Earlier this week, we reported that Russia’s is upset over the proposed deployment of U.S. missile defense radars and interceptor missiles in eastern Europe. Moscow views the the BMD deployment as a threat, but as various analysts have noted, the radar and defensive missiles would have only a limited capability against Russia’s still-massive arsenal of ballistic missiles. True, the basing of ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic would move the U.S. “trip wire” closer to the Russian border, the the BMD capability is aimed more at Tehran, and not Moscow.
And, true to form, the Iranians are now making the case for such a deployment. Aviation Week and Space Technology is reporting that Iran has converted one of its ballistic missiles into a space launch vehicle (SLV), and will soon attempt to place a satellite into orbit. The SLV in question is believed to be a derivative of a liquid-fueled Shahab-3 (which has a range of 800-1000NM), or a Ghadr 110, a solid-fueled missile that can reach targets up to 1800 NM away. Iranian opposition groups claim that the Ghadr is an original design, and not a clone of existing North Korean or Russian missiles. The Shahab-3, on the other hand, is based on Pyongyang’s No Dong medium-range missile, and other experimental Iranian missiles (notably the Shahab-4) are also rooted in North Korean technology.
As Aviation Week’s Craig Covault notes, the projected space launch is important for a variety of reasons. First, it sends a clear message to Iran’s adversaries–and the region–about Tehran’s growing strategic reach, and its ability to potentially hit targets as far away as southern Europe. Secondly, it sets the stage for Iran to eventually develop (and orbit) reconnaissance satellites, allowing them to monitor U.S., Israeli and coaliton forces at greater distances, and provide more precise data for potential nuclear targeting. And finally, the development of this technology will allow Iran to develop at least a crude intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of hitting CONUS-based targets, within the next decade.
Iran’s ability to actually pull off a short-term space launch is a bit problematic. As we’ve observed in the past, the Shahab-3 (and other medium/extended range Shahab variants) have a mixed record, in terms of operational reliability. There have been several spectacular failures in the Shahab program, and there’s no guarantee that a more powerful SLV model would be successful. The same holds true for the Ghadr, which is barely off the drawing board, and equally susceptible to an operational failure. It’s worth noting that North Korea’s first space launch attempt–that ill-fated 1998 shot across Japan–was a complete bust. If the Iranian launch vehicle is based heavily on North Korean technology, the prospects for failure are decidedly higher.
As for the payload, it may be Tehran’s version of Sputnik, a small communications platform that broadcasts pre-recorded information from Tehran, along the lines of what North Korea hoped to achieve back in 1998. But, as Aviation Week notes, the payload for this mission is almost a secondary concern; the real focus is on getting something in orbit, and building the foundation for placing a small reconnaissance satellite in space in the near future.
Making that happen will require extensive assistance from Russia and/or China, particularly in the area of sensor technology. But with outside help (and, assuming the SLV proves viable), it’s not unreasonable to expect Iran to put an imagery satellite with 10-20 meter resolution into orbit by the end of this decade. That’s archaic by western standards; under optimum conditions, the resolution of U.S. satellites is well below one meter, and even the Israelis, relative newcomers to the overhead imagery game, have a one-meter capability with their latest satellite, the Ofek. However, even the crude resolution standards of a first-generation Iranian satellite would still be sufficient for nuclear targeting of cities and population centers.
In previous posts, we’ve observed that a nuclear strike capability is actually “based” on three distinct capabilities: the actual weapon, the delivery platform(s), and the intel support required for targeting. Tehran is already well along in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles; the satellite program is evidence that Iran is also racing to complete the third leg, by creating its own, independent imagery capability.
Considering this latest Iranian “revelation,” I’m guessing that the BMD talks between the U.S., Poland and the Czech Republic are taking on new urgency, and it’s likely that a basing agreement will be announced soon. As its missile, WMD and space programs move along, Iran is making a powerful case for missile defense of our allies in Europe, and for the CONUS as well.