The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

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Trumped by Iran's New Missile

by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Washington Times, May 5, 1999


Mr. Timmerman is a Contributing Editor to Reader's Digest magazine, and publishes an investigative newsletter, The Iran Brief. He was invited to testify before the Rumsfeld Commission last year.

Iran has test fired a sea-launched ballistic missile, according to classified U.S. intelligence reports, which could be used in a devastating stealth attack against the United States or Israel for which the United States has no known or planned defense.

The reports, which are well known to the White House but have not been disseminated to the appropriate Congressional committees, detailed the test-firing by Iran of a short-range surface-to-surface missile last spring from a barge in the Caspian Sea

Members of the Congressionally-mandated Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were briefed on the Iranian test as they were writing their final report last June, but have been prevented from mentioning it in public because the information remains classified.

In the report's Executive Summary, released on July 15, 1998, the Commission warned of "alternative ballistic missile launch modes" such as sea launch, but did not mention Iran by name. Basing ballistic missiles on board cargo ships or freighters "could enable a country to pose a direct territorial threat to the U.S. sooner than it could by waiting to develop an ICBM for launch from its own territory," the report said.

At a Congressional forum on missile defense on February 18, Commission member R. James Woolsey, who resigned as Director of Central Intelligence in January 1995, said sea-launched ballistic missiles were of strategic importance because they would give an adversary the ability to defeat the national ballistic missile defense system currently being planned by the Clinton administration.

The administration's point man on National Missile Defense, NSC deputy Robert Bell, insists that U.S. missile defenses be tailored to "specific threats" from known programs under development in North Korea and Iran. The programs being considered do not include Iran's sea-launch capability.

Defense analyst Scott McMahon believes that an Iranian sea-launched missile program of this type is of great concern. "A ballistic missile or cruise missile launched from a cargo ship close to our shores would be able to fly in beneath our detection radars," he said. "If a rogue state such as Iran were to launch a missile off the east coast of the United States, it could hit Washington, DC or New York before an interceptor missile from one of the National Missile Defense sites could reach it."

Missile defense plans: Under the Clinton administration plan, which has been highly criticized by Congress, the United States will develop a single ground-based site for national missile defense interceptors, located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A second site is being studied in Alaska. "To intercept a sea-launched missile, we would need a multi-site ABM system, including coastal sites and space-based assets," McMahon said.

Instead, the administration has ordered the Pentagon to design the U.S. ABM system so it can only intercept missiles launched more than 3,500 kilometers away from U.S. shores. National Security Council deputy Bob Bell argues that this was necessary to comply with the ABM Treaty, but critics say the administration caved in to demands from Russia and China.

Under one scenario examined by the Rumsfeld Commission, a rogue state could equip an oil tanker or freighter as a clandestine missile launch platform, with launch tubes and missiles hidden below decks. As it approached the United States, it would blend in with the large volume of commercial traffic along the coastal waterways and remain undetected, until it launched missiles equipped with biological or nuclear warheads.

"Sea launching could also permit [a country] to target a larger area of the U.S. than would a missile fired from its home territory," the Commission stated.

The Commission warned that Iran could have nuclear warheads for such a missile before the U.S. could detect it. "Because of significant gaps in our knowledge, the U.S. is unlikely to know whether Iran possesses nuclear weapons until after the fact." Iran is believed to already have biological weapons.

Another Rumsfeld Commission member, former Undersecretary of State William Schneider, noted that the Commission had been critical of the way the U.S. intelligence community analyzed foreign missile programs. "We launched a Polaris missile off of a commercial ship back in 1962 and it works fine. There is no reason to believe it is not being done by others."

The most likely scenario for a Third World proliferator, Schneider said, was to "drive a TEL [Tractor-Erector-Launcher] out to the pier, drop it into the hold of a merchant ship, and head West." When they wanted to fire the missile, they would simply bring the launcher up on deck. "Any number of countries could do this. They have the TELs, they have the missiles. And using commercially-available IMARSAT and GPS technology, they will have the navigation data they need. This will transform virtually any short-range or medium-range ballistic missile into an ICBM, because you can deploy it in a merchant ship commingled with commercial traffic, which is much harder to detect than somebody coming into Kennedy airport with a bomb."

Iran appears to have drawn its inspiration if not actual the design plans for its sea-launched ballistic missile from Russia, which has helped design and test its Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missiles. In the 1960s and 1970s, Russia planned to deploy nuclear missiles on board ice-breakers plying the Barents and Okhotsky Seas, but eventually abandoned the program in favor of ballistic missile submarines.