Forget those atomic anxieties: Iran’s missile program could create some interesting challenges if a conflict ever occurred.
Last Monday, the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran extended the deadline for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. This extension signified failure to reach an agreement, while leaving some hope for the future. But whether or not the United States and Iran can come to an arrangement on the nuclear program, the conventional struggle for power in the Persian Gulf will continue. Like China, Iran has dedicated substantial resources to the development of anti-access/area denial systems. Unlike China, it’s trying to do so on a shoestring budget.
Iran’s anti-access systems have trailed those of Russia and China, but in some sense are more interesting than developments in the two larger countries. The idea that Russia or China, continental powers with massive defense-industrial bases and huge economies, should have the military wherewithal to deny military access to the United States is not, in itself, all that remarkable. Only the extraordinary dominance of the United States over the past twenty-five years has made the question of anti-access/area denial remotely interesting.
But Iran, a medium-sized country with access to enormous energy resources, is not one of the world’s wealthiest or most powerful nations. If a country like Iran can develop an anti-access system sufficient to deter the United States, then the balance of offensive and defensive technology has surely shifted.
Like China and Vietnam, Iran has attempted to create a multifaceted anti-access/area denial system, including land-based, sea-based and air-launched missiles. This article examines four missiles that help constitute this system of systems and evaluates how these systems might work together in case of war.
Raad Air Defense System
An anti-access system is no better than the surface-to-air missiles that can protect it from destruction. If U.S. and allied aircraft can operate with impunity, then they will destroy Iran’s missile launchers, whether on land, aircraft or ships, in the first hours of any conflict. To this end, the Iranians have deployed a wide variety of surface-to-air missile systems.
Most of these systems are “veteran,” and not in a good way. However, the Iranians have recently fielded the Raad mobile SAM system, a development from older Russian technology. It can purportedly track and hit targets at up to 50 km, although Iranian claims of effectiveness are rarely reliable. The Raad system has capabilities very similar to those of the Buk SAM system that destroyed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 earlier this year. This represents a significant, if evolutionary, improvement on the Vietnam-era defenses Iran had relied upon into the last decade. Iran also has a variety of short-range point-defense systems, but these won’t deter a concerted, long-range U.S. attack.
Iran has failed to convince either Russia or China to help upgrade its aging SAM system. If Iran took possession of a Russian S-300 or S-400 system, or a Chinese HQ-9 system, its prospects of defending against an American attack would improve dramatically.
The most important cruise missile in the Iranian arsenal is the C-802 and its variants. Originally acquired from China, Iranian industry has developed the capacity to replicate and modify the missile. The C-802 is a subsonic, sea-skimming missile that carries a 165 kg warhead, enough to do serious damage to any warship. Several types of Iranian surface ships can fire the C-802, including very small fast-attack boats. Fighter and attack aircraft can also carry C-802 variants, as can Iranian Mi-17 helicopters.
In addition to missiles procured directly from China, Iran has developed two variants, the Noor and the Qader. The Noor has a slightly longer range (200 km), while some reports indicate that the Qader is optimized for land-attack. Given the wide range of platforms that can launch these missiles (including land-based batteries), they would certainly play a role in the opening stages of any war in the Gulf.
The Iranian navy could conceivably launch C-802s from its flotilla of three Russian Kilo-class submarines. However, although Kilo-class submarines in many navies operate anti-ship cruise missiles, there is no indication that the Iranians have developed such a capability. Reasons for this include the lack of access to high-technology equipment from Russia and China, as well as the difficulty of operating submarines within the Persian Gulf.
The Fateh-110 is the latest in Iran’s arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles. Carrying a 500 kg warhead, it can reach targets at up to 300 km range. The Fateh and its increasingly accurate brethren can, in sufficient numbers, cause a lot of damage to land targets all over the Persian Gulf. Used in numbers, and in conjunction with other types of ordnance, hyperaccurate ballistic missiles can do more than sink ships—they can also disrupt and destroy land-based military installations, infrastructure and other valuable targets.
Estimates on the accuracy of the Fateh-110 range from a CEP of 8.5 meters to 100 meters, which is significant. Still, a volley even at the lower-accuracy ranges could give the Gulf’s military and infrastructure planners a very bad day. As accuracy increases, the number of missiles needed to deal a devastating blow decreases. Only sophisticated missile defenses could have much hope of defeating such an attack. The Iranians can also combine the Fateh and its brethren with land-attack cruise missiles in order to create a very difficult defensive problem.
Iran claims that it has deployed anti-ship ballistic missiles, and the Pentagon seems to concur with that claim. Earlier this year, a classified Department of Defense report on Iranian missile capabilities apparently included claims that Iran has had some success with the Khalij Fars anti-ship ballistic missile, a short-range weapon that, if functional, could threaten American ships operating in the region. However, the report gave few unclassified details regarding the missile’s capabilities and deployment schedule. The missile is reportedly based on the Fateh-110, but includes terminal electro optimal technology (a visual matching system) that could guide it into American ships.
An August 2014 CSIS report expressed skepticism about the notion that Iran could usefully employ an anti-ship ballistic missile system. Iran has none of the extensive sensor and communications infrastructure necessary to ensure targeting. Even a ballistic missile capable of terminal homing would need some ISR support; the Iranians likely do not have enough missiles to simply fire them at areas in which they suspect U.S. ships to operate. Moreover, the likely flight characteristics of the Khalij Fars make it an ideal target for Aegis-based missile defense systems.
Moreover, there is little indication that the Iranians have exhaustively tested such weapons, or tried to integrate them into a broader anti-access strategy. This problem afflicts the entire Iranian military establishment; it lacks funds for training and maintenance, and its readiness levels are low.
The big problem with assessing Iranian military capability is that both the Iranians and the Americans seem to have a vested interest in overstating Iranian capabilities. As with many countries that wish to deter attack from a more powerful adversary, the Islamic Republic has a strong interest in overstating its own capabilities, which is why Iranian media regularly engages in clumsy efforts to suggest that Iran has mastered drone, stealth and missile technology. On the American side, inflating the threat from Iran provides a ready narrative for organizations that seek funding and resources, and Congress has proven very receptive to threat-mongering about Iran.
There’s no question that Iran’s anti-ship systems are less sophisticated than those fielded by China. The question is how anti-access systems scale up and down. The Iranian case would seem to suggest that they scale down poorly. China has developed an integrated anti-access system that can threaten to strike U.S. land and sea assets from multiple launchers and multiple directions, potentially with overwhelming numbers. Together with increasingly sophisticated ISR capabilities, this means that the PLA can threaten to effectively overwhelm U.S. tactical defenses and disable American offensive capabilities.
Iran has anti-access weapons, but while Iran can damage U.S. allies and U.S. military forces, it can’t disrupt America’s offensive military machine. The relationship between resources and fighting capability is curved upwards; it is not linear. Iran has certain geographic advantages in that enemy bases are within easy striking range, but American carriers, destroyers and submarines can operate effectively from beyond the reach of even the most advanced Iranian systems, destroying Iranian aircraft, submarines and surface ships before they can reach firing distance. Long-range American bombers, as well as short-range aircraft with refueling support, can attack Iranian targets, even if Iran wreaks havoc on local bases with its cruise and ballistic missiles.
The Iranians can potentially raise the costs for the Americans, but unlike the Chinese, they cannot hope to keep the United States out. If Iran acquires genuine, long-range ASBMs and cruise missiles, along with the ISR systems needed to support them, then we can begin to think about an effective Iranian deterrent. Even then, Iran will need to radically improve its air-defense network, as well as the defensive and offensive capacity of its air force. Until that time, the Islamic Republic will remain a manageable military problem for the United States.