Iran’s Operation Muharram Strike and the Qiam Missile: Terminal Guidance and Improved Accuracy?

Doubtless we have all seen news of Iran’s ballistic missile and drone strikes against Islamic State targets in Deir Ez-Zor province in Syria bordering Iraq. Iran refers this military attack as Operation Muharram Strike. The attack, like an earlier one from the same launch location in Iran, partly employed 6 ballistic missiles.

The ballistic missile front is what I’d like to touch on here.

The strikes were retaliation for the Ahvaz terrorist attacks which killed 80 people. A terrorist attack of that scale in France or the United States would dominate global media coverage, but in Iran less so. However, I would argue that the strikes were just as much, if not more so, a demonstration of Iran’s regional deterrence strategy. Iran has attributed the terrorist attacks to IS, but also to Iranian Arab groups sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. If the Iranian Arab group was responsible, but unable to be targeted, then the Muharram Strike operation is an instance of the “related or not” doctrine of Donald Rumsfeld. It would also lend credence to the view that the strikes were a demonstration of Iran’s deterrence posture in a region racked by Sunni-Shia conflict sparked by that first demonstration of the “related or not” doctrine, namely the invasion of Iraq, but also rising tensions with the US and Israel.

When a state suffers a terrorist attack then somebody’s head must roll. It’s preferable that head belongs to the perpetrator, but if not the next best head suffices. The more powerful the state the bigger the head that needs to go. That’s partly why Saddam Hussein lies in state underneath the flight path of the Muharram Strike missiles.

Iran fired 6 ballistic missiles of two types. Firstly, the Zolfaghar variant of the solid fuelled Fateh-110 short range ballistic missile. The Zolfaghar has a range of 750km. The other missile, the subject of our interest, was the Qiam variant of the Shahab-2 liquid fuelled short range missile itself derived from the Scud-C. The Qiam has a range of 800km.

There’s an Iranian news video of Muharram Strike that is worth watching.

This still comes 2:22 into the video. It depicts a Qiam missile in the early stages of flight.

This is a video of a Qiam test flight in August 2010.

This still of the RV section comes 0:55 into the video.

Notice that the still of the Muharram Strike Qiam depicts small fins on the rear of the RV section. These fins should be familiar to us. This is North Korea’s KN-18 paraded in 2017. The KN-18 is one of a beevy of North Korean missiles flight tested in 2017, and so far as we know each KN-18 flight test ended in failure.

This is the KN-18 shortly after launch (by the way the confusing KN nomenklature gives me the shits).

The rear fins on the RV are a give away that the KN-18 has terminal guidance and a MaRV capability, like with the Pershing II which is often depicted in this context. Notice that the KN-18 has large stabilisation fins on the booster airframe, however the Qiam does not. The Qiam uses engine vanes only for boost phase stabilisation and on the original Qiam depicted in the 2010 test, most likely, radar/radio transponders for guidance during boost phase. This makes the Qiam technically superior to all Scud-C variants that use fins for boost phase stabilisation because it increases range but also it uses a more advanced guidance system that can improve accuracy for a shorter range missile. David Wright from the Union of Concerned Scientists had a good write up on the Qiam August 2010 test here.

When Iran tested the Qiam in August 2010 Tehran stated that the Qiam had an improved guidance system. The radar transponders that you saw above on the August 2010 graphic indicates that what was being referred to wasn’t interial navigation but rather ground controlled radar guidance for the boost phase. Iran also stated that the Qiam had improved accuracy, but as David Wright argued above that was likely a function of the improved boost phase guidance and a separating warhead that is not tumbling toward the target as much as a warhead attached to a missile with fins would. Wright concluded that the missile would still be quite inaccurate.

However, the Qiam we see for Muharram Strike is a different beast. This appears to pack terminal guidance which uses signals bouncing from the target to home in on the target and the RV fins to manouvre as required, and from the image above I cannot make out radar transponders either implying improved inertial guidance (over the Shahab-2/Scud-C) for boost phase too. That means this missile could well be more accurate, perhaps much more, than the missile previously analysed by Wright. According to reports the Muharram missile strikes hit designated IS targets not far from US assets.

That Us angle probably explains the Qiam used for Muharram Strike, and it serves as a demonstration of Iran’s confidence in its reliability and its accuracy under combat conditions and that at a time of rising tensions with the US. That means the Iranians have here a missile more capable, and combat tested, than North Korea’s try at a terminally guided Scud-C variant the KN-18. We have previously seen credible reports that Iran has been working on a large solid fuelled space launch vehicle.

Iran’s scientists and engineers are highly capable, in this instance more capable than their North Korean counterparts, and thus far Iran’s missile programme has been contrained as part of the wider JCPOA process. The big upshot of the new Qiam is that absent those constraints we might find ourselves shocked by just how good the Iranians are, just like we were in 2017 with North Korea’s Hwasong-12, 14 and 15 missiles, and that in a region of the world as hot as it has ever been.