Flight of the Kent

February 28, 2005

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


Uzi Rubin


Middle East Missile Monitor
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Recent reports from Kiev and Moscow indicate that Iran may have secretly acquired a quantity of Soviet origin, nuclear capable cruise missiles. The question is whether the missiles will be introduced into the arsenal of Iran's strategic forces, or used as models for an indigenous cruise missile design. Be it as it may, the eventual appearance an Iranian force of strategic cruise missiles seems imminent. This force would further threaten Israel and other US allies in the Middle East.

The smuggling of the ex Soviet missiles to Iran is a blatant violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime, on which both Russian and Ukraine are officially subscribed.

The Kh - 55 cruise missile, NATO designation AS- 15 "Kent", was the Soviet Union's response to the first generation of modern US cruise missiles - the General Dynamic (now Lockheed Martin) "Tomahawk" and the Boeing ALCM. Like its American counterparts, the Kent was designed to carry nuclear and conventional warheads at subsonic speeds to targets 2000 to 3000 Km from its launch point, with high precision. Like other Soviet emulations of key Western weapons, the Kent's layout (Fig 1) resembled that of its US counterparts, featuring folding wings and a rear mounted small turbofans (Fig. 2). Nevertheless rather than a slavish copy of a US missile the Kent is an original design, as is evident from the arrangement of its jet engine. The engine is stowed in its dormant phase inside the rear fuselage, and is "popped out" or lowered into the slipstream immediately after launch. The comparable American solution is a hinged air scoop that is closed flush with the fuselage skin in transit and dropped open into the slipstream once the missile is launched. The Soviet design seems to be more elegant: it reduces asymmetric flow losses across the engine's compressor and may yield better intake efficiencies and specific fuel consumption. This however could be negated to some extent by the weight penalty of the engine extension mechanism.

Like most Soviet weapons, the Kent was produced in prodigious numbers and in numerous configurations. It had air launched; sea launched and ground launched versions. Following the 1987 INF treaty between the US and the USSR, the ground launched version of the Kent was proscribed and all existing missiles were destroyed with other intermediate range missiles such as the US GLCM, the land based version of the Tomahawk. Since the destruction process has been witnessed and verified by the two superpowers, it is reasonable to assume no land-based Kents exists today outside of museums displays. The air launched version, however, continued to serve as a mainstay of the Soviet Union's strategic air forces. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, its constituent republics, now proclaimed independent states, assumed the ownership of such chunks of former Red Air Force arsenal that happened to be stationed on their soil at the instant of the Soviet Union's demise. Ukraine, the second largest successor state was one of the major winners of this windfall. According to a recent press, that windfall included 578 air launched, nuclear tipped Kents, together with their launch preparation equipment. The nuclear warheads were subsequently removed from the missiles and handed over to Russia. The missiles themselves were later "Sold" back to Russia in exchange for the write off of Ukraine's debts on the delivery of Russian gas. The missiles' shipment was handled by the Russian air force, and the export permit was made out on the name of Rosvooruzhenia, Russia's arms export organization at the time. The returned Kents were destined for conversion into the non-nuclear Kh -555 configuration, for service with Russia's Air Force. On paper, all the ex Ukrainian nuclear Kents were thus disposed of. Or were they?

On February 2nd 2005, the Financial Times reported from Kiev on a Ukrainian parliamentarian disclosure that 12 Kents had been illegally exported between 1999 and 2001. Six were shipped to China, while the other six were sold to Iran. The sale was attributed to a former official of the Ukrainian secret police, one V.V.Yevdokimov, who had been arrested last April for this sale and for an attempted sale of further 14 Kents to unspecified customers (Financial Times, Feb. 4th 2005). Ten days later, the Moscow magazine "Novaya Gazetta" further elaborated on this story: The number of diverted Kents was 20 rather than 12, the missiles "disappeared" together with their preflight preparation equipment, which ended up in Iran accompanied by Russian specialists that trained the Iranians in its use. Moreover, the magazine hinted that the total number of; "diverted" missiles could have been even higher, that a third undisclosed customer might have been involved, and that Russian officials may have colluded in this illegal deal, the missiles being diverted after reaching Russia rather than en route.

Assuming that those dovetailing reports from Kiev and Moscow are factual, we must conclude that Iran is presently holding a quantity of modern, strategic range cruise missiles, and possesses the know how and equipment needed to program their flight paths and their target coordinates. The question is whether the Kents were purchased for operation or for emulation - in other words, did the Iranian intend to introduce smuggled Kents into their own strategic forces, or did they buy them as models for studying and copying? There are two major arguments against the operational use hypothesis. First, the numbers reported are too small. Six cruise missiles do not make a viable arsenal when the overhead of maintenance and attrition is factored in. If the entire second lot of smuggled missiles would have reached Iran, the resultant arsenal of 18 to 22 missiles might have been marginally sufficient, but this did not happen, and anyway there may have been other customers were waiting in line for those undelivered missiles.

Second and more significant, the air launched version of the Kent is designed for deployment from rotary launchers inside the bomb bays of two kinds of large Soviet era bombers: the subsonic Tu - 95 turboprop "Bear", and the supersonic Tu -160 "Blackjack" (For pictures of Kents on a rotary launcher, and an air launch of a Kent from a "Blackjack" see Figs 3 and 4).

Neither China nor Iran is known to operate any of those bombers. In fact, there has never been a report of the Soviets exporting those bombers to any other country, even within the Eastern Block. Thus, introduction of the Kent into Iran's air force would require its conversion into an external store configuration, slung under the wing of an attack aircraft, of which Iran has respectable variety of models, from the old US supplied Phantom II's to the newer, Russian supplied Sukhoi 24's. An alternative is suggested in the Novaya Gazetta report: conversion into a palletized cargo configuration, ejected from the hold of a military transport aircraft. While such conversions are feasible, the effort seems hardly worthwhile for a small number of missiles. Conversion into land based or submarine based configuration, again theoretically feasible, makes even less sense in such small numbers.

On the other hand, the disclosure that Iran also acquired launch preparation equipment and appropriate training in its use indicate an intention to operate the smuggled Kents. Perhaps Iran did mange to secretly acquire a more substantial number of missiles, the disclosed figures revealing only part of the picture. A larger stockpile of Kents might have justified a conversion program. The Iranians have demonstrated in the past a respectable proficiency in converting adapting foreign acquired weapons to their own needs [1]. Thus, the possibility that the smuggled Kents will surface up in Iranian colors cannot be dismissed.

That Iran is building a strategic ballistic missile force and a military space program is hardly a secret - in fact, the Iranian authorities are advertising it full blast. Less advertised, though, are their aspirations in the field of cruise missiles. In an October 9 2004 interview by the Teheran Hemayat, the deputy head of the Iranian Aerospace Organization Mr. Naser Maleki extolled Iran's growing capabilities in the field of anti ship cruise missiles, citing the Noor class with a range of 120 Km and the Ra'ad class with the range of 350 Km. Iranian sources had already disclosed in January 2004 that the Ra'ad was in series production, following a series of successful tests in the preceding year. The released images of the Ra'ad revealed a significantly different layout compared to the Kent: Unlike the underbelly pod housing of the jet engine in the latter, the former seems to house its engine inside the fuselage with an diagonally located, fixed air scoop protruding into the slipstream (Fig 5).

In a well-advertised 1998 arms exposition, the Iranian defense industry displayed a small jet engine, obviously tailored for cruise missiles. According to Duncan Lennox, editor of the Jane's Strategic Weapons yearbook, that engine was a copy of the 350 Kgs thrust Microturbo TRI-60 turbojet, France's mainstay in cruise missile propulsion. It stands to reason that this engine powers the Ra'ad. Now, in our age of GPS navigation there is no reason why a cruise missile that can fly 350 Km won't fly ten times further, provided it carries enough fuel and is powered by a more efficient engine, for example the Kent's excellent R95 - 300 turbofan.

There is no need for clairvoyance to deduce that Iran is aiming to back up its emerging ballistic missile capabilities with strategic range cruise missiles. At least one source, the Iran Focus website journal (http://www.iranfocus.com/) has so reported in June 2004 citing a growing US concern about this aspect of Iran's military buildup. We have argued above that 6 Kents don't make an arsenal - but six R95 engines in Iran, plus another half a dozen in China do make adequate sample for a joint program of Chinese copying (no pun intended) of a first class cruise missile turbofan design. We shall not be too surprised if a not too distant future Iranian arms expos would feature a new "Iranian designed" small turbofan engine. From this perspective the acquisition of a small lot of Kents made perfect sense: the missiles were purchased not for deployment but as samples for studying and copying. The smuggled Kents with their priceless turbofan engines could well be the progenitors of Iran's future arsenal of strategic cruise missiles that could reach Israel and other choice targets in the Middle East.

Whether for use as is or for emulation, the flight of the Kent with its state-of-the-art technologies from Ukraine to Iran was a transgression that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) had been designed to prevent. That it did not do so, in the face of Ukraine's solemn commitment to the MTCR since 1998, is troubling. The question is whether the affair reflects a one time piratical act by greedy individuals, or whether it has been sanctioned - even if covertly - by the former government of Ukraine. According to the "Persian Journal" (http://www.iranian.ws/), the same whistle blowing Ukrainian lawmaker who had exposed this affair cited the state owned Ukspetseksport as well as businessmen in the US, Cyprus and Iran as involved "in illicit defense deals". While the illicit sale of the Kent missiles was not specifically mentioned in his catchall citation, the hint of collusion on the lines of the AQ Khan scandal in Pakistan - probably the most blatant and damaging act of proliferation ever - is definitely there. The industrialized world should learn carefully from this affair, draw the proper conclusions and take the necessary steps to protect itself from the menace of proliferation gone amuck.

My thanks to Mr. Richard Speier for providing source material and useful comments and critique, and to Mr. Duncan Lennox for his invaluable help and advice

[1] During the 1980's Iran Iraq war, the Iranians performed feats of improvisation to keep the US supplied arms serviceable and effective. One of their most remarkable achievements was the adaptation of the US Navy Standard Missile SAM to be fired from the US Army HAWK air defense system. See Cooper and Bishop "Iran - Iraq War in the Air", Schiffer Military History, 2000.