Iran Touts Big Ballistic Missile And Lightweight Solid Fuel Rocket Motor Leaps

The technology could lead to new and improved ballistic missile designs with greater reliability, flexibility, and added range.

Iranian television capture

Iran has unveiled a new short-range ballistic missile, the Raad 500, which it says it both lighter and has a longer range than similar existing weapons in the country's arsenal. A new, lightweight, solid-fuel rocket motor, which also offers added reliability and flexibility over liquid fuel types, is at the heart of the design, technology that Iranian officials say they plan to utilize in other ballistic missiles, as well as space launch vehicles, in the future.

Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) showed off the Raad 500, along with its Zohair rocket motor, also written Zoheir, during a televised ceremony on Feb. 9, 2020. IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami and Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC's Aerospace Force, also revealed the Salman rocket motor, which is a derivative of the Zohair they said was intended for space launch vehicles.

As its name suggests, the Raad 500 reportedly has a range of 500 kilometers, or approximately 310 miles. This is more than twice that of the solid-fuel Fateh-110, one of the more ubiquitous short-range ballistic missile designs presently in Iranian service. 

Iran already has a longer-range derivative of the Fateh-110 family, Zulfiqar, which reportedly has a range of just under 435 miles. However, the IRGC also says that the Raad 500 is half the weight of the Fateh-110, which gives it a significantly greater power-to-weight ratio than the previous design.

The Zohair rocket motor appears to be the key factor in achieving these improvements. It uses a wound filament case, rather than a metal one, substantially reducing its weight. Video footage from the event suggests that the Raad 500's overall body may be of a similar and equally lightweight construction. 

All of this means that the rocket motor has to propel less weight, translating to a longer range. This, in turn, would allow Iranian forces to employ these missiles at targets that are outside the range of the existing Fateh-110 or even Zulfiqar, or fire these weapons from sites deeper within Iran making it harder for an opponent to monitor those activities or attempt to launch a pre-emptive strike before a launch. Missiles with solid-fuel rocket motors, rather than liquid fuel ones, are already safer to handle and easier to prepare to fire.

It also increases the available payload capacity, which could allow for larger and more complex warheads. The IRGC says that the Raad 500 has a maneuverable re-entry vehicle on top, which would increase the weapon's accuracy. With an appropriate guidance package, such as one including an imaging infrared sensor, it could also potentially engage slowly moving targets, such as aircraft carriers and large warships. 

In 2018, Iran had unveiled a version of the Fateh-110, the Fateh Mobin, which it claimed was an anti-ship variant. The threat of Iranian ballistic missile barrages already represents a known threat to foreign naval activites, especially those of the United States, in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the strategic Strait of Hormuz that links those two bodies of water together.

Iran already has a substantial arsenal of ballistic missile types, including both solid and liquid-fuel designs. It has increasingly shown a willingness to employ these weapons. Most recently, in January 2020, the IRGC launched unprecedented ballistic missile strikes aimed at American troops in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. government's decision to kill Qasem Soliemani, then head of Iran's Quds Force, in Baghdad that same month. Iran employed variants or derivatives of the solid-fuel Fateh-110, possibly Zulfiqars, as well as Qiam liquid fuel short-range ballistic missiles, in those strikes. U.S.-Iranian tensions had already been building for months and remain high.

The benefits of the wound filament motors and other rocket components, as well as new and advanced solid-fuel rocket motors, could easily be applied to derivatives of other existing Iranian ballistic missile designs to give them enhanced capabilities. They could also lead to the development of all new missiles. The IRGC said that Salman rocket motor, which is related to the Zohair, but has a thrust vectoring capability, would go into a new, future space launch vehicle. Thrust vectoring could also have applications for offensive weapons.

The IRGC's public acknowledgment of a link between technology developed for Iran's ballistic missiles and space launch rockets for its ostensible civilian space program is notable in of itself. Iranian authorities for years have denied accusations from various countries, especially the United States and Israel, that its space launch developments are a cover for work on longer-range ballistic missiles. The technology required for ballistic missile and space launch vehicles is not entirely the same, but they do share various physical components and technical experience from one can inform research and development into the other.

Though there is no indication that the two events were directly related, the IRGC rolled out the Raad 500, Zohair, and Salman following the country's third failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit in just over a year. Iranian officials claimed that the liquid-fueled Simorgh space launch vehicle functioned as intended in this latest case, but that the satellite onboard failed to reach orbit. Iran has described the launch as a partial success that provides valuable data and experience for future space launch developments.

It's also interesting to note that North Korea, which, like Iran, is also subject to extensive international sanctions, has made significant strides in the development of solid-fuel rocket motor and wound filament rocket component technology in recent years. While, at present, there is no evidence of Pyongyang's involvement in the development of the Raad 500, Iran's liquid-fuel Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile, which emerged in 2017, is very similar visually to the North Korean BM-25, also known as the Hwasong-10. There are also links between the two countries in the design of other missiles, as well as space launch vehicles. 

Regardless of the exact origins of the technology, the Raad 500 shows clearly that Iran continues to invest substantial resources, despite crippling sanctions, into its ballistic missile programs. It also shows that those efforts are producing significant results, despite Iran's often laughable propaganda surrounding claimed military and other technological achievements.

It's not clear how close the Raad 500 may be to representing a real, operational capability for Iran, but it, along with the Zohair and Slaman rocket motors, are indicators that more major Iranian missile, as well as space launch vehicle, developments are on the horizon.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com