Iran says it has tested a new medium-range ballistic missile that has two stages and uses solid propellant. If true, such claims would signify meaningful developments in Tehran's missile program and could impact U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts in Europe.
Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar announced Nov. 12 that Iran has tested a new medium-range ballistic missile that has two stages and uses solid propellant. Though the veracity of Najjar's claim cannot be confirmed at present, the claim itself could have ramifications for U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) efforts in Europe as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama considers his options. The Iranian missile program has long centered around the medium-range Shahab-3, a single-stage, liquid-propellant ballistic missile. The Shahab-3 bears a close resemblance to both the North Korean Nodong and the Pakistani Ghauri missiles — indeed, all three share considerable design work and are essentially large Scud missiles. Scud technology, however, is essentially World War II-era German V-2 engineering. The Shahab-3/Nodong/Ghauri series has stretched that technology to the limit. Without staging, it is doubtful that much more range can be squeezed out of the underlying Scud architecture. Nevertheless, STRATFOR has long held that this technology — as demonstrated by North Korea in 1998 with its Taepodong-1 — is sufficient to build a crude satellite launch vehicle or intercontinental ballistic missile. (The distinction between a satellite launch vehicle and an intercontinental ballistic missile is largely a matter of payload.) If Najjar's claims about the Nov. 12 test of what he dubbed the “Sajjil” prove legitimate (and Tehran is hardly reliable in such matters), it could mean that Iran has made significant advances in both staging and the application of solid propellant to strategic missiles. (Iran is known to be tinkering with both.) However, it must be noted that the footage and imagery available show a missile of remarkable similarity to the Shahab-3, both in overall size and also in profile. Indeed, the frame of a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle visible in the above photo is characteristic of the Shahab-3 TEL. During a separate Iranian missile test this summer, the Pentagon argued that Iran was “not testing new technologies or capabilities, but rather firing off old equipment in an attempt to intimidate their neighbors and escalate tension in the region.” According to Najjar, the Sajjil has new capabilities that are very real, including a range of around 1,200 miles, comparable to the range Tehran claims for the Shahab-3 (which is sufficient to threaten Israel from deep within Iranian territory). But while the single-stage Shahab-3 already represents a design stretched to very real limits, a two-stage missile operating at that range would have the potential — or would at least embody the technological know-how — to ultimately reach much further. The claim of a solid propellant is also noteworthy. Far more stable than their liquid-propellant counterparts, solid-propellant missiles can be stored already fueled and have a much faster reaction speed, making them harder to catch on the ground. Even more important, missiles using solid propellant can be more efficient, allowing heavier payloads to be carried farther. Iran has also been making claims about solid propellant for years. If either claim is true, however — the staging or the solid propellant — it would signify a meaningful advance in the technological complexity of Iran's ballistic missile program. If both prove true, Iran would have the ability to stretch its reach beyond the region in the not-to-distant future. Current U.S. intelligence estimates generally seem to agree that Iran could test a crude intercontinental ballistic missile — with a concerted effort by Tehran — in the 2012-2015 timeframe. If the White House continues to subscribe to this estimate, it means that the United States would have to move aggressively in 2009 to begin fielding BMD interceptors and an X-band radar in Europe if the system is to be operational ahead of the Iranian timetable. Obama and his staff are still formulating policies and strategies for dealing with the numerous challenges that await his administration. Among them obviously is the Kremlin — and inextricably linked to Obama's developing strategy for dealing with Moscow will be Washington's proposed European BMD system, which the Kremlin has vocally opposed. As far as BMD goes, Obama has committed to support only “pragmatic and cost-effective” technologies (and the ground-based midcourse defense interceptors slated for Poland have a spotty track record at best). Further developments in Iran's ballistic missile program — or even claims of such developments — will only make it more difficult for Obama to cancel U.S. BMD efforts in Europe (or trade for concessions from the Kremlin) predicated on defending against that very threat. (click image to enlarge) But even beyond Iranian bluster and Russian opposition, as the president-elect moves closer to Inauguration Day, he will be forced to consider longer-range and more strategic developments. Though U.S. BMD efforts may seem haphazard, there is actually something more coherent in play. By pushing BMD sites up the U.S. West Coast and across the North Atlantic into Europe, the Pentagon is extending coverage almost symmetrically around Russia, into two volatile regions of predominant concern for Washington. (As STRATFOR has long argued, BMD also has applicability to space.) BMD has long carried a negative connotation with much of the Democratic base. Yet in the past decade — beginning with North Korea's astonishing test of the Taepodong-1 in 1998 — BMD has gained new credence and found broad support at the Pentagon. It is a sign of this new traction that even Obama’s platform for president included support of BMD (albeit with a few qualifications). It is not yet clear what Obama's strategy on Russia and the BMD sites in Poland and the Czech Republic will be, but his position on that issue will be the first major position he takes on U.S. BMD.