Report: Iran’s Evolving Rockets & Missiles

October 7, 2014

             Iran is developing more advanced rockets and missiles to compensate for shortcomings in its conventional forces, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most of Tehran’s current arsenal suffers from poor accuracy and reliability. But Iran is improving its guidance systems. Future development of booster systems “might give Iran the ability to strike at targets throughout Europe and even in the US,” warns Anthony Cordesman. The following are excerpts from the report.

             Iran’s rocket and missile forces serve a wide range of Iranian strategic objectives. Iran’s forces range from relatively short-range artillery rockets that support its ground forces and limit the need for close air support to long-range missiles that can reach any target in the region and the development of booster systems that might give Iran the ability to strike at targets throughout Europe and even in the US.
 
             They are steadily evolving. While the lethality of most current systems is limited by a reliance on conventional warheads, poor accuracy, and uncertain reliability; Iran is developing steadily improved guidance systems, attempting to improve the lethality of its conventional warheads, and has at least studied arming its missiles with nuclear warheads.
 
The Broader Strategic Value of Iran’s Short Range Rockets and Missiles
             Iran has shown that even short-range artillery rockets can have a strategic impact and be used in irregular warfare and as an indirect form of power projection. Iran has played a major role in helping Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad create a major pool of steadily improving rockets that it can conceal, disperse and fire against Israel, and that Israel cannot easily seek out and destroy even in a land invasion.
 
The Near-Term Impact of the Iranian Missile Threat
             Iran’s existing missile forces give it the capability to attack targets in the Gulf and near its border with conventionally armed long-range missiles and rockets, and Iran can attack targets in Israel, throughout the region, and beyond with its longest-range ballistic missiles. However, the shortterm risks posed by Iran’s current conventionally armed rockets and missiles should not be exaggerated.
 
Shaping the Future Threat: Nuclear Warheads vs. Precision Conventional Warheads
             The Iranian missile threat may become far more serious in the future. Left to its own devices, Iran would probably deploy both nuclear-armed missile and highly accurate missiles with conventional warheads. Iran has powerful military incentives to deploy nuclear weapons, and Iran’s missile forces give it the potential ability to develop a major nuclear strike force.
 
Missiles, Political and Psychological Warfighting, and Wars of Intimidation
             At a minimum, Iran’s growing missile forces increase its deterrent and defensive ability to deter attack on Iran and compensate for its weaknesses in airpower. More broadly, Iran can use its missiles politically and strategically, and not simply to damage targets. Selective firings and “volleys” of conventionally armed, unguided long-range missiles and rockets can be used as political symbols or terror weapons.
 
Putting Iran’s Missile and Nuclear Programs in Perspective
             It is difficult to predict how aggressive Iran would become in exploiting its nuclear capability if Iran did acquire nuclear-armed missiles. Iran has so far been cautious in initiating any use of force that might threaten the survival regime. Its best strategy would be to limit its use of nuclear missile forces to pressure, deter, and intimidate.
             Iran is, however, clearly involved in an active competition with the US and with its Arab neighbors in an effort to win strategic influence and leverage. Iran faces US and Arab competition for influence and control over Iraq, the emerging threat of the Islamic State, and growing uncertainty over the future of its alliance with the Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran also still seems to see American influence behind all of these steadily growing pressures.
 
The Mid and Longer Term Risk of an Iranian Nuclear Weapon and a Nuclear-Armed Missile Threat
             It must be stressed that Iran cannot deploy either nuclear-armed missiles or precision strike missiles in a military vacuum where its neighbors and the US do not respond. If Iran does go nuclear, this decision will impact on a region that is already involved in a nuclear arms race. The prospect of combined Iranian missile and nuclear threat has already posed risks that have affected every aspect of US, Arab, Israeli and other military competition with Iran for at least the last decade. This competition has increasingly focused them on responding with on options like preventive strikes, proliferation, and extended deterrence as Iran has made enough progress towards a nuclear weapons capability so that there is a real prospect that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons and arm its missiles and aircraft with nuclear weapons within the next three to five years.
 
Click here for the full text.
 
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
 
Click here to read his chapter on Iran’s conventional military.