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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL)

A Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) is a type of mobile launcher used for transporting, setting in the launch position and launching a missile. The name TEL first appeared as the term for the Soviet ballistic missile launchers of the Scud family, which transported the rockets to the launch place, erected them from the horizontal transport position and set them on the launch table in a vertical position, and then fired the missile. They could be reloaded and the firing procedure repeated. With time, the TEL name was also used to refer to other mobile rocket launchers, both the surface-to-surface and air-to-air classes.

The advantage of mobile TEL in relation to classic static launchers (ramps or silos) is more difficult detection by the enemy, which makes them very challenging targets for aviation and cruise missiles. At first glance a simple concept, the TEL is technologically extremely complex because the vehicle must be adapted to a large load (up to 50 tons) and dimensions (up to 20 meters), it must have a powerful and reliable hydraulic drive (which additionally increases the mass) it must be made of refractory materials that will protect it from the launch of the missile. For these reasons, the wheels (as the most sensitive part) of the pre-launch must be protected, so as not to cause fire, while the other type of movement can be carried out using tracks.

A TEL is a vehicle that provides for the transport and launch of a missile. Combined with a group of vehicles that control the parameters pertaining to firing a ballistic missile, these systems afford a degree of mobility (which varies according to the missile’s mass) and greater stealth to terrestrial arsenals. For relatively light missiles such as the SS-1 Scud, this mobility and stealth proved sufficient to entirely shield them from American strikes during the first Iraqi conflict, with no weapons system either detected or destroyed. This relative “invulnerability” also justifies the adoption of a form of mobile stationing for the majority of proliferating States’ missiles, with the notable exceptions of Syria, believed to be in possession of ensiled Scud-Cs, and Iran, which is seemingly heading towards the same option for a certain number of its Shahab-3s.

Storage in a silo can also be explained by physical limitations. If the total mass of a Scud-B and its TEL does not exceed 30 tonnes, that of a Musadan is probably somewhere around 40 to 50 tonnes. The KN-08 and its TEL might be as much as 160 tonnes. Without an adequate road network and a sufficient covering of vegetation, the use of TEL for heavy missiles is thus not necessarily the best option. The adoption of TEL is, in any event, a more complex exercise than it might seem.

In its May 2012 report, the UN Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009) briefly outlines the question of North Korean acquisition of a transporter erector launcher (TEL) designed to launch the future KN-08 ICBM, which first appeared during a military parade in April 2012. The Panel’s interest in the vehicle is notable as much because it brings a little-studied aspect of proliferation to light as it reflects the fundamental oppositions within the Panel itself regarding the definition in proliferation cases concerning North Korea.

The UN Panel of Experts [S/2012/422, 14 June 2012] noted the KN-08’s TEL “The newly revealed missile was carried by a new 8-axle transporter erector launcher, bigger and more sophisticated than previous transporter erector launchers displayed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which have had up to 6-axle configuration. An off-road mobile transporter erector launcher of such dimensions needs very advanced features such as the ability to pivot wheels in the front and back to assist steering, divided axle with differential gear to assist off-road movement, and hydro-pneumatic suspension to handle sensitive payloads. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has not previously demonstrated its capacity to build such a vehicle”.

This technology is entirely or partly available on the MAZ 543s exported by the USSR during the 1970s in conjunction with SS-1Cs (Syria, Egypt, Iraq, North Korea, and Libya).

In addition, North Korea is already in possession of more advanced systems, having acquired MAZ 547As (a derivative of the MAZ 543 used to transport SS-20s) from Belarus (site fo the MAZ factory) and adapted it for the Musadan. In this sense, the technologies providing for the launch of a 37-tonne missile (equivalent to the mass of the SS-20, the SS-N-6 weighs 14 and the Musadan rather more, with a roughly corresponding thrust) are thus available to the proliferation market, and have been mastered by North Korea, which seems to have adapted the MAZ 543 to the Nodong.

It appears, however, that reverse-engineering of MAZ 543s is out of the reach of the majority of the other proliferating States, especially in the case of the MAZ 547A. Observations made in open sources and assessments by intelligence services tend to give relatively low estimates of the number of available TELs in these states, which nonetheless all possess them, generally fewer than 50 for Scud-B-type systems. Iran is thought to be in possession of MAZ-543s adapted for the launch of Scud-C/Hwsung-6, while North Korean possession has been confirmed.

On the other hand, unlike North Korea, states like Iran and Pakistan do not have domestic integrated TEL to transport their equivalent of the No Dong (the Shahab-3 and the Ghauri) and use trailers, which appear to be in short supply in Iran (around a dozen according to certain estimates). Paradoxically, if transfers of missile technology are abundant, transfers involving their launch vehicles remained embryonic. The exception to that pattern is Syria, to which Israeli and US sources attribute a remarkably significant number of TELs (the TEL/missile ratio is close to that estimated for China), a profusion which seems to be confirmed by the rare images of Syria ballistic tests.

These observations give credence to the idea that controlling technologies linked to the transport and launch of missiles, and more specifically heavy missiles, remains a major proliferation issue. In this sense, the probable provision of WS 51200 TELs to North Korea by the Chinese company Wanshan represented a serious act of proliferation. Its impact is sufficiently significant for China to have threatened to block the publication of the Panel of Expert’s report should its name be linked to the transfer, which explained the slightly cryptic wording of that section of the report. This approach, which echoes Chinese pressure to block the publication of the previous report, illustrates, if there were any need to do so, Beijing’s perfectly ambiguous position with regard to proliferation.

It is doubtful that Wanshan did not specifically adapt the WS 51200 to the KN-08, implying that if the missile on show at the parade is a model it is possibly a faithful copy of the future weapon. Wanshan possesses sufficiently precise technical data (particularly in terms of the weapon’s mass and thrust) to adapt the TEL to it.

Implementing export controls on TEL technology would, in theory, be simple, given that Wanshan and MAZ are the main potential exporters. However, attention should once again turn to North Korea, as MAZ 547A-type vehicles are sufficient for most proliferating States and could thus prove attractive to Iran or Syria.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2018 13:22:29 ZULU