Thursday, April 06, 2006

Iran's New Weapons: More Flash Than Force? - Apr 6

Here is another great article from stratfor about Iran's military capabilities. It's all about context, baby.
The Man in Black
Stratfor -- Predictive, Insightful, Global Intelligence

Iran's New Weapons: More Flash Than Force?
Apr 06, 2006


During Iran's "Holy Prophet" military exercises in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, which concluded on April 6, Tehran announced several successful weapons tests. Some of these weapons were touted as new and capable of avoiding radar and hitting multiple targets. However, given Iran's actual technological capabilities, these claims are certainly exaggerated and intended for political effect on the region.


Iran's March 31-April 6 military exercises, dubbed "Holy Prophet," in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman saw the deployment of thousands of troops from all of Iran's armed services, including the Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia. During the exercises, high-ranking officers from the IRGC -- which is separate from Iran's regular armed forces, and controls the development and operation of Iran's ballistic missiles -- announced several successful weapons tests. The tests were meant to remind other countries in the region, along with the United States, that Iran can influence events militarily, particularly in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passageway that serves as an important corridor for oil transport.

However, though Iran might be able to close the strait for a short time, Tehran's implied ability to wreak havoc in the Persian Gulf is overrated. Iran lost the United States as a weapons source after the shah was overthrown, and the Islamic regime snubbed the Soviet Union; the Iranians have had to become very resourceful in modifying their existing systems. They have modified some U.S.-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles to be fired from F-14s and have produced modified versions of old U.S.-made F-5 fighters, armored vehicles and JetRanger light utility helicopters. All of these are based on systems more than 30 years old. While the Iranians are resourceful in modifying weapons manufactured in other countries, their indigenous capabilities are limited.

The tests began on March 31 with the launch of a Shahab-2 missile, a license-built version of the old Soviet R-11 "Scud C" design dating from the 1950s. Iran reportedly has 200 of these guided surface-to-surface missiles in its inventory. The Iranians also launched a missile which they claimed was designed to carry multiple warheads, strike multiple targets and avoid radar. There are a few problems with Tehran's claims about the second missile, which they referred to as the Farj-3 -- which is also the name of an unguided artillery rocket in their inventory.

The reference to multiple warheads implies that the missile could be configured with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), which would be a very significant technological advance for the Iranians. Tehran could have been referring to a new warhead designed for the missile which is capable of separating into multiple small "bomblets" over a target and dispersing over a wider area, which is not new technology. This is very different from a MIRV on a Shahab-2 or Shahab-3 missile, which would have serious strategic implications in the region.

The Iranians might have meant that the Shahab-2, rather than the Farj-3, can avoid radar. If so, this could be referring to a chaff dispenser fitted to the missile's re-entry vehicle. Chaff, first used during World War II, is strips of metal similar to aluminum foil that are dispensed to disrupt radar waves, thus obscuring the missile on tracking radars.

On the exercises' third day, the IRGC announced the successful test of a new weapon that they called a high-speed, rocket-propelled torpedo. Although claimed as a new Iranian weapon, this torpedo is probably an Iranian derivative of the Russian-designed VA-111 Shkval anti-submarine rocket. Powered by a rocket motor, the Shkval releases compressed air from vents near its nose, enveloping the missile in a bubble of air as it travels underwater. With less resistance on its surface, the Shkval is capable of speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour underwater, making it nearly impossible for a submarine or surface ship to evade. The Russians designed the Shkval as a defensive weapon for their submarines, to be fired directly at pursuing submarines. It has been suggested that the accidental activation of one of these weapons caused the August 2000 disaster aboard the Russian submarine Kursk.

However, the short range -- about four miles -- of the Shkval means it would be suicidal to use it against a U.S. Navy carrier battle group, and tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz can be attacked with less capable but more reliable weapons.

The day after the torpedo test, Iran tested the Kowsar "medium-range missile," which the Iranians said is impervious to electronic jamming. The Kowsar bears a strong resemblance to the Chinese-designed C-801 anti-ship missile, which is itself similar to the French Exocet missile. It is unclear what anti-jamming capabilities the Iranians were referring to; perhaps they have developed a version of the C-801 that uses passive guidance to track its target.

One of the most interesting weapons tests was on April 4, the fifth day of the exercises, when the successful flight of a "flying boat not picked up by radar" was announced. Iranian television showed a small propeller-driven aircraft flying close to the water's surface. This could have been a wing-in-ground effect vehicle, a boat with short outboard wings that cruises just above the water surface, creating a cushion of high-pressure air between its wings and the water surface. This technology was evaluated by the Russians during the Soviet period, and several prototype vehicles were built. The vehicle's alleged radar-resistant quality could be reference to its construction, possibly wood and fiberglass, or the vehicle's small size and ability to skim the water's surface. Armed with small anti-tank-type missiles, this vehicle could be used the way Iran used speedboats against Gulf shipping during the later phase of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Iran also tested the Noor air-to-surface missile, which Iranian military officials claimed could evade anti-missile defenses. This could be a reference to a countermeasures package installed on the weapon designed to decoy tracking radars or confuse targeting systems on anti-missile missiles. In addition, the Noor was called an "ultra-horizon" weapon, which could mean it can be fired from "over the horizon" in the direction of its target and track the target independently when it gets closer. This would represent a significant advance in Iran's tactical missile development capability but is not new technology.

Even if all of these systems are as formidable as the Iranians claim, militarily, the Islamic republic is vastly outclassed by Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in terms of quality. In addition, the single most powerful military force in the Persian Gulf is the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which would make short work of any Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, probably before it could even begin.

Iranian exaggeration of these systems' capabilities has achieved exactly what it was intended to. These exercises, including video of some of the tests, were widely reported in the international media. Reports of Iran's "powerful" and supposedly indigenously designed weapons are meant to cause concern among the Gulf states and remind the United States that attacking Iran would come with a price.


Copyright 2006 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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