Open-source satellite imagery has revealed the suspected development of a new missile base near Haji Abad in Iran, possibly the first hardened launch site intended specifically for solid-fuel ballistic missiles. Given the regional significance of Iran’s missile capability, these new structures will likely continue to attract attention from the intelligence community, explains Joseph Dempsey.

Iran may have developed a new design of hardened launch site, possibly the first intended specifically for solid-fuel ballistic missiles. Open-source satellite imagery of the suspected Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ missile base near Haji Abad reveals this development. Although Tehran has in recent years showcased several underground complexes (sometimes dubbed ‘missile cities’) – complete with cavernous launch silos – they have not included the Haji Abad structures. While Iran’s ballistic-missile designs are road mobile, Tehran also deploys some in hardened static launch sites.

Between 2017 and 2019, an underground facility near Haji Abad (28°19’44.02″N 55°56’34.20″E) was modified with the construction of large hollow circular structures, presumed to be accessible via underground tunnels. Comprising two groups – four structures below ground level and three semi-recessed into the landscape – each feature interior spaces some 20 metres in diameter, the latter group with outer walls at least 5 m thick.

By December 2019, these seven structures each housed pairs of cylindrical objects measuring some 12 m in length with apparent – though somewhat limited – camouflage. Given their characteristics and protected placement, these may well be ballistic-missile launch canisters mounted horizontally.

Solid thinking

If indeed these are canisters housing ballistic missiles, then the missiles are probably solid-propellant-based. Liquid-fuelled missiles are fuelled prior to launch, and as such need to be readily accessible.

The corresponding reduction of launch-preparation time – from what can be hours for a liquid-fuelled missile to minutes for solid propellants – and other operational advantages are driving Iran’s efforts to move away from a reliance on liquid-fuelled missiles.

The ongoing development of the Fateh family of short-range solid-propellant missiles continues to be central to these efforts. In the 20 years since the first flight test of the original Fateh-110, numerous variants have emerged with different guidance and range modifications. It is possible that the Haji Abad development may house a variant of the Fateh missile family.

A common characteristic of the Fateh series is that they are slant- rather than vertically launched. This offers one explanation for the large open-top design of the Haji Abad site. While predominantly rail-mounted and deployed from launch vehicles, the use of canisters provides better overall protection for the missile and could open up additional basing options. Indeed, a handful of examples of Fateh-series missiles being hot-launched (where solid motor ignition occurs within the canister) from canisters have recently emerged, showing the apparent practice of burying them in so-called ‘missile farms’.

While Tehran has not made public the type of missiles that might be deployed from Haji Abad (there may be a degree of interchangeability between types), the location and specific characteristics of the site do offer some pointers.

Most Fateh missiles – all those built around the original 610-millimetre-diameter body, at least – have ranges estimated at 250–300 kilometres. The Raad-500 and Fateh-313 variants use lighter composite casings, resulting in a 500-km range. These range limitations would mean that any of these missiles would only cover parts of the UAE and Oman from Haji Abad, assuming that it is not the Hormuz 1 or 2 anti-ship development of the Fateh. Deployments in this direction, if slant-launched, would also likely be impeded by the immediate topography. In available imagery, the suspected canisters and their launch mounts face southwest, estimated to be in the range of 238–243 degrees. It remains unclear if they can be rotated or if they are trained to a specific selection of targets, but this suggests extended-range members of the Fateh family would be candidate missiles if making landfall is required.

One candidate is the Zolfaghar, introduced in 2016, which has a larger-diameter 680-mm body with its length increased to 10.3 m. This gives the weapon a 700-km range with a 350-kg warhead. The missile is comparatively accurate, using inertial and satellite-based navigation. This was demonstrated in the January 2020 attack on the Ayn al Asad air base in Iraq, used by United States forces, as well as in strikes on Syria in 2017. The Dezful is a follow-on design introduced in 2019 that appears to be the same diameter and length but is claimed by Tehran to have a range of 1,000 km. In July 2020, Iran released footage showing missiles launched from a previously unseen large tube or canister design. Although the missile itself was unnamed, it appears consistent in both size and configuration with the Zolfaghar and Dezful. An example of this tube – with a crude missile mock-up – is also on display in Tehran.

A further, if perhaps less likely, candidate is the Shahid Haj Qasem, first shown in August 2020. The missile, named after the late Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, has a considerably increased diameter, in the region of 900 mm, and an estimated length of 11 m. A claimed range of 1,400 km would make this the first Fateh derivative to be classed as a medium-range ballistic missile. The service status of this missile, however, is unknown.

ifmat - Development of a new missile base near Haji Abad in Iran3

Iran continues to use more traditional silo-type missiles at other sites in addition to mobile basing, with the former in the past offering greater protection and concealment of launch preparations than more mobile options. This protection has been eroded considerably with the development of stand-off precision-guided weapons and penetrating warheads.

While the structures of the Haji Abad site provide additional side protection, complementing what is already challenging terrain for an attack, the launch positions remain vulnerable to top-down aerial strikes, and it is unclear why Tehran has not implemented any form of removable cover as a shield against intelligence-gathering satellites. Despite the apparent limitations, it may be a relatively inexpensive method of adding protection while preserving the quick reaction and increased accuracy offered by a fixed position.

In a sign that this idea may be gathering wider appeal, similar ongoing development of circular structures has been noted at a suspected missile base at Khorgu (27°31’39.22″N 56°26’59.39″E) – though some dissimilar interior elements may indicate a different purpose – and, possibly at an earlier stage, in excavations at Shiraz (29°27’28.37″N 52°29’18.53″E).

The regional significance of Iran’s missile capability means these new structures will likely continue to attract attention from the intelligence community. Of particular interest will be any further developments and patterns of activity at these sites that might reveal the rationale behind the new structures.

Source » iiss