in less than the 5-6 year timeframe Russia envisions. US would not be surprised if a two-stage system with a range of up to 2,000 km were fielded within a year.
- The US said another path to long-range missile development for Iran might be the so-called BM-25 missile that the US believes was sold to Iran by North Korea. Russia questioned the basis for US assumption that BM-25 is an existing system. For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious system that has not been tested by North Korea. The US said that North Korea transferred 19 of these missiles to Iran.
- The US believes that is hard for Russia to imagine that Iran would buy an untested system. US said North Korea exported No dong missiles after only one flight test, and it is not unimaginable that it would build and export a system that has not been tested, especially because of its need for hard currency. For Iran, the BM-25s gives it a set it can work on for reverse engineering after recognizing that the BM-25s propulsion technology exceeds the capabilities of that used in the Shahab-3.
- US assesses that photos of the second stage of the Safir show that the steering (vernier) engines of the Safir are the same as on the R-27. The weld lines and tank volumes from the Safir second stage show that the ratio of oxidizer to propellant is not consistent with Scud propellants and more consistent UDMH and N2O4 used in the R-27. US does not have the information of why Iran has not tested the BM-25s. But it appears that they have at least done work with the steering (venier) engines. The US said it would endeavor to provide further information about the existence of the BM-25 at the next round of talks.
Russia concluded the discussions on Iran by assessing that improvement of Iran's liquid propellant missiles is nil. Iran could not put a nuclear device on its existing missiles, it has no ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. A missile threat would develop only if Iran were successful to develop an MRBM with a 3,000 km range and a warhead of one ton. Iran does not have the military-industrial capability to develop such a program. The current export controls also prevent it from gaining access to foreign technology to develop such system.
Click here to read the entire document, including some very informative technical discussions between the two sides on the Iranian program.