The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) last week released a landmark report analyzing the capabilities of Iran’s military. In light of Iran’s September attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia, the report’s emphasis on Tehran’s expanding cruise missile capabilities has already proven to be prescient.
The DIA’s new report, titled Iran Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance, highlights Tehran’s development of land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). The report notes that Tehran “has invested heavily in its domestic infrastructure, equipment, and expertise” to develop increasingly capable cruise missiles.
Tehran’s investment of its limited resources in LACMs is not surprising, given the challenges LACMs create for opposing air defense forces. The DIA notes that LACMs “present a unique threat profile from ballistic missiles because they can fly at low altitude and attack a target from multiple directions.”
This low and unpredictable flight path utilizes ground features for concealment and makes it more difficult to detect and track the cruise missile – essential precursors to intercepting it. The September attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais demonstrated the value of such concealment; Iran reportedly used seven cruise missiles (along with 18 drones) to target the Saudi installations from an unexpected direction.
Significantly, the DIA report’s “information cutoff date” was August – before the September attack. This underscores the speed with which threats are evolving, and the need for redoubled U.S. efforts to understand emerging threats in order to prepare for and offset them.
According to the DIA, Iran’s cruise and ballistic missiles are developed by a subsidiary of Tehran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, the Aerospace Industries Organization. Both the ministry and its subsidiary are subject to EU sanctions, which expire in 2023, as well as to U.S. sanctions, which have no expiration date.
In addition to drawing on Iran’s domestic missile production capacity, Tehran’s cruise missile programs have benefitted extensively from foreign procurement. Iran’s LACM capability is primarily derived from the Soviet Kh-55, an air-launched cruise missile that Tehran imported in 2001 and later converted for ground-launch. This Iranian copy of the Kh-55, dubbed the Soumar, may have been involved in the Abqaiq attacks. Iran has continued to upgrade the Soumar, both for itself and its regional proxies and partners.
The DIA report notes that a key modernization goal of Iran’s armed forces is to “[i]ncrease the accuracy, lethality, and production of ballistic and cruise missiles.” The report curiously omits range, which Iranian defense officials have recently touted alongside accuracy as a goal of their cruise missile program.
Iran does have other cruise missile variants, such as anti-ship cruise missiles, which feature prominently in Tehran’s maritime strategy in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. It also has air-launched and reportedly even submarine-launched cruise missiles, though their operational capacities are unknown. Nonetheless, LACMs like the Soumar and its variants fit neatly with Tehran’s interest in surface-to-surface missiles that function simultaneously as weapons of war and intimidation.
Given Iran’s dangerous missile use and expanding capabilities, policymakers should seek to sanction Iran’s domestic missile supply chain and foreign nodes for procurement. At the same time, the United States should expedite and deepen cooperation with key partners such as Israel to expeditiously field more effective cruise missile defense systems to protect both forward deployed American troops and the U.S. homeland.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Bradley Bowman is senior director of CMPP. For more of their policy briefs, op-eds, and research, subscribe HERE. For more from CMPP, subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.