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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Iran's Cruise Missile Threat and Merchant Ships?

With a big tip of my cowboy hat to Regime Change Iran where Dr. Zin writes
The author (referring to the author of the piece he cites to) takes a careful look at Iran's options but most disturbing is the possibilty of a ship board launch nuclear tipped missile. But a ship board launch capability would require modifications to its merchant fleet.
citing to this Global Security report and the section therein subheaded "Why Does Iran Want Cruise Missiles?"
A more attractive alternative might consist of arming small ships with single cruise missiles. The modifications required to launch such a small missile would easily escape detection.

Iran's merchant marine fleet is controlled by the state shipping company Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). It serves now two container services from the port of Bender-e Abbas. One of them goes on a 30-day loop to East Asia, the other reaches Europe via the Suez in 22 days...

Interesting idea. The Iranians have used merchant type ships for mine laying, might they think outside the box for missile launching? More later on this.

Update: An Iranian precedent? Missile had this in October 2004
Citing U.S. officials, Middle East Newsline today reports that Iran has deployed a number of short-range and medium-range Scud ballistic missiles aboard cargo vessels, and equipped them to be launched from the ships. The ships are said to be stationed in the northern Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. The officials also said that Iran began deployment of ship-based missiles in 1997, and that several such vessels are already so equipped.
May not be so far out of the box after all... Especially in light of this from Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference:
Mr. Rumsfeld also was asked about the danger of terrorists or rogue states attacking the United States by putting a short-range Scud-type missile on a freighter and firing it close to U.S. shores.

He said one Middle East nation already has “launched a ballistic missile from a cargo vessel.”

“They had taken a short-range, probably Scud missile, put it on a transporter-erector launcher, lowered it in, taken the vessel out into the water, peeled back the top, erected it, fired it, lowered it, covered it up. And the ship that they used was using a radar and electronic equipment that was no different than 50, 60, 100 other ships operating in the immediate area.”

Other U.S. officials have said the nation was Iran, which tested a freighter-launched missile in the Caspian Sea in the late 1990s.

“It is true that the big distinction we make between intercontinental, medium-range and shorter-range ballistic missiles doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re going to move the missile closer to the target,” he said.
(source). Hmmm.

Update2: And this warning from Bill Gertz in the Air Force Association magazine in 1996:
US officials contend that the Shiite Muslim regime will be in a position to construct a crude but workable nuclear device at the turn of the century. The development of a "Persian bomb" is Iran's top priority, and Tehran receives technology and aid from both Russia and China, according to Pentagon officials.

"We're talking about something the size of a boxcar," explained one Defense Department expert, "but with the Iranians, a truck or a merchant ship can be a weapon-delivery system."
and Gertz again here:
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, as we noted in this space last week, warned about the danger of ship-launched, short-range missiles in a recent speech. He said a Middle East nation tested a missile from a merchant ship in the late 1990s. The nation was Iran, which has close ties to North Korea in the area of missiles.

Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, also said recently that the danger of ship-based missiles is growing. "I believe it's just a matter of time until the terrorists try to use a ... maritime attack against us," he said. "I believe that attack could come in terms of bringing a ship into port, whether it's [carrying] high explosives or whether it's weapons of mass destruction."

Notes Mr. Fisher: "Should North Korea adopt this strategy, it would have the option of trying to infiltrate and pre-position its missiles in Canada, Central America or even the continental United States. U.S. missile defenses do not currently defend against either launches from the south of or within the contiguous 50 states."(Sept 2004)

Update3: Wait, there's more:
A state that wants to attack the United States with only a few nuclear weapons need not do so with ICBMs. There are various stealthy ways in which a nuclear weapon could be placed on or near US territory. A short-range missile could be fired from a 'merchant' ship offshore. This possibility was considered in the Rumsfeld Report and has been brought up in discussions to emphasize how soon the threat could arrive. A surprisingly large fraction of US cities are within range of such an attack and the current NMD proposals would offer no defense against it. Potential adversaries would need to obtain single-stage solid-fuel missiles because stealthy deployment of a liquid-fuel missile and its supporting paraphernalia on a disguised merchant ship is not practical. Neither North Korea nor Iraq has solid-fuel missiles.

Update4: Once again American Scribbles and I are working the same side of the street. His post "Seaborne Missile Threats" cites a Daily Star of Lebanon article which poses this question (and the author's answer):
Here's a macabre defense quiz for the post-September 11, 2001, world: Which kind of attack on the United States is more likely over the next 20 years - a ballistic missile launched from another continent, or a low-flying cruise missile or rocket fired by terrorists from a ship off the U.S. coast?

For me, the answer unfortunately is a no-brainer. The more plausible threat is the short-range cruise missile or rocket attack, not the distant intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The latter is the old cold-war paradigm of what could get Americans killed; the former is an all-too-believable image of what terrorists could do today, using missiles bought on the black market and homemade chemical or biological warheads.

Update5: Initial reaction: I believe the US has the assets to protect against this threat but it's a challenge. It's the same issue we face in confronting submarine launched cruise missiles from other potentially hostile forces....

Update6: One idea for cruise missile defense here

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