Talking Missiles: Is Russia Avoiding a Key Issue?

December 12, 2010 | 11:00 pm
David Wright
Former contributor

Note: This post discusses an issue raised in one of the WikiLeak cables, but does not quote from the cable.

One of the cables released by WikiLeaks gives an account of a U.S.-Russian discussion on December 22, 2009 about the state of the Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile programs. This discussion has been cited recently as evidence for different U.S. and Russian assessments of Iran’s program.

To me the most interesting part of the cable is the discussion of the possible acquisition by North Korea and Iran of Soviet R-27 missiles (called the SS-N-6 in the west). The Russians seemed to downplay this possibility, probably not surprisingly since the Soviet Union or Russia would have been the source of these missiles.

The core of the Russian team’s argument focused on the so-called BM-25 missile, which is the name the United States has given to a  potential intermediate-range missile Iran or North Korea may have derived from the R-27. No one has seen a test of this missile, either in North Korea or Iran. The Russians question whether there is even good evidence for its existence. A missile similar to the BM-25 was recently seen in a military parade in North Korea, but there is no consensus on whether this was a real missile or a mockup. Pyongyang has been known in the past to build mockups of missiles and set them out for U.S. satellites to get a good look at. (That is what kicked off discussions in the west of the Taepo Dong 1 and 2 missiles in early 1994.)

But focusing on the BM-25 seems to miss the point. The circumstantial evidence – both from photographs and performance – that R-27 technology has turned up in the missiles of both North Korea and Iran is good enough that the Russians need to look seriously at that possibility and its implications.

In particular:

(1) Photos of the upper stage of the Iranian Safir-2 launcher that placed a small satellite in orbit in February 2009 show that the stage uses engines that appear to be identical to the steering motors on the R-27. These motors use a more advanced fuel than is used in Scuds – a fuel Iran is not known to have used previously – and without this level of technology the Safir would not have been able to place even this small satellite in orbit.

It’s possible that Iran has developed the ability to build copies of these motors, but even so it appears likely that it had access to components of the R-27, even if it used copies in the launcher. This doesn’t imply that Iran necessarily acquired full missiles, but nevertheless is highly suggestive that Iran had access to technology from the R-27.

(2) On the other hand, there is a strong case that North Korea acquired complete missiles (or the components needed to build them), and Russia needs to address this possibility. It’s true these haven’t shown up as the “mythical” BM-25 missile. But the North Korean Unha-2 launcher, which was fired in April 2009 in an unsuccessful attempt to place a satellite in orbit, uses a second stage that appears essentially identical to the R-27 in dimensions and performance (see figure). The Unha’s third stage appears to be the same as the Safir upper stage, which as noted above may use components of the R-27.

This figure shows a drawing of the Unha-2 launcher based on measurements from launch photos, and the R-27 to the same scale. (Source: Ted Postol)

The R-27 missile – used as a submarine-launched missile by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s – is a very efficient, lightweight design that uses more advanced fuels than North Korea has previously been seen to use. Our modeling shows that using the known characteristics of the R-27 can account for the performance of the Unha-2 in its April 2009 test.

It appears from the cable that the United States believes the Unha-2 instead uses a modified Nodong missile, presumably with a lightweight casing, as the second stage. (The United States reportedly said it has not seen any new technology associated with the missile.) However, a Nodong does not seem to match the observed dimensions or the performance of this stage as well as the R-27. It would be interesting to see the analysis the U.S. bases this on.

If the Unha-2 second stage is a modified R-27, since North Korea had not previously flight tested this stage and yet it seemed to work successfully in the Unha-2 launch, I take this as strong evidence that it was a system produced and tested by the Soviets, rather than a system built by North Korea – either from reverse engineering or use of Soviet production equipment.

The IISS report on Iran’s missile program notes that the prototype Iranian Simorgh launcher appears to have a 1.5 m diameter second stage, and that this may mean  Iran is planning to use an R-27 for this stage.

Besides the evidence discussed above, the U.S. reportedly told the Russians that countries have provided direct evidence in the information exchanged under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) of the transfer of the BM-25 from North Korea to Iran. It’s not clear exactly what that means, but hopefully Russia has asked for clarification.

There is certainly not an airtight case here for transfers of the R-27. But if U.S. and Russian experts are meeting to have frank exchanges about these missile issues, I would hope Russia is taking this possibility more seriously than it seems to be.

Finally, to put things into perspective it’s worth noting that while the Safir and Unha-2 are capable of placing small payloads into orbit, they are still small compared to typical intercontinental range missiles (ICBMs). The Unha-2 is three times as massive as the Safir. And the first Chinese ICBM – which also used storable liquid fuels – was twice as massive as the Unha-2.