Space: The Iranian Missile Program's Big Test
Aviation Week is reporting that Iran is preparing to launch a Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) “soon.” While the potential to use the SLV for placing peaceful satellites into orbit is a possibility, the ability to weaponize such a capability is never far from the minds of most sensible analysts.
My first-hand knowledge is dated, but at one point in my career I spent a great deal of time watching a more capable and motivated nation attempt to achieve the same capability. The results tended to be disappointing for them and amusing to us. Despite having the best technology (stolen from the US) and some of the best minds (educated at our universities) more often than not the end result was a hole far from the intended target - or a fire on the gantry - than a successful flight. I understand that they’ve gotten better, though over a decade had to pass first.
As currently configured, an Iranian Shahab-3 can wreak havoc across the Persian Gulf. Properly modified into an ICBM (not outrageously different from an SLV) it could have an impact – literally and figuratively – almost anywhere between central Europe and western China. Current intelligence estimates suggest such a capability is possible inside of 10 years.
When the Shabab-3 was deployed in the late 90s, testing was not entirely successful, though subsequent launches have tended to go off with few hitches. Still, retrofitting an old design for the outer reaches of the atmosphere is unlikely to go off like clockwork. They could bring in outside help to assist; some reports indicate that the North Koreans are in Iran to help with nuclear tests, though sharing missile expertise is also a distinct possibility. Still the NoKos record in this field isn’t perfect.
If the launch is unsuccessful, we can expect a couple of things to happen; several Iranian rocket scientists will disappear, everyone in the Gulf region will breath a little easier, and they’ll step up research and testing to the point that current estimates will become very old very quickly. The urgency of the Iran problem will wane in the eyes of some as political hay is made about how far off they are from posing a threat to the homeland (ignoring the state-sponsored terrorism gorilla that is sitting in the corner).
If the launch is a success we can expect that our own timeline for action against Iran (and that of the Israelis) will be compressed. While there is a strong preference from this quarter for enhanced non-military support for anti-regime elements, Iran’s ability to rain “death from above” is likely to effectively end the nominal support for such work and stress a military response.