Iranian military satellite launchers can be retooled to handle ballistic missiles, think tank IISS warns

IRGC using the launch to bolster its prestige as institutions vie for power

This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News shows Iranian General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, during the launch of a military satellite -- dubbed the Nour --  which the Revolutionary Guards said on April 22, 2020 was launched from the Qassed two-stage launcher in the Markazi desert, a vast expanse in Iran's central plateau, amid tensions with US. - Iran's Revolutionary Guards announced on April 22 that they had successfully launched the country's first military satellite, at a time of fresh tensions with US forces in the Gulf. The United States alleges Iran's satellite programme is a cover for its development of missiles, while the Islamic republic has previously insisted its aerospace activities comply with its international obligations. (Photo by - / SEPAH NEWS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Iran's Revolutionary Guard via SEPAH NEWS" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Iran’s satellite launchers could be “easily modified” into ballistic missiles following the first successful mission of a military orbiter, an international think tank has warned.

The chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also claimed that the first launch of a military satellite takes the country’s spying capabilities to the "next level".

His words come as the IRGC seeks use the success to boost its influence in Iran’s internal power struggle after the government suffered criticism for its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

A reconfigured Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), using solid-fuel motors of a Sejil medium range missile, could send a rocket armed with a 1,000kg payload for a distance of 2,500km, according to a report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The range would bring much of central Europe within range as well as large parts of China and all India.

Solid fuel motors also posed much more of a threat, the report warned. “Herein lies an emerging concern about the IRGC’s nascent space programme. Solid-fuel motors are more compact than their liquid-fuel counterparts. They are also simpler to deploy, transport and launch.”

The solid-fuel systems were not only the military’s preferred choice for ballistic missiles but also demonstrated that the launch vehicles could be “more easily modified for use as a ballistic missile”.

Although no other military has yet turned a liquid-fuel SLV into a ballistic rocket, both Israel and India have converted solid-fuel launchers into missiles.

“Iran could do the same over the next five to ten years if the IRGC space programme continues unabated,” said the report author Mike Elleman, IISS Director of Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme.

To prevent Iran developing an intercontinental range missile which would bring America within range, a deal is urgently needed to be negotiated for satellite launches.

"To reduce the risk of the Islamic Republic from developing an intercontinental-range missile capability under the guise of space-launch activities, the international community must negotiate a compromise that permits Iran to launch satellites for peaceful purposes, but prohibits the use of solid-fuel motors larger than the Sejil's first stage," the report stated.

The successful mission marked the first time Iran’s military has carried out a satellite launch. All previous attempts were made by the civilian space arm, the Iranian Space Agency, which suffered a series of mishaps. The military satellite is currently orbiting 440km above the Earth.

Following the April 22 launch, the Guard’s commander-in-chief, Major General Hossein Salami, said it was “a strategic achievement” that took Iran’s defence and information gathering capabilities to the next level.

The officer, who regularly targets America, Israel and Saudi Arabia in aggressive speeches, said it was a new step in Iran’s quest to enhance its regional and global power.

The IISS confirmed the launch was a “powerful message of defiance” to the US and Gulf States particularly at a time when Iran was apparently suffering from very low oil prices and the assassination of the Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani in January.