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Feb 9, 2007 | 04:27 GMT

4 mins read

Iran: Missile Maneuvers and the Mind Game

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
In discussing the latest round of Iranian military exercises, Ali Fadavi, a senior Revolutionary Guards naval commander, touted the test of an "SSN-4 Sark" anti-ship missile, which has a 217-mile range and a 1,100-pound warhead. Fadavi said Feb. 8 that the missile gives Iran a new ability to engage large capital ships anywhere in the Persian Gulf. With the USS Stennis Carrier Strike Group (CSG) en route to the region and the USS Eisenhower CSG already on station, Fadavi's claim is a necessary bit of Iranian posturing. But it is also the latest thread in a web of confusion the Iranians are intent on weaving. In publicly explaining its military capability, Iran is given to exaggeration — and for good reason. By changing nomenclatures and inflating effects, Iran hopes to camouflage its actual military capability and confuse foreign intelligence analysts. It is also important for Iran to do so for domestic consumption, since the clerical regime must continue to demonstrate to the people of Iran that it is capable of defending them against U.S. attack. The SS-N-4 (NATO designation) is not an anti-ship missile. It is an obsolete sub-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) of Soviet design — in truth, a poor design to begin with — with almost twice the range and three times the payload Fadavi claims. The "Sark" is actually the SS-N-5, an obsolete ground-based ballistic missile with even greater range and payload. Iran might have acquired some of the older SLBMs, which would be of value to Iranian rocket scientists for what they could learn from them. But the old liquid-fueled missiles are difficult to deploy with their highly toxic propellant and would represent a step down from the crowning achievement of the Iranian missile program — the Shahab-3. In fact, a ballistic missile is not convertible for use against ships. Its flight characteristics are very different from those of missiles designed for that purpose, and the guidance package would require a complete overhaul. Moreover, the accuracy a ballistic missile would need in order to take out a specific ship in a specific location is well beyond the current state of Iranian gyroscopic guidance technology. Indeed, what Iran claimed Feb. 8 was that it had demonstrated the ability to hit a target ship at sea. This is not new. One of Iran's numerous anti-ship missiles can do this quite well. Ultimately, Fadavi's claim does not change the military threat level in the region. Iran can make the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz very nasty places. This is no small matter when 40 percent of the world's oil transits the strait. The longer range of this "new" missile could be a small increase in capability (if it is not exaggerated). But operating for the most part in open water such as the Arabian Sea, U.S. ships should be far enough removed from the increased threat — with time to detect and react to an inbound missile. It is Iran's close-range tricks in the tight lanes of the strait that are more worrisome. Nevertheless, Iran should not be underestimated. There is some credence to other, more specific claims, like the planned launch of a satellite-launch vehicle. Iran recently received another shipment of unspecified ballistic missiles from North Korea. And Iran has a very clear enemy — the United States. It has spent decades contemplating weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the U.S. war machine, developing asymmetrical challenges to U.S. military power — especially naval power — and building a robust domestic defense industry geared toward building new capabilities.

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