Iran: sanctions halt long-range ballistic-missile development
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Iran does not have the capacity to design, develop and produce new, more powerful liquid-fuelled engines, and this is unlikely to change over the next decade. Available evidence also indicates – but does not prove – that Iran cannot reliably build the liquid-propellant engines that power its current inventory of Scud and No-dong/Ghadr-1 missiles, a shortfall that likely leaves the Islamic Republic susceptible to supplier controls and unable to add to its stockpile of operational liquid-fuelled missiles. Iranian engineers may one day establish a capacity to produce near-copies of the Scud and No-dong engines, but such endeavours are rarely successful – replica engines do not perform as well as the originals and often prove to be unreliable.
The relatively low energy output of the Soviet-legacy engines available to Iran will certainly complicate attempts to develop and deploy longer-range missiles. Intermediate-range missiles founded on No-dong and Scud engines and capable of reaching western European cities, for instance, would necessarily weigh 60–70 tonnes, making them at least four times heavier than the Ghadr-1 and ten to 12 times heavier than the Scud-B. An intercontinental-range missile would be even larger, weighing as much as 120 tonnes. While it might be possible to deploy missiles weighing 60 tonnes or more on road-mobile launchers, they would be operationally cumbersome and vulnerable to pre-launch attack because of the extended launch- site fuelling times and the substantial logistics and support infrastructure that must accompany the missiles. Silo-basing would be a more viable option, but deploying missiles at known and fixed sites would leave them vulnerable to pre-emptive attacks by an advanced military power, such as the US.
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Iran's history of importing key propellant components underscores this assessment. The panel of experts responsible for overseeing UNSCR 1929 compliance, for example, reported the interception in Singapore on 30 September 2010 of 302 drums of pure aluminium powder destined for Iran from China. The seized aluminium powder was suitable solely for solid-propellant production. Diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks provide additional evidence of Iran's worldwide search for propellant ingredients, including attempted acquisitions from India and China.
With each change in supplier, for each component ingredient, Iranian engineers would need to have revalidated the production line for Sajjil-2 rocket motors, a costly, time-consuming process that would require additional ground tests to confirm performance and reliability. Worse yet from the Iranian perspective, production engineers may not be able to manufacture rocket motors that behave in a predictable and repeatable fashion because of uncontrollable and possibly undetected deviations in the constituent propellant ingredients. Lacking a reliable rocket-motor production line, Iran cannot pursue a viable development effort capable of distinguishing between design faults and manufacturing defects, or of validating missile performance over a range of operational conditions. And for the same reason, Iran will find it profoundly difficult to manufacture large rocket motors for an operational missile with predictable performance and reliability.
While it is impossible for outsiders to identify the precise reasons behind the stalled Sajjil-2 programme, it is reasonable to conclude that trade sanctions have disrupted Iran's access to key propellant ingredients and compromised development efforts. If true, and if future applications of sanctions prevent Iran from establishing a reliable source of propellant ingredients regulated by the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Islamic Republic will not be able to create missiles capable of threatening western Europe, much less the United States, before the end of this decade.
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Though the paucity of Sajjil-2 tests over the last 30 months could be interpreted as a signal that Iran has completed the development process and begun deploying the missile to military units, this is highly unlikely. Iran has not undertaken a sufficient number of test launches to validate the performance and reliability of the new missile. Given that solid-fuelled missile-development efforts elsewhere have required a minimum of a dozen test launches, and more typically 20 or more flights to create a combat-ready system, the Sajjil-2 would require at least another half-dozen flight tests. Having historically applied disciplined engineering management practices to its missile and space-launcher development efforts, there is nothing to suggest that Iran would expect its military to accept an unproven strategic weapon system.
Iran's missile-related activities suggest that the reason for the hiatus is not that it is seeking to avoid provoking international opprobrium for violating UN sanctions. UN Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted in June 2010, specifically declares in Paragraph 9 'that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology'. But Iran has repeatedly ignored this proscription and other elements of the UN sanctions. The Sajjil-2 and Ghadr-1 were both tested in February 2011, in clear violation of UNSCR 1929. The Qiam, a modified Scud-C missile also capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, was initially flight tested in August 2010. And during war games held in early summer 2011, and again in July 2012, the Shahab-3 and other shorter-range missiles were fired under operational conditions. Finally, Iran placed two satellites into low- earth orbit using the Safir carrier rocket, whose first stage is based on the Ghadr-1 missile. Another satellite launch is scheduled for this summer.