Under the Radar, Iran’s Cruise Missile Capabilities Advance
The recent attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia posed a major shock to the global oil market. As news broke that the damage was caused by an actor with significant military capabilities, oil prices initially surged and concerns mounted about how long a major part of Saudi oil production would be offline. In the days since, concerns have been somewhat assuaged but uncertainties endure about the scale of the damage caused. But how were the attacks conducted? While initially thought to have been exclusively carried out by aerial drones, more recent reports indicate that 18 Iranian origin drones and at least seven cruise missiles were used.
Although much is uncertain about the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, the incident has directed considerable attention towards Iran’s cruise missile capabilities. While Iranian cruise missiles have taken center stage with a bang, Iran has in fact been quietly building up its cruise missile capabilities for over a decade. And since the war in Yemen began, Iran has also indirectly carried out combat tests on some of its cruise missiles through the services of Ansarallah, the Yemeni group also known as the Houthis. Whereas Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities are relatively well known, with each additional test launch making international news, Iran’s cruise missile capabilities have advanced under the proverbial radar. This article is intended to serve as a primer on Iran’s cruise missiles, discussing motivations, the capabilities offered by known Iranian systems, and the implications of Iran’s development and fielding of cruise missiles on the comparative military balance in the region.
The Strategic Context: Ballistic Missiles, Missile Defense, and Iran’s Strike Capabilities
Given that Iran is known to have a large inventory of ballistic missiles, why has it turned to cruise missiles? To understand Iran’s motivations, one must first recognize that a cruise missile is simply an unmanned aircraft used to attack a ground target. Following a pre-programmed flight profile to a predetermined target, a cruise missile is a highly automated aircraft that is expended or consumed in the process of completing its assigned mission. Perhaps the most widely known cruise missile is the American Tomahawk. All things considered, cruise missiles are substitutes for ballistic missiles and manned combat aircraft for the targeting of military and economic facilities.
Iran first deployed ballistic missiles in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. Facing air and missile attacks on its cities and witnessing the rapid atrophying of an air force almost entirely composed of American aircraft, Iran turned to Libya, Syria, and North Korea for the Soviet R-17 ballistic missile, which was also utilized by Iraq. Better known as the Scud, these missiles were wildly inaccurate and ineffectual with their high-explosive warheads. Hence, they were directed at large population centers, leading to the “War of the Cities.”
The end of the devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq War may have ended Iran’s interest in ballistic missiles, but Tehran’s regional security environment changed dramatically with the Gulf War and the increased American military presence that followed. Lacking resources and suppliers to reconstitute its once-formidable air force, Tehran instead learned one of the “lessons” of that conflict. While the United States and its allies handsomely defeated Iraq in rapid order, this was only after many months of the coalition building up of both ground forces and combat aircraft. To avoid a similar fate, Iran worked to develop the capacity to target the ports and airports of disembarkation and to deny safe harbor for American combat aircraft in the region.
Although efforts to domestically manufacture the Scud started earlier, it was during the 1990s that Iran’s ballistic missile program truly took off. With foreign assistance, Iran developed ballistic missiles of increasing range and sophistication. Continued inaccuracy, however, placed hard limits on their real-world combat potential. And while Iran’s ballistic missiles progressively improved in accuracy, its neighbors and the United States had not sat by idly. Instead, they made major investments towards improved ballistic missile defenses.
It is in this context that Iran’s interest in cruise missiles appears to have emerged. While cruise missiles can serve as substitutes for ballistic missiles, cruise missiles also offer a range of benefits, particularly against the increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile defenses fielded by its Gulf Arab adversaries. Because cruise missiles typically fly at low altitudes and are smaller than manned combat aircraft, they are generally difficult to detect with radar. And whereas ballistic missiles fly predictable parabolic trajectories, cruise missiles fly on flexible flight paths, something that helps them evade air defense systems which generally do not have 360-degree coverage. And compared to manned aircraft, which Iran could neither access nor afford to procure, cruise missiles are also relatively inexpensive.
Not least, the slower speed of cruise missiles — relative to ballistic missiles — has also made improving accuracy less challenging, particularly in the context of commercially available GPS and low-cost miniaturized electronics. Hence, whereas Iran’s Scud-based missiles were unlikely to inflict the desired damaged even if unconfronted by adversary missile defense systems, cruise missiles offered Iran the possibility of accurately targeting, for example, specific hardened aircraft shelters hosting combat aircraft and, no less importantly, specific facilities used in the production of oil, such as those in Abqaiq.
Iranian Tomahawks? The Kh-55 and the Soumar Family of Cruise Missiles
Iran’s long-range cruise missile capabilities can be traced to a Soviet cruise missile. In 2001, Iran procured through the Ukrainian black market a dozen Kh-55 cruise missiles, air-launched munitions originally carried by the bombers of the Soviet air force’s Long-Range Aviation. Although it was widely assumed that Iran would try to reverse-engineer the Kh-55, there was no public indication of any progress until September 2012, when Iran announced that a long-range cruise missile called the Meshkat would be revealed “soon.” While no revelation was made, in 2013, the Ballistic & Cruise Missile Threat report published by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center listed the Meshkat for the first time, also making it the first Iranian entry in the category of “land-attack cruise missile.” Notably, the Meshkat’s launch mode was listed as “air, ground, and ship,” warhead type as “conventional,” and range and initial operating capability “undetermined.”
In March 2015, Iran unveiled a cruise missile named the Soumar. Though the Soumar clearly looks like a derivative of the Kh-55, the revelation of the Soumar appeared to suggest that in just over a decade Iran had succeeded in building a cruise missile analogous in capabilities to the Tomahawk, thereby heralding a major development in the regional military balance. But the Soumar’s very existence raised more questions than answers, even with the limited release of testing footage in Iranian media. Paradoxically, one of the causes for circumspection was that the Soumar was not an exact copy of the Kh-55. Whilst the missile’s fuselage was largely identical in appearance to the Kh-55, the propulsion systems of the two missiles were very different. The Soumar’s primary engine, for example, was fixed and suspended beneath the fuselage whereas the Kh-55 had a drop-down engine that was held inside the fuselage until the missile released from the host aircraft. And because the Soumar was a ground-launched derivative of an air-launched system, it had a new booster rocket equipped with unique lattice fins. The biggest issue, however, was that the original Kh-55 was propelled by turbofan engines, complex articles of technology whose manufacture requires considerable capacity in metallurgy and precision engineering.
While Iranian officials did not reveal the range of the Soumar in 2015, many international observers invoked the range of some 2,500 kilometers, the range of the “parent” design, the Kh-55. The problem here, however, was that the Kh-55 was an air-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile designed to be used by Soviet bomber aircraft. Hence, the host aircraft would expend much energy to carry the Kh-55 to launch altitude. With Iran lacking the requisite bomber aircraft, using a likely heavier conventional warhead, and displaying the Soumar on a wheeled mobile launcher, even a perfect Iranian copy equipped with turbofan engines would not have the same range as the Kh-55. Moreover, given Iran’s very limited experience with turbofan engine technology, one possibility was that the Soumar was a form of “vaporware” — a façade of a capability in this case perhaps provided by displaying and ejecting, via a rather basic booster rocket, at least one of the Kh-55 airframes that it had obtained from Ukraine. That all said, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s 2017 report simply swapped “Meshkat” for “Soumar,” thereby indicating that the missile did in fact reflect a genuine capability advance.
In February 2019, Iran revealed the Hoveyzeh cruise missile. Very clearly a member of the Soumar family and a descendent of the Kh-55, the Hoveyzeh is reported to have a range of 1,350 kilometers, putting it in the same class as the well-known American Tomahawk, at least with respect to function and range. Interestingly, during the same media event, Iranian officials remarked that the previous iteration, the Soumar, had a much shorter range of 700 kilometers. One way to make sense of how these two visually near-identical cruise missiles have such different ranges is to consider the Soumar as having been equipped with a turbojet engine — likely a variant of the Iranian Toloue series, themselves based on the French Microturbo TRI-60 series design. In contrast, the much greater range of the Hoveyzeh appears to suggest the use of a much more fuel-efficient turbofan engine of unknown design, origin, and influence, although some derivation of the Kh-55’s original R95 turbofan powerplant is not unlikely.
While the Soumar and Hoveyzeh now appear to be functioning systems offering Iran improved strike capabilities, little is known about their guidance systems. This poses a considerable analytical challenge given that it is the guidance system that ultimately determines a cruise missile’s capabilities in operational conditions, particularly against the well-equipped militaries of the Gulf states and their American ally. While almost certainly equipped with an inertial navigation system and some form of global navigation satellite system such as GPS, it is unclear if Iran’s cruise missiles are equipped with more advanced guidance systems such as terrain contour matching — which helps with navigation through use of an altimeter comparing the topography of the terrain being overflown with that on an onboard contour map — or a digital scene-matching area correlator, which correlates the view of an onboard camera with images of the target area. That said, both the Soumar and the Hoveyzeh have been displayed with a dielectric nose cone, thereby suggesting that they may be equipped with some form of radar-based terminal guidance.
Notwithstanding many enduring uncertainties about the specific designs and capabilities of the Iranian derivatives of the Kh-55, it appears that less than two decades after having obtained the Soviet missile on the black market, Tehran has at its disposal a functioning and viable long-range cruise missile.
Other Iranian Cruise Missiles
While the Soumar and Hoveyzeh constitute Iran’s current high-end cruise missiles, there are other systems at Tehran’s disposal and there are grounds to suspect that one of these was utilized in the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities. With these systems being shorter-ranged and likely less expensive than the Soumar and Hoveyzeh, they may in effect have greater implications for the regional military balance than Iran’s higher-end systems.
In a high-profile defense exhibition attended by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2014, Iran revealed what it called the Ya Ali cruise missile. Similar in appearance to an elongated Chinse C-602 missile, the Ya Ali is a medium-range missile with a reported range of 700 kilometers. Prior to the Ya Ali and until the Soumar and Hoveyzeh were revealed, Iran’s longest reaching cruise missile of any type (i.e., including anti-ship missiles, which will be discussed later) had a maximum range of around 300 kilometers. And although the Ya Ali’s range was insufficient to target Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, let alone Israel, it was ideal for most missions against the Gulf Arab states given that much of their respective military and civilian infrastructure is proximate to the Gulf’s coastline.
As of this writing, it is unclear whether the Ya Ali is in Iranian service. But a distinct and previously unknown cruise missile has been used by the Iran-aligned group Ansarallah in Yemen. In June 2019, a cruise missile that the Yemeni group calls the Quds-1 hit Abha Airport in the border region of Saudi Arabia. At a press conference, a Saudi official described the missile as the Ya Ali but, as analysts have pointed out, parts of the wreckage were reminiscent of the design of the Soumar/Hoveyzeh. Following a large exhibition of Ansarallah missile and rocket capabilities, it became clear that the Quds-1 is a distinctly new design. Perhaps most prominently, the engine is mounted outside the fuselage, as with the Soumar/Hoveyzeh but not the Ya Ali.
According to both Saudi officials and members of a panel of experts reporting to the U.N. Security Council, the Quds-1 utilizes a Czech-origin TJ100 turbojet engine. Notably, a very similar, if not identical, turbojet engine was on display at a 2019 defense industrial exhibition in Iran. Fabian Hinz, an analyst of Iran’s missile program, has used the known dimensions of the TJ100 to measure the diameter of the Quds-1, revealing a 34-centimeter diameter missile clearly distinct from the Soumar/Hoveyzeh, which has a diameter of 51.4 centimeters. Furthermore, it can be determined that the TJ100 engine provides significantly less thrust than even the Microturbo TRI-60/Toloue, which the Ya Ali is suspected to utilize. Given the very limited industrial capacity and human capital in resident in Yemen’s pre-war aerospace industry and notwithstanding Ansarallah’s claims otherwise, it is highly probable that the Quds-1 has an Iranian origin, thereby making it an additional cruise missile which may or may not show up in Iranian service in one form or another.
Iran’s longer-range cruise missiles constitute strike capabilities most akin to those used by other countries, such as the American Tomahawk and Russian Kalibr missiles. But the country’s strategic geography is different and cruise missiles of much shorter range offer considerable strike capabilities against the Gulf Arab states and as well as the American military bases that they host.
While the Soumar, Hoveyzeh, Ya Ali, and Quds-1 are all dedicated land-attack cruise missiles, Iran’s anti-ship cruise missiles also offer considerable strike potential against ground targets. Although these anti-ship cruise missiles have active radar guidance primarily designed to target ships, if the radar system is suitably adjusted and inertial navigation and GPS navigation incorporated, they can be modified to strike land targets, particularly coastal targets such as ports, oil and gas terminals, and desalination plants. And because Iran operates a large number of anti-ship missiles and associated launchers, likely many more times than the number of launchers for the Soumar and Hoveyzeh currently in service, these anti-ship missiles may turn out to be highly consequential in a regional conflict. Although they cannot strike targets deep in inland, they can free up Iran’s longer-range missiles for these missions.
Since the 1980s, Iran has made large ongoing investments towards anti-ship missiles. Today, the country operates a wide range of systems, all of which can be traced in one way or another to China, although Iran appears to have also undertaken additional development of these designs on its own. The Noor missile family, derivatives of the Chinese C-802, is likely Iran’s most widely deployed anti-ship missile. With a range of up to 170 kilometers, the latest variants of the Noor deployed on the island of Abu Musa can hold at risk much of the populated area of the United Arab Emirates, including the majority of the country’s military and oil export facilities. Iran has further developed the Noor, leading to two derivatives, the Qader and the Qadir. These missiles which reportedly have ranges of some 200 and 300 kilometers, respectively. While unimpressive when compared to the Soumar and Hoveyzeh, these ranges are in fact sufficient for anti-ship missiles units deployed along Iran’s coastline to strike at important targets such as the extensive oil export terminals at Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia and the extensive natural gas production and export facilities at Ras Laffan in Qatar.
From the Shadows to the Center Scope
Much is uncertain about the recent attacks Saudi oil facilities —including who ordered them and why, who carried them out, and, not least, the question of which munitions were used to strike the facilities. Rightly or not, considerable attention has been directed toward Iran and its cruise missile capabilities. While the country’s ballistic missiles are relatively well known, its cruise missile capabilities have been very much evolving under the radar for the past decade or so. Additionally, through the services of Ansarallah, Iran’s improving strike capabilities have been put on display in recent years. In any event, it is clear that the advent of Iranian cruise missile capabilities has significant and, to date, largely overlooked implications for the regional military balance.
Whatever the exact means behind the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia, the capabilities displayed were impressive. Iran, it seems, put together and carried out a complex strike composed of more than a dozen munitions. As one analyst has put it, the attacks demonstrated high levels of munition reliability and careful mission planning to avoid obstacles, such as power lines and communication towers. Similarly, the precision nature of the attacks — the targets appear to have been hit dead center — suggests some degree of finesse in weaponeering — the selection and modification of munitions pursuant to the intended physical effects. Hence, developments in Iranian military technology appear to be accompanied by improvements in the human and organizational “software” required to carry out complex operations against defended targets with precision conventional munitions.
For these reasons, there is a growing threat to the already vulnerable oil and gas facilities in the Gulf Arab states. Even if many of Iran’s ballistic missiles continue to be too inaccurate for use against discrete targets such as the critical nodes in the oil and gas extraction and export process, the introduction of Iranian cruise missiles results in these shortcomings no longer being so politically salient. Put differently, through cruise missiles, Iran has obtained new military capabilities and the improving accuracy of its ballistic missiles suggests that there is more to come.
The introduction of Iranian cruise missiles to the military balance also increases the vulnerability of military facilities in the region. Because they are less challenging to make accurate, cruise missiles — not Iran’s ballistic missiles — are the ideal instruments for targeting Gulf Arab and American airpower, particularly aircraft stored inside hardened aircraft shelters. As for the United States, its forward garrisons at al-Udeid and al-Dhafra airbases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, respectively, are increasingly vulnerable.
Defense against cruise missiles is difficult. Because they fly at low altitudes, the detection time for radar and response time for missile and gun-based air defenses is very short. For example, against a notional Hoveyzeh cruise missile flying at a height of 100 meters, the defender must intercept and destroy the inbound missile in under four minutes. Air defenses must, therefore, be at a high state of readiness, but without early warning to put defenders on alert, interception becomes difficult.
Another important consideration is the limited coverage of the specific air defense systems used by the Gulf Arab states. An air defense system such as the American-made Patriot, for example, only provides 120-degrees — not 360-degrees — of sectoral coverage. Given the geography of the Gulf and the number of bearings and routes through which Iranian cruise missiles can reach targets in the Gulf Arab states, many dozens of such air defense batteries will be required to provide point defenses at all facilities of import as well as to try to “seal off” borders, so to speak. The ongoing conflict in Yemen and Ansarallah’s use of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and suicide drones — some of Iranian origin — has also strained Saudi air defenses in particular, with systems previously oriented towards Iran being redeployed and turned facing the threat from the south.
Importantly, throwing money at the cruise missile challenge will not necessarily resolve it. Command and control must also be well integrated, extensive networks of sensors put into place, the capabilities of ground-based air defenders and air forces synergized, and, not least, the Gulf Arab states will need to cooperate and coordinate on air defense operations, which is difficult when centrally positioned Qatar is politically isolated by its neighbors. While defending against ballistic missiles is no easy task either, the demands on integration and cooperation are, in an important sense, not as great as those experienced against cruise missiles.
Iran’s cruise missile capabilities and the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia make much more credible its threats to target both military facilities and the region’s oil and gas infrastructure. Less than a decade ago, a prominent assessment of Iran’s missile capabilities against Saudi oil facilities found Tehran’s threats to be lacking in credibility. But much has changed in the years since and Iran’s conventional strike capabilities have greatly improved. All things considered, advances in Iranian military capabilities and the attacks against targets in the region involving Iranian-origin systems indicate that the military balance in the Gulf is fast evolving. At a time when the region’s oil infrastructure is ablaze and American security commitments to the region tested, Iran’s long-overlooked cruise missiles have escaped the radar’s shadow and are now very much on the horizon.
Shahryar Pasandideh is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at The George Washington University. His research focuses on the implications of advances in military technology, the development and diffusion of military technologies, and assessments of military power.