Lack of propellants grounds Iran’s missiles

What a difference a lack of powdered aluminium seemingly can make. Iran has tested its upgraded Sajjil-2 missile just once, believes IISS expert Michael Elleman, and the most likely explanation is Tehran’s inability to secure the necessary propellants, including powdered aluminium. This was one way economic sanctions were hindering Iran’s ballistic-missile programme, Elleman, IISS-Middle East Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation, said during a recent discussion at IISS-US.

Elleman judged that the Iranian programme would not pose a serious military threat to the US in the near future; there were many technical hurdles Iran had yet to overcome to develop accurate and reliable ballistic missiles.

He said that  a prediction in the 2010 IISS Strategic Dossier Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities that Iran would be able to operationalise its Sajjil-2 missile by 2012 should be recalibrated in light of the sole test of the Sajjil-2, in February 2011. Potential weapons providers had been dissuaded from shipping Iran the necessary propellants, he believed.

Although Elleman estimated that Iran would soon release the new Safir satellite launcher, he cautioned against equating satellite launch abilities with ballistic-missile capabilities. The two technologies’ requirements were fundamentally different; conversion from launch to ballistic capabilities required advanced thermal protection and three to four years of extra testing.

Iranian military exercises last year revealed ‘rudimentary’ vertical missile silos, mainly located in the country’s northeast and most likely meant to deter Israel. However, the silos lacked maintenance access points, which meant the missiles would need to be removed for refuelling. Elleman explained that this process would pinpoint the silos’ location making them vulnerable to attack.

Iran often used its war games – such as its recent Great Prophet VII exercise – to send a message to foreign powers. This year, for instance, Iranian military officials trumpeted their ballistic-missile capacity against US bases in the region. Elleman, however, stressed the inaccuracy of these missiles, noting that Iran would have to launch thousands to effectively hit a target.

Although Congress has identified 2015 as the decisive year when Iran could potentially test an ICBM, Elleman believed any such test ‘may not actually succeed’ and explained that ‘a single flight test does not represent a capability’. He saw the development of medium-range missiles as a more realistic outcome before ICBM capabilities could be achieved.

The Iranian ballistic-missile programme could harass US forces, particularly if small bomblets were attached to warheads. Iran had yet to develop an effective anti-ship ballistic-missile capability, so its programme was also a long way from posing a serious threat to US operations in the Persian Gulf.

See also the Strategic Comment: Iran sanctions halt long-range ballistic-missile development


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