The Blog

Good Question

10:39 AM, Sep 30, 2009 • By JOHN NOONAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A reader emails: The government is playing down Iran's missile tests as scantly more than "provocative," while some political pundits are calling them gravely serious. What's the real story? Just how far along are they in [missile] development?

Short skinny: It's serious.

Iran's test provides some useful insight into where the regime sees itself in 6-8 years -- as a proven nuclear power with full deterrence capabilities. The fuel they used, for example, is in itself destabilizing. Iran has traditionally powered their rockets with volatile liquid fuel. Because liquid rocket fuel is unstable, their rockets required significant preparation immediately before the ignition sequence. That's why you see headlines screaming about a North Korean missile launches weeks before they actually happen -- intelligence services can detect activity at launch sites well ahead of scheduled tests. Liquid fuel also "sloshes" in its tank, which destabilizes trajectory. Solid fuel burns evenly and remains steady during flight, which is why Russia, China, and the United States all use it in their various ICBM booster systems.

Full deployment of solid-fuel boosters would give Iran a "launch-on-warning" capability that they've never had before, as it's stable enough to store without significant prep time. That means the old paradigm, where Middle East tensions would escalate to the point that Iran started fueling their rockets in response to a tactical or strategic threat, is gone. Now, if the United States or Israel were to hit Iran conventionally, we'd have to hit 100 percent of their rockets with an initial, coordinated surprise attack -- an unlikely scenario, even considering the unmatched abilities of our Navy and Air Force.

The second concerning aspect of the test is Iran's further use of staging technology. The Minuteman III ICBM uses three solid fuel stages to boost the missile into orbit, then a manageable amount of liquid fuel to guide the nuclear reentry system into a safe release point. The hybrid system optimizes both range and accuracy. Iran's not quite there yet, but they've got the basics down with the first and second stages.

Yesterday's test proves that Iran has figured out both staging and solid fuel technology. The next logical step is to combine the two, yielding a fully functional ICBM. Couple that with a nuclear reentry system (thankfully not an easy technology to master), and Iran will have a full nuclear deterrent similar to the United States and Russia during the Cold War.

The idea of Iran using its terrorist proxies under the aegis of nuclear ICBMs and MRMBs is chilling. And President Obama has now cut a critical component of our contingency plan against this scenario -- European missile defense.