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 Digestmagazine, and publishes an investigative newsletter, The Iran Brief.He was invited to testify before the Rumsfeld Commission lastyear.

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

The reports, which are well known to the White House but have notbeen disseminated to the appropriate Congressional committees,detailed the test-firing by Iran of a short-range surface-to-surfacemissile last spring from a barge in the Caspian Sea

Members of the Congressionally-mandated Commission to Assess theBallistic Missile Threat to the United States, chaired by formerDefense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were briefed on the Iranian testas they were writing their final report last June, but have beenprevented from mentioning it in public because the informationremains classified.

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

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

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

Defense analyst Scott McMahon believes that an Iraniansea-launched missile program of this type is of great concern. "Aballistic missile or cruise missile launched from a cargo ship closeto 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 offthe east coast of the United States, it could hit Washington, DC orNew York before an interceptor missile from one of the NationalMissile Defense sites could reach it."

Missile defense plans: Under the Clinton administration plan,which has been highly criticized by Congress, the United States willdevelop a single ground-based site for national missile defenseinterceptors, located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A second site isbeing studied in Alaska. "To intercept a sea-launched missile, wewould need a multi-site ABM system, including coastal sites andspace-based assets," McMahon said.

Instead, the administration has ordered the Pentagon to design theU.S. ABM system so it can only intercept missiles launched more than3,500 kilometers away from U.S. shores. National Security Councildeputy Bob Bell argues that this was necessary to comply with the ABMTreaty, but critics say the administration caved in to demands fromRussia and China.

Under one scenario examined by the Rumsfeld Commission, a roguestate could equip an oil tanker or freighter as a clandestine missilelaunch platform, with launch tubes and missiles hidden below decks.As it approached the United States, it would blend in with the largevolume of commercial traffic along the coastal waterways and remainundetected, until it launched missiles equipped with biological ornuclear warheads.

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

The Commission warned that Iran could have nuclear warheads forsuch a missile before the U.S. could detect it. "Because ofsignificant gaps in our knowledge, the U.S. is unlikely to knowwhether Iran possesses nuclear weapons until after the fact." Iran isbelieved to already have biological weapons.

Another Rumsfeld Commission member, former Undersecretary of StateWilliam Schneider, noted that the Commission had been critical of theway the U.S. intelligence community analyzed foreign missileprograms. "We launched a Polaris missile off of a commercial shipback in 1962 and it works fine. There is no reason to believe it isnot being done by others."

The most likely scenario for a Third World proliferator, Schneidersaid, was to "drive a TEL [Tractor-Erector-Launcher] out tothe pier, drop it into the hold of a merchant ship, and head West."When they wanted to fire the missile, they would simply bring thelauncher up on deck. "Any number of countries could do this. Theyhave the TELs, they have the missiles. And usingcommercially-available IMARSAT and GPS technology, they will have thenavigation data they need. This will transform virtually anyshort-range or medium-range ballistic missile into an ICBM, becauseyou can deploy it in a merchant ship commingled with commercialtraffic, which is much harder to detect than somebody coming intoKennedy airport with a bomb."

Iran appears to have drawn its inspiration if not actual thedesign 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 onboard ice-breakers plying the Barents and Okhotsky Seas, buteventually abandoned the program in favor of ballistic missilesubmarines.