Air Force Worried About Potential Iranian Space Launch
"The concerning part to me is that the rocket that they use, that launch satellite, could … [have] a dual-use purpose," said Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations. "The ability to put a satellite into orbit is the same capability ... as a harmful missile," he told reporters at a Washington, D.C., breakfast March 24.
Between 2009 and 2015, Iran successfully placed four satellites into orbit using a small rocket called the Safir. The Safir is based on the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile. The rocket that the country plans to use in the upcoming launch is the Simorgh, a more powerful and capable rocket that could put larger satellites into orbit.
The Iranians displayed a mock-up for the two-stage Simorgh for the first time in February 2010. "Iran’s government has announced the maiden launch of the Simorgh several times since 2010, most recently in a window ending on March 10, 2016, but it has not yet happened," said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, a non-profit located in Washington, D.C.
The cancellation of the March launch could point to performance issues with the system, he said. "It's a very big question now whether or not they are ready, or whether there have been some technical glitches that have prevented the launch."
Some in the United States have said the system is a cover for the country's development of an intercontinental ballistic missile — or an "ICBM in drag" — according to Thielmann.
However those claims are overblown, he said. "A lot of the things that you hear about this, that it would be the appearance of an ICBM missile threat against the United States, is just wrong."
There are significant differences in the requirements for a space vehicle launch and a military missile, he told National Defense.
"A space rocket that launches a satellite only does part of what needs to be done to test or to demonstrate competence in the technology needed for a military missile," he said. "For very long range, like intercontinental range, the stress on a warhead that returns to the atmosphere is intense — the vibration, the heat. It's not something that you want to happen to anything as delicate as a nuclear weapon."
It is a significant technological hurdle for any country to develop a warhead that can reenter the atmosphere, while remaining accurate enough to hit its target, Thielmann said. "The Iranians have never tested that. The Simorgh — if it launched a satellite — would not be testing that."
The power required in the second stage of a launch is another difference between a space vehicle and a military missile, he noted. The "low-powered thrust that gently puts a satellite in orbit is very different than the kind of high power you need to achieve maximum range and a trajectory that results in an explosion at the other end."
Additionally, the Simorgh that was represented in the 2010 mock-up would barely qualify as an intercontinental ballistic missile, which since the Cold War has been identified as a warhead with a 5,500-kilometer range, he said. "The Simorgh probably has less than that, but it certainly would not have the 9,000-kilometer range needed to reach the United States from Iran. It would not even come close."
When it comes to Iran's ballistic missile program "it is often less than advertised," Thielmann said. For years, the United States predicted that the Iranians could test launch an ICBM by 2015, which still hasn't happened, he said.
"2015 has come and gone and you finally had the U.S. military leadership and intelligence community move back, by several years, their date of when Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile," he said. "But they haven't quite acted fully on this because we're still aiming to deploy more advanced missile interceptors in Poland by 2018. It's almost as if neither the Iran Nuclear Deal nor the fading ICBM threat has been taken into consideration in U.S. policy."
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