(September 17, 2020 / JNS) Iran unveiled two new types of missiles last month that join a growing Iranian arsenal. Yet Iran’s most significant and concerning recent achievement in the area of missiles may not lie in official announcements, but rather, in a satellite launch conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in April.
Uzi Rubin, a foundering director the Israeli Missile Defense Organization and an architect of Israel’s Arrow missile-defense system, told JNS that Iran’s August announcement of a new ballistic missile—named after the assassinated Iranian Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—does not appear to represent a technological breakthrough.
“This missile is from the Fatah 110 family of Iranian missiles,” stated Rubin, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. The “new” missile has a larger diameter, and according to Iran, has a range of 1,400 kilometers (870 miles), placing Israel in its crosshairs.
But Rubin put the announcement down to an “apparent excess of personnel” among Iran’s missile-program engineers, leading it to develop “more and more missiles,” often with capabilities that repeat themselves. “This does not look like a leap forward in their accomplishments,” he said. A second new missile unveiled by Iran in August, a cruise missile (which, unlike ballistic missiles, remain in the atmosphere and often fly at low altitudes) from the Soumar family, comes with a turbo engine, according to the Iranians. The new cruise missile has a reported range of more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).
In an analysis published on the website of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, where Rubin is a fellow, he wrote that Iran’s missile program “is in the limelight of Iran’s media. Each new missile variant is celebrated and heralded in Iran’s government and commercial news outlets. Iranian citizens are encouraged to see the missiles in Tehran’s military museum.”
Yet the so-called progress being made in Iran’s official missile program pales in comparison with the significance of the space launch vehicle used by Iran to place a satellite into orbit in April, Rubin told JNS.
“This is the final word in missile technology,” he said. The satellite itself is small and has limited capabilities (it sent back thermal images of areas it can pass over once every 10 days, including the Al Udeid American military base in Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Air Force).
Still, the launcher that was used to put it there represents a real breakthrough for the Islamic Republic, according to Rubin. “They placed a second stage [launcher] in it, which is highly advanced. It’s at the technological level of the [global] powers,” said Rubin.
“There was also a third stage, which was mysterious, and Iran didn’t show it,” he added. “The launcher is fired like a ballistic missile, without a launch tower; rather, it is erected and launched. The Iranians released images of the control center as well.”
‘Air and space force has scored several successes’
With Iran able to convert this kind of space launch vehicle into multiple-stage, long-range ballistic missiles, the satellite launch appears to be a thinly veiled cover for Iran’s next stage in its missile program.
Another important takeaway from the satellite launch, according to Rubin, is the fact that the IRGC has its own space program—meaning that it has its own development lab, scientists and industries.
“We have suspected that this is the case,” he said. “Despite Iran’s economic crisis, the IRGC is loaded with money. Its industries are more advanced that Iran’s [official] aerospace industry. This shows the IRGC’s status within the Iranian regime, and the fact that it not only has its own missile power, but also its own industry. The launch of the satellite is a jump forward in capabilities in relation to what they previously had.”
In his recent analysis, Rubin added that “the very fact that the IRGC was authorized by Iran’s Supreme Leader to reveal that it has been running a space program of its own—and that it has its own industries, and research and development centers, to be able to do so—is indicative of an upgrading in the IRGC’s stature within the regime. The IRGC’s air and space force has scored several noticeable successes—the most prominent being the devastating yet bloodless attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations in September 2019.”
Iranian proxies in the region are also often nourished by Tehran’s weapons industries. For example, Hezbollah in Lebanon, together with Iran, is seeking to convert its existing rockets into precision-guided missiles.
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