Iran sets sights on Russia's hypersonic missile technology

War in Ukraine could lead to proliferation of cheap and accurate weapons, report on conflict warns

Army vehicles firing missiles during a drill in Isfahan province, central Iran. A new report warns that Russia could pass on its hypersonic missile technology to Tehran. EPA
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Russia’s advanced hypersonic missile technology is top of a possible list of technology transfers wanted for Iran’s rocket programme, as its expansion is set to present major threats to the Gulf region, an influential think tank has reported.

A proliferation of missile and drone warfare in Ukraine has created a growing two-way market between Tehran and Moscow, which is now delivering technological advances for the Iranian programme, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fuelled a global buying spree for cheap, accurate missiles that will threaten international stability, the IISS warned. In reference to the US electronics retail chain Radio Shack, the report says adaptation of civilian software can be used to control weaponry as advanced as cruise missiles.

Iran’s help in supplying Russia with hundreds of kamikaze drones has demonstrated to less wealthy states and potentially terrorists that they can strike targets at distance with accuracy, said the Russia’s War in Ukraine: Ballistic and Cruise Trajectories report.

The Ukraine conflict, alongside weapons supplied by Iran to Yemen's Houthi rebels, has shown that manufacturing long-range, precision munitions “is relatively easy and inexpensive”.

Weapons that can use “dual-capable technology” are available on the open market, including “the so-called Radio Shack cruise missile”, such as the Iranian 351/Quds.

The IISS reported a “bleak outlook” on whether current international arms-control treaties would curtail an uncontrolled expansion in precision missiles.

Hypersonic Iran

Before the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin had boasted of the astonishing capabilities of the Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, with alleged speeds of Mach 10, or 12,300kph, although some reports suggested it was a third of that.

Up to 10 Kinzhals have been shot down by Ukraine’s air defences but Russia is now likely “redoubling” its efforts to get the speed to at least Mach 5 and increase the weapon’s “survivability” from air defences.

“In turn this may encourage other states to follow suit, or to try to access Russian technology or systems,” the report’s authors wrote. “Tehran has already claimed it is pursuing supersonic missile technology, and Moscow could offer a path to expediting this.”

The Ukraine war has for the first time featured the large-scale operation of attack drones, in particular the Iranian Shahed 136, which has deepened the working relationship between Russia and Iran.

“Co-operation on the latter is drawing Moscow and Tehran closer together, with uncomfortable implications for many countries concerned as to the destabilising behaviour of the two states,” the report warned.

“Moscow’s use of the Iranian Shahed-136 direct attack munition, furthermore, will almost certainly encourage others to seek similar weapons as an entry-point for a long-range land-attack capability.”

Ukraine drone threat

The situation in Ukraine has led to a new form of warfare, in which attack drones are playing a major role in destroying people, equipment and infrastructure.

Ukraine has used kamikaze drones, driven by an operator wearing goggles – known as First Person View – to take out infantry in trenches, armoured vehicles and buildings. Russia has belatedly developed its own FPVs, which is likely to influence rogue states or extremists drawn in by “the shrewdness of this approach” in getting around sophisticated defences.

The success of Ukraine’s western-supplied air defences against cruise missiles, which fly low and at relatively low speed while avoiding radar detection, will mean greater research into their survivability.

“Options include greater numbers, greater stealth and greater speed, alongside supplementing cruise missiles with lower-cost, higher-volume decoys or direct attack munitions to try to overcome ground-based air defence.”

States that in the past struggled to buy precision weapons, either due to their complexity or export controls, will now be able to manufacture them, the report warned. Technological advances allow rogue states to clear these barriers.

“The spread of the technology, the ubiquity of the components and the low cost of assembly and employment likely will drive a boom in ‘cheap and cheerful’ systems across the globe with little prospect for international controls,” the report warned.

“Moscow’s war will almost certainly further fuel the demand for long-range conventionally armed land-attack cruise missiles and pique greater interest in direct attack munitions among state and non-state actors.”

Ebbing influence of treaties

The weapons expansion comes at a time when the arms control for ballistic and cruise missiles has “already been greatly eroded”.

“The remaining mechanisms for managing the spread of such systems have never been more ill-suited for the task,” the report said.

“Ultimately, Russia’s war in Ukraine will have wide ramifications for existing arms- and export-control regimes, as certain types of guided weapons become both more attractive and increasingly available.”

Traditional arms control treaties will rapidly become redundant with the profusion of “Radio Shack” cruise missiles and with any future agreement needing to address their presence.

This had created a “bleak outlook for the future control of such missile systems”, the report said, adding that the falling cost of weapons suggested an “easy possibility of proliferation”.

Updated: November 09, 2023, 1:22 PM