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Iran: A Better Missile Force Seems To Be On The Agenda

Prague, 6 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There are persistent Western intelligence reports that Iran is trying to develop a new generation of extended-range missiles, and that Russia, or at least Russian companies, are assisting Iran to acquire the necessary parts and technology.

Russia denies involvement in such programs at the government level, although officials in Moscow concede that the Iranians might illegally be acquiring or seeking to acquire equipment and expertise from freelance Russian sources. The concern is that if Iran is indeed developing such weapons, they would change the balance of power in the region, in that Iran would be capable of hitting not only Israel, but deep into the territory of its Arab neighbors to the south, like Saudi Arabia, and to the north over the Caucasus and Central Asia, to Russia itself. This has to be coupled with suspicions that Iran is in addition working to develop atomic weapons along with its Russian-assisted civil nuclear program.

What are the real chances that Iran will be able to develop such missiles, given the international barriers to technology transfer, and its own limited industrial base? Certainly the Iranians are no strangers to missile technology as such. Iran has successfully used Soviet-era Scud missiles against Iraq in their 1980-88 war. Iranian engineers and the military are conversant with assembling, servicing and the use in combat of these fairly simple mid-range missiles. They are also familiar with accurate guidance systems. The basics for a more sophisticated rocket program exist, therefore.

However Western defense experts say that for Iran to develop a new generation of extended-range missiles from scratch would be a huge task, probably beyond the capabilities of present Iranian expertise and industry. They say adaptation of existing types of equipment offers probably the best path to achieve the desired goal.

Iran has a proven record in innovative adapting. For instance it has been able to adapt U.S.-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles -- originally supplied to the Shah's regime -- to be fired from F-4 Phantom aircraft. On the ground, it has developed a new artillery piece using previous models as a base, and a range of armored vehicles. It also has proven skills in "reverse engineering", meaning the replication of equipment without recourse to original building plans or material specifications.

As to the adaptation of rockets, the example here is set by Iraq. That country developed its own Al Abbas and Al Hussein missiles from the basis of existing Scuds. During the 1991 Gulf War these were used to hit both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic technique was simple. The Scuds were cut in half, and a new center section inserted, allowing extra fuel capacity and giving the missile the needed extra range. In such a case of "stretching", the existing guidance system can be adapted without any particular technical difficulties.

Published Western estimates give Iran an existing force of some 200 Scud Bs and Cs, with 10 mobile launchers, as well as some 200 Chinese designed and supplied CSS8s, with 25 mobile launchers. These then, could offer a base stock for conversion into longer-range missiles.

To have any chance for instance of hitting Israel, the existing range of the Scuds would need to be almost trebled, to some 1000 km. To preserve a worthwhile warhead payload under such circumstances would be difficult. And for replacements for the existing stock, new missiles would have to be fabricated.

Significant in this respect is the Iranian claim to have "reverse engineered" a home-grown replica of the Scud, as well as to have developed a smaller type of missile variously called the Iran 130, the Mushak 120 or the Nazeat.

Some sources believe, however, that the smaller missile, with a range of only some 130 km, is merely an adaptation of the CSS8. And there are intelligence reports -- of unknown accuracy -- that a new rocket motor has recently been tested. Other reports say a north Korean rocket (the Nodong), not the Scud, is serving as the pattern of the new-generation Iranian missile.

Western experts say that if Iran is in fact pursuing a program of manufacturing enlarged rockets, then a good part of its needs will involve dual use technology such as computer-guided precision welding equipment. It's particularly hard to prevent such equipment, with its civilian as well as potential military uses, from reaching its destination.