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Aviation Week March 05, 2007

Concerns Grow About Iranian, North Korean Missiles and Chinese Asats

By Craig Covault

The Bush administration for the first time says it has intelligence proving detailed and ongoing collaboration between Iran and North Korea in the development of new ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon has also just released previously secret intelligence data on new Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles under development.

North Korean and Chinese missiles already threaten the Middle East, Asia and Europe and could eventually target the U.S.

The new Pentagon data also confirm an Aviation Week & Space Technology report that Iran is working to launch its own spacecraft using civilian space launch developments as a cover for major ballistic missile programs (AW&ST Jan. 29, p. 24).

Washington-based analysts with insight into intelligence collected on Iran contend that Tehran will launch its first satellite within a year. "If they do it by themselves, it will be a whole new ball game in the Middle East," says one analyst. They say it will accelerate an already impressive military buildup among Persian Gulf states. Moreover, the analysts contend that Iran has two worrisome projects underway: one to build a warhead to carry "probably nuclear" weapons and the other to integrate the warhead with a Shahab 3 missile.

On Feb. 25, Iran used a large ballistic missile to fire a research payload into space in a sounding rocket test that intelligence analysts expect will be followed by more ambitious Iranian satellite launch attempts.

While Iranian and North Korean missiles are a growing concern, so should be covert Chinese anti-satellite (Asat) weapons development under the guise of civilian space operations, says a new report to Congress by a congressionally mandated security review group.

Iran is showing significant missile system development, says Army Brig Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, deputy director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. "They are working in concert with the North Koreans," he told a forum sponsored by the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington.

The release of previously secret assessments on Iran and North Korean collaboration, however, may give the Bush administration greater flexibility in gathering international support for political, and if necessary, military measures to counter especially the Iranian developments.

It could also theoretically help the White House gain support for the placement of U.S. missile defense systems in Europe from European governments currently cool to the idea.

"Ballistic missiles pose a growing, potentially catastrophic threat," O'Reilly said.

Israeli and U.S. intelligence are also assessing new data that indicate Iran could be developing the ability to launch multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRVed) warheads atop a missile capable of striking Western Europe or Israel. Iranian air force Gen. Hossein Salaami earlier hinted that such a development is underway.

A MIRVed missile could increase the threat to Europe and Israel should the Iranians perfect biological or chemical weapons capability, let alone nuclear warheads.

Iran could use such missile capability to deter the U.S. and European governments from challenging the expansion of Iranian authority in the Middle East. But the Iranian missile development surge also holds other risks.

An assessment by strategic think tank GlobalSecurity.org finds that Iranian missile developments could also "provide Iran with a rudimentary anti-satellite capability" threatening critical U.S., Israeli or European spacecraft.

As first reported by Aviation Week & Space Technology, China in January tested an Asat weapon, destroying one of its own aging weather satellites, for which it was widely criticized (AW&ST Jan. 22, p. 24).

China contritely promised not to do it again, but a new report to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission questions whether China can be taken at its word. And the Pentagon does not intend to.

Using open source material, the commission's researchers found 30 Chinese Asat concepts have been formulated by the People's Liberation Army. They include several involving "covert deployment of a sophisticated anti-satellite weapons system to be used against the U.S. in a surprise manner" (see p. 26).

The commission is bipartisan and chaired by Carolyn Bartholomew, former foreign policy adviser to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The 12-member group and its staff was set up in 2000 by Congress to advise Capitol Hill on U.S.-Chinese security matters. The Asat assessment covered the period 2003-06, and coincidently was completed only a week after the Chinese fired their Asat test.

"The Chinese imply that the U.S. may lack the 'forensic' ability to know which nation has neutralized U.S. space systems through covert attack," the Congressional advisory report says.

The report found that China's own "linkage between civilian and military space development programs places the issue in the context of economic security and well as military security."

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence continues to monitor Iranian long-range missile activity in the wake of the Feb. 25 launch of a Shahab ballistic missile on a sounding rocket mission straight up to 94 mi. altitude. Many news outlets around the world first mistakenly reported the flight as a satellite launch, both because of Iran's lack of information on the mission and a lack of understanding that a vehicle can indeed fly into space successfully for a short mission, without flying into orbit and becoming a satellite.

The Iranian vehicle spent a few minutes in space and zero-gravity before falling back into the atmosphere, where it descended by parachute.

While countries and even universities around the world routinely launch sounding rockets into space, Iran used a version of its Shahab ballistic missile for the test (see photo, p. 24), a vehicle much larger than regular sounding rockets in use today.

The test is another indication of Iranian missile development.

In his presentation to the Marshall Institute, O'Reilly confirmed the development of a new Iranian Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. He also said that Iran is likely developing a much larger ICBM for both the warhead and satellite launch roles and could also develop a ballistic missile with the range to strike the U.S. by 2015.

According to Globalsecurity.org, the developments involve versions of the solid-propellant Iranian two-stage Ghadr-110 missile with a basic range of about 1,324 mi.

In connection with Iran, the North Koreans are also developing a new intermediate-range ballistic missile with about a 2,000-mi. range.

A Missile Defense Agency chart presented in the Marshall Institute briefing indicated that "this new IRBM represents a qualitative improvement in performance." Globalsecurity.org says the vehicle is designated the No-dong-B.

O'Reilly also described developments related to the two-stage Taepo Dong 2C as having a range of roughly 6,200 mi. and the three-stage version with a range of 9,300 mi. with a 250-kg. (551-lb.) warhead, says Globalsecurity.org.

The larger vehicles could also be used for North Korean space launch duties, again in a covert missile development role.

In addition, the Iranian and North Korean developments have increased non-U.S. missile tests by about 10% annually. "Since 2002, there have been an average of 90 foreign ballistic missile launches per year, while in 2007 the there were about 100," an O'Reilly chart said.

The major Chinese Asat and North Korean missile developments have not gone unnoticed in nearby India, which has its own major space program.

India is also increasingly examining its military space operations and has just begun to set up a space command, says Indian Air Chief Marshall S.P. Tyagi. It is important that the Indian air force exploit space capability, he says. While the Indian Space Command will also coordinate with the civilian Indian Space Research Organization, according to Tyagi the command will be run by the Indian air force and have major Indian military functions.

Copyright 2007, AVIATION WEEK, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.