Ballistic Missiles in Iran and Iraq: 1988-1998

Appendix III to the Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States
July 15, 1998

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


W. Seth Carus

Related Country: 

  • Iran
  • Iraq
It is just over a decade since the missile programs in Iran and Iraq first attracted my attention. At the end of February 1988, Iraq first employed its new Al Husayn missiles, firing them at Tehran and other major Iranian cities. These missile attacks had a profound impact on the Iranian leadership, reflected in the substantial attention accorded to the Iraqi missiles by Iran's top political leaders.

The following comments are intended to provide an impressionistic view of missile developments in Iran and Iraq, rather than a review of the missile programs. Others have surveyed what is known about these programs, so that anything that I might add is likely to be redundant. What I would like to focus on are several key issues that are of significance to understanding the changing character of missile threats. These comments are based on more than a decade of following the missile programs of Iran and Iraq. I claim no special ability to predict missile developments in those two countries. During the past decade, I have been surprised by unexpected developments in the two countries. Equally important, I have been surprised by what never transpired. And while I can claim credit for taking assigning importance to the missile programs of those two countries well before most people, my track record of prediction is no better than that of anyone else. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the surprises that have given me some key insights into the character of missile proliferation.

Let me stress that the following comments are based totally on unclassified material. While I have had access to classified material, and in fact served a short, undistinguished stint on the Missile Threat Assessment Group (MTAG), these comments rely on information that can be gleaned from the public record. Usually, in fact, there is no need to examine the classified literature, because sufficient information exists in the open sources to draw appropriate policy conclusions. I have not examined the classified sources for information on recent developments with respect to the Iranian missile program, so the views here are totally unaffected by any awareness of the classified literature. Rather, my views reflect the insights gained from a decade of following efforts by Iran to develop ballistic missiles.


Let me start by talking a little about surprises. When Iraq claimed to have fired a medium range ballistic missile in August 1987, few paid attention. Those of us following events in the region either dismissed the claim, or assumed that the Soviet Union must have supplied one of its older tactical ballistic missile systems to the Iraqis. Thus, the Iraqi missile bombardment that initiated the last of the so-called "War of the Cities" was a complete surprise to everyone following the Iran-Iraq War. It was a surprise for two reasons. First, we had no reason to suspect that Iraq possessed a medium range ballistic missile, much less an inventory that would permit it to launch some 189 missiles during a six week period. Second, and perhaps more significant, there was absolutely nothing in the public record that would have given any analyst a reason to believe that Iraq had the technical and manufacturing infrastructure to produce the Al Husayn. Indeed, so far as we knew, Iraqi military industries were capable of producing little more than small arms and mortars. As we subsequently learned, this was a profound error, but one not correctable with open source information.

This was not to be the first of the surprises from the Iraqi missile program. Indeed, between February 1988 and February 1991 we were to be surprised on at least three accounts by the Iraqis in this arena. First, the impact of the missile attacks on Iran was far more substantial than could have been predicted. A substantial portion of the population of Tehran fled the city every night, creating massive disruption and causing substantial political problems for Iran's political leadership. According to Iranian accounts, the missiles may have killed as many as 2,500 people, but that may have been less significant than the social and political fall-out from the attacks.

A second surprise occurred after the end of the war. On December 5, 1989, the Iraqis announced the test launch of the Al-Abid, a three stage space launch vehicle. The appearance of this missile was a complete surprise to the international community. Indeed, for a period of time there was some uncertainty about whether or not the Iraqi rocket may have put an object into orbit. It took a few days before it became clear that the rocket had exploded during the launch, but no before it had successfully lifted off the ground.

A third surprise, which should not have been a surprise, came from the poor technical performance of the Iraqi missiles. Specifically, the coalition partners were surprised to discover that the Iraqi missiles broke apart in flight, apparently because the extended length of the Al Husayn missiles put stresses on the missile body beyond those for which the Scud was designed. As a result, our Patriot missiles had to hunt for the missile warheads in a sea of debris. Moreover, the warheads often corkscrewed, adding to the complexity of hitting them. This problem was potentially knowable. The Iranians claimed in March 1988 that the Iraqi missiles were breaking apart in flight, so there is no reason for us to have been surprised. In defense of our intelligence community, even though I described in print the Iranian descriptions of how the missiles were breaking apart in flight, I completely forgot about that at the time of the war and it was only after the conflict that Steve Fetter drew my attention to those passages in my 1990 articles on the Al Husayn.

A fourth surprise involved the effectiveness of the Iraqi Al Husayn missiles during the Gulf War in 1991. The intelligence community, perhaps egged on by the military, determined that the missiles were too inaccurate and carried too small a payload to be militarily effective. And, indeed, the missiles were not militarily effective, although the missiles killed more U.S. soldiers than any other Iraqi weapon. Unfortunately, the analysis provided a valid answer to the wrong question. For while the missiles were militarily insignificant, they were not strategically unimportant. They had a profound political affect on the war, and as a result affected the way in which our forces were operated. To keep Israel from entering the conflict, a significant number of combat sorties were flown in Scud hunting missions, often involving some of our most effective attack aircraft. This diverted those assets from missions that might have had greater operational utility. As it happens, we could afford the diversions, because of the overwhelming resources made available for the war effort. But the missiles were the only significant military action taken by the Iraqis that forced the coalition to react to Iraqi moves.

A fifth surprise was the status of the Iraqi program to develop chemical and biological warheads for its Al Husayn missiles. The intelligence community did assess that Iraq probably possessed such warheads, but it is evident that they had little or no substantial information on which to base those conclusions. In retrospect, it appears to an outside observer that they were guessing. We still do not know what the Iraqis possessed. Our only information is what the Iraqis have told us. Specifically, they claimed that they filled 25 missile warheads with biological agents: thirteen with botulinum toxin, ten with anthrax, and two with aflatoxin. The Iraqis claim to have destroyed these warheads, but there appears to be no proof that they in fact did so. Similarly, while the Iraqis claimed to have 75 chemical warheads, only about 30 were examined and destroyed by UNSCOM. The Iraqis claimed to have destroyed the rest, but evidence supporting their claims are tenuous at best.

What should one make from this series of surprises? Our track record for anticipating unexpected events is uneven at best. We are often extremely good at finding what we are looking for. We are far less capable of discovering the unexpected. So, I would expect further surprises in the future.

Project Management and Systems Integration

Let me now say a few things about project management and systems integration.

When I first began following the Iranian missile program in 1988, Iran's leadership appeared to assign a high priority to missile development. They wanted to develop their own version of the Scud missile, they were working on solid fuel rockets with an intent to produce short range ballistic missiles, and they expressed an intent to develop a medium range ballistic missile. At the time, I believed that within the next five years Iran would have achieved all three of these objectives. In fact they accomplished none of them. The only advances came as a result of external assistance. They build Scud missiles thanks to a turn-key facility provided by North Korea. This dependence on North Korea was and remains extremely surprising, given that Iran almost certainly has more technical and scientific talent than North Korea. There were some incremental developments. Press accounts suggest that the Iranians acquired a rocket test facility, apparently now being used to test a new rocket motor for the new medium and intermediate range missiles that Iran is working to develop.

According to press accounts, the concern that I felt a decade ago is now being repeated at intelligence agencies here and abroad. We are told that in 1998 or 1999 the Iranians will test a new medium range ballistic missile, possibly making use of technology provided by Russia, China, and others. I have no information about why the intelligence community is so concerned about Iranian activities, but experience suggests some reason for skepticism.

The primary problems holding back the Iranians have not resulted from difficulties with technology. This is not to say that Iran possessed all the technology that it needed to develop longer ranged missiles. They almost certainly did not. But it is my belief that the primary limitation in the development of new missiles has resulted from considerations that are difficult to assess, and certainly cannot be tracked or detected using national technical means.

Specifically, the key to success missile development programs is project management and systems integration. Let me comment about several different programs that illustrate this issue. These were the key skills responsible for the Iraqi successes with the Al Husayn. It is unlikely that the Iraqis developed the design of the Al Husayn, and the workmanship on the missile conversions was crude in the extreme. Yet, the Iraqis understood what needed to be done, and took those steps to ensure success. It was not pretty, but it was effective. They devoted the right resources to solving the critical problems, and managed the different aspects of the program to accomplish a great deal in what appears to have been a relatively short period of time.

Similarly, it is evident that those responsible for India's Integrated Guided Missile Development Program were quite aware of the significance of such management issues. India's defense technologists were aware that their scientists and engineers were highly competent, but that they had great difficulty producing final products. Elegant design was followed by poor execution. As a result, it appears that the Indians deliberately structured elements of their missile program to inculcate patterns of management success. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Prithvi program. The Prithvi is not a sophisticated missile. In fact, it is based on forty year old technology used to produce the Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile. The key, however, is that India's defense industry designed, developed, tested, produced, and fielded the system. It took many years, but the Indians proved to themselves that it could be done.

It is these project management and systems integration issues that are among the greatest challenges for any missile development team. Specifically, they are probably the greatest challenges facing the Iranians. It is not the technology, but the ability to marry it together. It is not designing a missile, but rather ensuring that the right resources are available when needed to solve the most critical problems. Hence, the significance of Russian assistance for Iran's missile program is unclear. Certainly additional technology enhances prospects for success. But in the absence of project management skills that appear rare in Iran in any context, there is little reason to believe that Iran will quickly move a missile from design through development into production and then deploy it.

In the absence of any information about improvements in Iranian management skills, I am doubtful that they will be able to successfully test a medium range ballistic missile test this year or next. Moreover, even when they finally develop a viable system, there are reasons to doubt their ability to produce it in quantity and deploy it in significant numbers. Note the qualifier. The key is management. If the Iranians have taken steps that solve many of their weaknesses in this arena, then the assessment here would be wrong. My suspicion, however, is that we know virtually nothing about these issues, either because it is hard to get information about them or because nobody has bothered to look. Yet, at the end of the day these are the critical issues.


Let me end this discussion of Iran and Iraq with a few general observations and predictions about the future threat that these countries are likely to pose. And let me go beyond the previous remarks to introduce some new issues.

First, it is highly unlikely that Iraq will remain under UN sanctions for the next decade. And it is certainly possible that the country will continue to be ruled by a leadership that is hostile towards the United States. As a result, we should assume that Iraq will reappear as a proliferation problem in the next decade, Moreover, they are likely to be significantly more competent than they were a decade ago. As a result, they are likely to once again pose a missile challenge to the United States and its partners. If past experience is any guide, they will seek intermediate range ballistic missiles to supplement shorter range systems. Moreover, the Iraqis also appear to understand the significance of satellite surveillance systems, and hence they may seek to resume their space launch vehicle program. While we can significantly affect their prospects for success in these areas with effective export controls, the notion that a hostile Iraq will remain permanently crippled is unlikely in the extreme.

Second, Iran will continue to seek missiles with longer ranges, just as it continues to work on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Despite my skepticism about the prospects for success of Iran's latest missile development efforts, there is little reason to doubt that eventually the Iranians will have medium and intermediate range missiles. It may take far longer than people believe, but it will happen so long as the current regime remains in power and continues to put resources into missile development activities. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the scope of Iranian ambitions will grow as they achieve success with their missiles. So, it seems likely that at some time the Iranians will strive for space launch vehicles and missiles with yet longer ranges. It may not be until 2010, or even after, but if the Iranians achieve success with IRBMs, it is only a matter of time before a hostile, Islamic regime seeks ICBMs. And, I will note, that by 2010 the ICBM will be more than 50 years old, and the growth of commercial space launch capabilities will have made the technology more accessible to would-be proliferators.

1. Dr. Carus is with the Center for Counterproliferation Research at National Defense University. Formerly with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he is one of the country's foremost experts on missile proliferation. Has testified before Congress regarding proliferation of chemical and biological weapons and surface-to-surface missile proliferation.