The Islamic Republic of Iran is at it again. In addition to resuming its longstanding maritime belligerence that instigated the latest war of words with President Trump, Tehran recently launched its first-ever military satellite. This historic development represents a significant change in Iran’s narrative about its interest in space, as well as another step toward potentially developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could target the United States and all of Europe.
Iranian outlets have heralded the launch of the satellite – dubbed the “Noor” or light – a success, claiming that the satellite sent a signal back to earth from 425 kilometers (km) away. US Space Command has tracked the satellite, which is assumed to be in orbit.
Wednesday’s apparent success follows a string of recent setbacks for Iranian space launch vehicles (SLVs). Just this February, in an attempt to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iran tried but failed to put a new satellite into low-earth orbit. Ironically, the satellite was named the “Zafar,” or victory.
The SLV behind the latest launch, called the “Qased” or messenger, appears to be new. Iran’s Mashregh News Agency reported that the Qased has three stages and uses both solid- and liquid-propellant. Older Iranian SLVs rely on North Korean missile technology, specifically Nodong engines, which use liquid-propellant. Video from the Qased’s launch appears to indicate a liquid-propelled engine, at least for its first-stage.
Video from the launch of NOOR satellite on the QASED SLV. Liquid propulsion first stage can be clearly seen. pic.twitter.com/BgmQC0FSdz— Tal Inbar (@inbarspace) April 22, 2020
The Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF), Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, confirmed this assessment in a recent interview. While claiming that the Qased’s use of liquid-propellant in the first-stage was a temporary, cost-saving measure using a missile they had in “storage,” Hajizadeh said Tehran will transition to all solid-propellant SLVs in the future.
If true, this growing technical sophistication should set-off alarm bells in Washington and allied capitals. A domestically manufactured, multi-stage, solid-propellant SLV would be a game-changer for Tehran and can make longer-range ballistic missiles possible.
The semi-official Tasnim News Agency, whom Hajizadeh gave an interview to after the recent satellite launch, noted that the Salman, a solid-propellant motor first showcased this February, is used in the Qased SLV. The Salman motor represents an advancement in Iranian rocketry due to both a composite casing, making it lighter, as well as its stated ability to guide rockets through directional changes in the nozzle, otherwise known as thrust vectoring. The Salman is likely the first of many solid-propellant advances by Tehran.
Tasnim further reported the Qased was launched from an IRGC space launch base in Shahroud, the same city where a solid-propellant engine testing facility was discovered in the desert in 2018. Shahroud is in Iran’s Semnan province, where Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center is also located. This marked the first satellite launch from Shahroud.
The US government has long expressed concern that Tehran’s SLV program could facilitate its development of an ICBM. In February 2016, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper summarized the assessment of the US intelligence community that Iran’s SLV program provides it with the “means” to develop an ICBM.
In 2017, the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) concluded that “progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles (SLV) use inherently similar technologies.” These concerns were echoed again the US military’s 2019 Missile Defense Review.
But there is one more reason to worry. Last week’s satellite launch was conducted entirely by the IRGC-AF, which has operational control of Iran’s vast ballistic missile arsenal. Unlike its predecessors, the new SLV and accompanying satellite did not bear any of the logos of the Iranian Space Agency. Nor did it bear the logos of any of Iran’s defense ministry subsidiaries, like Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), or Iran Electronics Institute (IEI). This indicates that production and procurement related to the SLV was entirely outside recognized government channels.
In short, the Qased was part of a secret program now public. Iran’s willingness to place this effort in the hands of the IRGC – designated a terrorist organization by the US – should end any credible assertions that Iran’s interest in space is purely civilian.
For too long, the US ignored North Korea’s development of satellite launchers and long-range ballistic missiles. As a result, the Pentagon has been playing catch-up, rushing to field sufficient homeland missile defense capabilities.
Washington should not make the same mistake when it comes to Iran. Admittedly, Tehran is likely years away from fielding an ICBM capability. But it also takes years to fund, test, and field missile defense systems—and there is no time to waste.
The first step in defending the US homeland against a potential Iranian ICBM is ensuring that the Pentagon has sufficient radar capability.
Existing radars in Greenland and the United Kingdom are important, but an additional persistent discrimination radar would be needed to address the growing threat from Iran. A radar similar to the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) in Alaska could help identify ballistic missiles early in flight. It could also distinguish between decoys and actual threats, and help assess whether attempts to intercept the threat were successful. This would enable more efficient management of the finite number of US interceptors.
The location for this radar will likely need to be in a foreign country, requiring Washington to roll-up its sleeves in the quest for an agreement with a host nation. If the Iranian missile threat matures further, the US could then start construction at the new radar site.
In the meantime, if a Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii (HDR-H) is deployed, then the Pentagon could move its Sea-Based X-Band (SBX) Radar to the Atlantic. This would buy time for construction of a new persistent radar focused on Iran.
But sufficient radar capability, of course, is not enough; the Pentagon must also have the means to intercept and destroy the incoming ballistic missile.
That’s why the Department of Defense should expeditiously push forward with the development of a Next-Generation Interceptor (NGI), which will be needed as missile threats to the homeland proliferate. In fact, the US Missile Defense Agency published on Friday a classified request for proposals from industry for the NGI.
The Pentagon is also wise to conduct a flight test soon to determine whether the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA (SM-3 IIA), originally designed to intercept medium- and intermediate-range missiles, could also intercept ICBMs. If that test is successful, SM-3IIAs could provide additional layered homeland missile defense—first from Aegis ships and then from Aegis Ashore sites in the US.
Finally, another ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) site in the continental United States (CONUS) would provide much-needed additional capability against a prospective Iranian ICBM. An additional CONUS GMD site would significantly enhance Washington’s ability to intercept an incoming ICBM from Iran, assess whether it was destroyed, and then shoot again if necessary.
If an Iranian ICBM were headed toward New York City or Washington, D.C., Americans would want two chances—not just one—to shoot it down.
Tehran’s launch of a military satellite does not guarantee that the regime will pursue an ICBM to target the United States. But if Tehran does decide to do so, Wednesday’s launch will give it a running start. Washington would be wise to start getting ready.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Bradley Bowman is senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power.