Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why would Iran Want Cruise Missiles?



According to Israel’s outgoing Intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash) Iran recently acquired 12 cruise missiles with a range of up to 3,000 kilometers. Speaking at the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, last Tuesday, December 20, Farkash claimed that the missiles had the ability to carry a nuclear warhead. News reports had already mentioned last March, that Ukrainian arms dealers had smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China in 1999-2001.

On the same day, the Hamburg based Bild Zeitung quoted reports by BND (German Intelligence) sources saying that Iran had purchased 18 kits of BM-25 Mobile missiles from North Korea. The German tabloid further claimed that the BND has intelligence indicating Iranian scientists are working intensively to attach nuclear warheads to its missiles. Near Tabriz, 600 km North of Teheran, the BND has allegedly located a test-pad for silo based missiles. The BND also warned that China had shipped aluminum rings to Iran which could be used to build multi-stage rockets with a range of 10,000 km and which could reach the United States. Defense-Update was unable to confirm any of these reports, and its in-depth investigation could not establish technical data for a so-called BM-25 cruise missile under North Korean origin.

There is however, sufficient data available over the controversial 18 nuclear capable cruise missile deal originating from the Ukraine. An international ruckus started already on 28 January 2005, when Ukrainian parliamentarian Hryhoriy Omelchenko issued an open letter to President Viktor Yushchenko that Ukraine had illegally sold cruise missiles to Iran. It was a credible report, which mentioned dates, names, the bank accounts and fictitious shell companies that were set up to extradite the transfer of money from Iran. Plus there was collaborating evidence to this whole affair. Omelchenko referred to a "paper company" set up in Cyprus to channel money for the missiles.

Last March, following persistent political unrest, Ukrainian Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk finally admitted, that several hundred of his country's missiles were ‘unaccounted’ for. The weapons, including 575 X-55 and X-55M were supposed to have been decommissioned in the years that followed the break-up of the USSR. On 22 March 2005, Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Svyatoslav Piskun, reluctantly confessed in an interview with the Financial Times that Kiev had sold 18 strategic X-55 air-to-surface cruise missiles to Beijing and Tehran in 2001. The somewhat ‘shady’ agreement was fraudulently arranged by official Ukrainian ministry departments, intelligence sources said. It came to light, following an investigation, which revealed that the missile deal was based on a fabricated contract with the Russian state-owned Rosvooruzhenie Corporation. A dubious document, apparently unsigned by a responsible person, merely stated, according to these reports, that it was filed on February 1st 2004 by the Ukrainian arms export company, Ukraviazakaz.

The X-55 (also termed Kh-55 Granat or AS-15 Kent) has a range of approximately 3,000 km and is capable of carrying 200 kiloton nuclear warheads. Like the US Tomahawk cruise missile, the AS-15 is designed to fly subsonic at a low altitude. Launched from long-range strike aircraft, once operational, it can potentially place Israel as well as targets in Europe under threat. As the weapon is designed to destroy fixed-position targets, such as for example, Israel’s Dimona nuclear center it could become an extremely valuable strategic deterrence system for Tehran. However, there are experts who doubt Iran’s intention to mount nuclear warheads on cruise missiles. Doug Richardson, editor of Jane’s Missiles and Rockets Magazine claims, that the Iranian technicians would prefer to use the fast Shahab ballistic missiles as their ideal nuclear carrier, than the slow cruise missile.

But due to its nature, the cruise missile is smaller and therefore much less visible to radar detection than aircraft or ballistic missiles. For example, due to the Earth’s curvature, ground-based radar can detect a low flying cruise missile that is about 20 miles away. In comparison, an aircraft flying at 10,000 feet can be detected when it is about 150 miles distant. New generation cruise missiles incorporating stealth features make them even less visible to radar and infrared detectors. Multiple missiles could attack instantaneously from different directions, and can fly circuitous routes to get to different targets. There is no doubt, that for Tehran, long range cruise missiles tipped with atomic bombs would provide an attractive capability for attacking Israel.

Intelligence reports note that while Iran does not operate long-range bombers designed to launch X-55 cruise missiles, but experts believe that Tehran could adapt its Soviet-built Su-24 strike aircraft to launch the missile. However the multiple launch modes of this missile, which can also be launched from ships or from land based truck launchers offers various alternatives. These later modes are certainly the ones relevant to Iran. The Soviet sea and ground launched versions of the missile offer a small solid rocket motor that would boost the missile to cruising speed. Iran would have no undue technical problems to make some provisions in replicating this equipment. Indeed, derivative land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) for theater warfighting and strategic attack could become extremely attractive. Such a missile, even if launched from Iranian territory, could still hit any country in the Middle East, including Israel, and especially, US forces stationed in the region. For such a development, Iran would well be interested in purchasing modified versions of SS-6-N mobile missiles kits from Pyongyang, such as mentioned in the German Bild Zeitung report.

But there may be other sources, willing to supply Tehran’s needs for cruise missile kits as well. Reports of uncertain reliability claim that China is working on several advanced ground-based LACMs: the Changfeng ["Long Wind"] CF-1/ CF-2, and the Hong Niao (HN)-1/ HN-2 missile, with a range between 400 km and 1,800 km, with conventional and possibly nuclear warheads. The ground-launched Hong Niao missiles are fitted with tandem solid-rocket boosters. Ironically, perhaps In 1995 it was reported that China was funding the Israeli development of an air-launched cruise missile based on the Israeli Delilah anti-radiation attack drone, with a 230-mile range. The new missile reportedly was to be larger than the Delilah, while retaining its basic configuration.

While no system is impenetrable, an active defense is possible. In an article in the spring 2002 issue of The National Interest, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution advocated a system of radar, perhaps held up by aerostat balloons, together with the existing network of U.S.-based fighter aircraft and a new series of surface-to-air missile sites, which could provide at least some coverage to all of the nation’s borders. That network might not provide leak-proof defense in all cases, but it could stop most small attacks with high confidence and deny any attacker certainty that his cruise missiles would reach U.S. territory once fired. The US Army is already planning to develop new cruise missile defenses by 2008 or 2010, in response to increased proliferation and technology available for such threats.

Still, Israeli security officials are very concerned with the present reports over Iran’s new interest in cruise missile technology and its WMD potential. A cruise missile is decidedly more suitable platform for delivering biological and chemical payloads than a Scud. The missile’s steady horizontal flight pattern permits release of the agent along a line of contamination, and enables the cruise missile to release and spray agent at right angles to the wind.

But mounting an effective defense against incoming cruise missiles presents tremendous challenges. Unlike a ballistic missile, it is hard to detect a cruise missile when it is launched. The X-55 flies at medium altitude for the first part of its flight. Although a cruise missile travels at subsonic speed comparable to that of an airplane, it can fly at low altitude and weave in between mountain ranges to minimize the risk of detection. The missiles are much more difficult for SAMs and other air defenses to track or attempt to engage. One way to effectively deal with cruise missiles is to use AWACS to guide fighters to intercept the missiles. Coverage by radar-borne aerostats and point defense missiles, such as the US SLAMRAAM or Israeli medium-range Spyder are another solution. Indeed, trying to intercept cruise missiles over land is a difficult challenge for the defending side. For example, due to the Earth’s curvature, ground-based radar can detect a low flying cruise missile that is about 20 miles away. In comparison, an aircraft flying at 10,000 feet can be detected when it is about 150 miles.

In fact, cruise missiles have already been used in combat in the Persian Gulf. In March 29, 2003 a cruise missile thought to be an Iraqi CSSC-3 Silkworm missile exploded in Kuwait City's harbor, narrowly missing the popular Souk Sharq mall. Kuwait City's air defenses did not give warning that an attack was imminent. The Silkworm has an operational range from 51 to125 miles and flies at a very low altitude of several hundred feet above sea level. Intelligence assessments indicate that Iran has purchased supersonic 3M82 Moskit sea-skimming missiles (NATO code-name SS-N-22 (“Sunburn” or Mosquito) anti-shipping cruise missiles, which are extremely fast, giving the defender a maximum of 25-30 second response time until impact.

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