Long-Range Missiles a Decade Away

November 18, 2013

            Iran is highly unlikely to deploy a long-range missile capable of reaching U.S. territory within the next decade, according to a new brief by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Tehran has two routes for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The first would be to finish development and testing of its solid-fuel missile, the Sajjil-2. But Iran has only carried out onetest flight since 2009, and the project reportedly ran into serious technical problems.
            The alternative route would be to produce a liquid-fuel missile. Iran’s work on those missiles, however, has either been delayed or suspended, according to Michael Elleman, one of The Iran Primer's co-authors . Even if Iran overcomes the technical obstacles to building a prototype, flight-trials would likely last four or more years. The following are excerpts from the brief.

            Israel has stepped up its claims that Iran is developing ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently repeated the assertion several times while visiting the US. However, Israel’s assessment of the likely timing differs markedly from Washington’s. And independent analysis indicates that Tehran is unlikely to have such a weapon before the end of the decade…
Potential Paths
             A 2010 Strategic Dossier published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies judged that Iran had the technical and manufacturing infrastructure needed to assemble ICBMs if it could reliably access critical missile components, manufacturing tools and propellant ingredients. The study identified two potential routes to the acquisition of ICBMs.
Sajjil-2 route
             The first would seek to leverage and expand upon the solid-propellant manufacturing infrastructure and know-how that led to the production of prototypes of the Sajjil-2, a two-stage, medium-range missile that was initially test flown in 2008. Three additional test flights were carried out in 2009. However, Iran has conducted only one test since then, suggesting that the development effort had encountered serious technical setbacks.
             The soonest Iran might have an operational, solid-propellant ICBM under this scenario would be late 2019. But this assumes that Iran could mature its technical and manufacturing capacity smoothly and efficiently, while skipping the critical step of perfecting an IRBM before attempting to create an ICBM. It also assumes that Iran could proceed more quickly than France, China or India did in their respective efforts to develop long-range missiles...
Liquid-propellant route
             Liquid-propellant technologies offer an alternative route to an ICBM. Iran’s Ghadr missile is a single-stage system derived from the North Korean No-dong, and is capable of delivering a 700kg payload to a range of roughly 1,600km...
             On 2 February 2009, Iran placed a small 27kg satellite, the Omid, into low-Earth orbit using an indigenously designed and developed space-launch vehicle, the two-stage Safir... A mock-up of a more ambitious and capable satellite-launch vehicle, the Simorgh, was unveiled in February 2010. Iranian media indicated that the Simorgh’s inaugural launch would take place in March 2011, but no flight has yet been detected...
             A still larger version of the Simorgh could be designed and built using No-dong and other liquid-fuelled engines in Iran’s possession. However, given the unproven capabilities of the Simorgh design, Iranian engineers are unlikely to assume the technical risks inherent in bypassing the intermediate step offered by Simorgh development efforts and test launches. Further, there is no indication that foreign intelligence organisations have spotted mock-ups of an Iranian ICBM.
Long timeline
             If worst-case estimates were to unfold and Iran were to flight test a prototype ICBM, historical precedent indicates that flight-trials of the Iranian missile would last at least three years, and more likely four or more years. Iran’s limited experience in testing missiles or space launchers that fly beyond its borders and over the oceans, where flight trajectories are more difficult to track and critical performance data are hard to collect, suggests that ICBM flight trials would extend beyond five years, pushing the earliest date Iran might deploy an operational missile capable of reaching US territory beyond 2020.
             It should be noted that the notional ICBM described above would be roughly 30 metres tall and weigh in excess of 90 tonnes, making it too large and cumbersome to be placed on a mobile platform...
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