The new WikiLeaks documents show that Iran has been hunting for missile technology all over the world, seeking to buy gyroscopes, jet vanes and metals, and perhaps whole missiles from North Korea. But Iran also has experienced great difficulty building longer range missiles. Why? Some clues can be found in one of the most interesting documents just released, a briefing that Russian officials gave their American counterparts on Iran's progress, or lack of it.
A summary of the Dec. 22, 2009 meeting was marked "secret" but tumbled out on Sunday in the reams of memos released by WikiLeaks and major news organizations. Fourteen Russian and 15 U.S. government officials compared notes that day about missile threats from Iran and North Korea.
Judging by the summary, it was a lively back and forth, during which the Russians claimed the threat from Iran's missiles is not as great as some have predicted in the United States. The size and nature of the threat is important because it undergirds the U.S. plans for a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defense system.
The Russians were prepared to talk "seriously" with the U.S. group, the summary says. Their message was Iran is struggling to lengthen the range of missiles that could carry heavy loads, such as a one-ton nuclear warhead, that might threaten the region or beyond. The Russians said their basic conclusion is that "Iran's ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward developing combat ready missiles to address regional concerns," not targets like the United States.
This was also the assessment made in May by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the December meeting, there was a sharp disagreement about the U.S. claim that North Korea sold to Iran a batch of 19 missiles, known as the BM-25. The transfer was first reported publicly in 2006; the BM-25 missile is supposedly based on a Soviet naval ballistic missile design, the R-27, known in the West as the SS-N-6. This missile was first developed in the 1960s and later modernized; it was in service in the Soviet Union until 1988. Iran has not tested any of the missiles it imported. The U.S. officials speculated that Iran may have purchased it to reverse-engineer the technology (although North Korea has been known to ship parts, expertise and manufacturing facilities as well as the missiles themselves.) The U.S. officials said photos of the Iranian space launch rocket, the Safir, show an engine which looks like the one on the R-27, as well as fuel tanks and welds that resemble it. The U.S. officials said they had received "direct evidence" of the missile transfer from North Korea to Iran.
But the Russians strongly dismissed the BM-25 as a mirage, according to the summary. They said Iran would not have purchased an untested missile, and they doubted whether it even existed. "For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile," the summary says. "Russia does not think the BM-25 exists." They asked why North Korea would sell an untested missile; the Americans responded: for cash.
Both the Russians and Americans acknowledged the limitations of Iran's older, liquid-fueled missiles, based on the Soviet Scud and its modifications, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Shahab-3. Both sides also seemed to agree that the Safir is not a military threat because of the small size of the payload.
The key issue is Iran's pursuit of more modern and powerful solid-fuel missiles that could hit medium-range targets, such as those in the Middle East or Europe. Iran has been working on such a missile, called the Sajjil-2, which it has flight tested. (See my earlier post about it.) In the meeting, U.S. officials were more worried about this than the Russians, who said Iran continues to stumble with solid fuel technology. "In Russia's view, Iran appears to be having very serious problems with engine development," the summary says. U.S. officials countered that Iran has a decade of experience with short-range missiles using solid fuel, importing equipment from China, and could now extend it to larger missiles.
The Russians said Iran was a long way from building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States. "Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum," the summary says. "Iran can build prototypes, but in order to be a threat to the U.S. or Russia, Iran needs to produce missiles in mass quantities, and it lacks materials sufficient for the type of mass production needed to be a security threat. Russia further noted that the technology for longer-range missiles is sophisticated and difficult to master."
At another point, the Russians said they think the North Koreans are working on a new, 100-ton capacity rocket engine using older technology, clustering the motors or stacking them. But Russia said the technology hasn't been actually spotted.
AFP/Getty Images; from Iran's ISNA agency, the two-stage solid-fuel missile, Dec. 16, 2009
Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker has posted online his report (pdf) from a recent visit to North Korea in which he was shown a new uranium enrichment facility. This is an important development. North Korea previously had taken the plutonium route to building a bomb. Now, it appears they have turned to uranium. Is the new facility really intended to make low-enriched uranium, fuel for a reactor to provide badly-needed electricity, as the North claims, or are they pursuing highly-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons? There's no conclusive answer, but Hecker's report is worth reading. He's a skilled expert who has made previous trips to North Korea and knows the technology. He describes a tour in which he saw a modern facility with centrifuges needed to enrich uranium to higher levels. Hecker says there are a host of new questions, but one thing is certain, "these revelations will cause a political firestorm."
The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning. Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us.... The control room was astonishingly modern. Unlike the reprocessing facility and reactor control room, which looked like 1950s or 1980s Soviet instrumentation, this control room would fit into any modern American processing facility.... I expressed surprise that they were apparently able to get cascades of 2,000 centrifuges working so quickly, and asked again if the facility is actually operating now--we were given an emphatic, yes. We were not able to independently verify this, although it was not inconsistent with what we saw.... A North Korean uranium enrichment program has long been suspected. I believe they started early, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, but then did not try to accelerate the effort until their dealings with A. Q. Khan in the 1990s. However, the 2,000-centrifuge capability significantly exceeds my estimates and those of most other analysts.
Update: The Institute for Science and International Security has some interesting satellite photos here.
North Korea has proven adept at selling missiles around the world -- to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, among others. Most of them are modified Soviet-era Scud missiles, but for many years, there’s been speculation about the North Korean modifications. How did a country so poor manage to reverse-engineer and manufacture a complex missile?
Now, Robert H. Schmucker and Markus Schiller of Germany have come up with an answer: the North Koreans didn’t do it on their own. In a draft paper just posted at the missile proliferation blog Capabilities times Intentions, the two experts argue that North Korea managed to procure the technology from the former Soviet Union and Russia.
They don’t offer proof, but their paper is likely to raise questions once again about how much know-how and how many rocket scientists leaked to Pyonyang as the Soviet Union imploded. In The Dead Hand, I described how the Russian authorities stopped a group of designers:
In one extraordinary case, North Korea attempted to recruit an entire missile design bureau: in 1993, the specialists at the V. P. Makeyev Design Bureau in the city of Miass, near Chelyabinsk, were invited to travel to Pyongyang. The bureau designed submarine launched missiles, but military orders had dried up. Through a middleman, North Korea recruited the designers, who were told they would be building rockets to send civilian satellites into space. One of them, Yuri Bessarabov, told the newspaper Moscow News that he earned less than workers at a local dairy, while the Koreans were offering $1,200 a month. About twenty of the designers and their families were preparing to fly out of Moscow’s international airport in December when they were stopped by the Russian authorities and sent home. “That was the first case when we noticed the North Korean attempts to steal missile technology,” a retired federal security agent said years later in an interview. If you look at a missile, the security agent said, the North Koreans recruited a specialist to help them with every section, from nose cone to engine.
In their draft paper, Schmucker and Shiller speculate that other Russian experts and some leftover Soviet-era missiles may have nonetheless made it to North Korea. “All of the North Korean missiles were procured from Russia or at least realized with foreign support,” they write. They don’t point fingers at the Russian government, but “a connection to Russian institutions.”
“Much happens in dark alleys,” they note, recalling how Saddam Hussein’s representitive bought missile guidance gyroscopes from a Russian military institute.
Schmucker is one of the world’s leading specialists on missile technology, and the paper argues that it was impossible for North Korea to make great progress by reverse engineering a few Soviet and Russian designs. “Reverse engineering is so difficult that there is not one single proven example for successfully reverse-engineered missiles and rockets,” he writes. And it might be especially difficult in a country so impoverished and troubled as North Korea.
Schmucker is not the first to suspect that North Korea drew on the Soviet and Russian rocket technology. Others have also speculated about it in the past. In the case of Iran, some of the Russian engineers talked openly about going to Tehran. So far, there is no solid evidence of a similar underground railroad of engineers showing up in Pyongyang. But Schmucker and Shiller say this is the only possibile explanation for North Korea’s missile arsenal. The weapons and technology were procured by North Korea, which then successfully sold them on to others.
Proliferation in, proliferation out.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.