Could Iran's Missiles Do the Unthinkable: Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier?
The next threat the navy has to worry about?
On the morning of January 20, 2019, a six-by-six Mercedes-Benz truck in al-Kiswah, Syria crewed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps began elevating a missile mounted on its back into firing position. Once the nearly nine-meter long missile attained a roughly seventy-degree angle, it solid-fuel rocket blasted it on an arcing trajectory towards Mount Hermon, twenty-miles to the west on the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Height.
Skiers vacationing at the ski-resort there could see the contrails of the Fateh-110 (“Conqueror”) missile streaking towards them at three times the speed of sound (video here.)
However, the missile was also detected by Israeli radars. As Israel’s David’s Sling anti-ballistic missile system was not yet operational, the IDF made do with the Iron Dome, a system designed for swatting slower, unguided artillery shells and rockets. Two Tamir interceptor missiles rocketed over snowboarders towards the Fateh missile at Mach 2, switched to electro-optical sensors for terminal guidance and destroyed it.
Israeli website Debka claims the attack was ordered by the head of the Iranian Quds force, General Qassam Suleimani, as a means to test Israeli defenses. Later that day, the IDF retaliated with an intense series of strikes in Syria detailed in this earlier article.
The domestically-developed Fateh-110 is not Iran’s longest-range missile, but it has nonetheless spearheaded a succession of missile strikes targeting Tehran’s foes since 2017.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran relied upon Soviet Scud-B missile purchased from Libya (20), North Korea (120, plus 150 more post-war) and Syria (12) to retaliate against Iraq’s larger ballistic missile force. Afterwards, North Korea assisted Iran in setting up production of a domestic Scud-variant called the Shahib-1. However, the Shahib and its successors are liquid-fuel rockets which required days to gas up, limiting their reactivity and leaving them vulnerable to preemptive strikes.
Starting in 1995, Iranian engineers began developing the first Fateh missile by adapting an unguided Zelzal-2 610-millimeter long-range artillery rocket, itself a reverse-engineered Soviet Luna-M “FROG” rocket. Chinese experts assisted with installing an inertial guidance system and maneuvering fins to allow the rocket to make course corrections.
The initial Fateh missile tested in 2001 had a range of only 130 miles. In the following decade, Iran built and tested three additional generations of improved Fateh-110A, Fateh-110B (or Mod 3) and 110D1 models, eventually boosting range to 180 miles and improving accuracy using GPS-guidance. The Fateh’s payload ranges in size from a 990 to 1,433-pound warhead. Its accuracy remains debated, with claims that a Fateh will land on average within either 100 or 250 meters of its designated target.
A 2017 report assessed a total of one hundred Iranian Fateh launchers in service with the IRGC Aerospace Force. Like the Scud tactical missiles which Iraq used to bombard Israel and Saudi Arabi during the 1991 Gulf War, the truck-mounted Fateh can be moved and fired on short notice, making it survivable versus preemptive attacks.
However, the missile’s limited range meant that the Fateh could only be used against countries bordering Iran. However, Tehran has also sold the Fateh-110A design for domestic manufacture in Syria under the name M-600 Tisheree. Syria began using M-600s to attack anti-Assad rebels starting in 2012.
Since 2007, Damascus and Iran have also transferred Fateh-110s and M-600s to Hezbollah, leading Israel to repeatedly bomb missile transfers because it views solid-fuel ballistic missiles as potential game-changers.
Iran’s Carrier-Killing Missiles?
The Fateh has spawned a bewildering variety of successors. In 2015 Tehran unveiled the lighter steel/titanium composite Fateh-313 with 310 mile range. Then in August 2018 it announced the Fateh-Mobin (“Bright Conqueror”), which has an infrared-seeker for terminal guidance, and claimed radar-evasive features—though such features were not discernible in the image shown to the public.
In 2011, Iran also unveiled an anti-ship version of the Fateh-110 called the Khalij Fars (“Persian Gulf”), ostensibly equipped an electro-optical seeker to allow it hit to home in on a moving naval target, though photographic evidence is unclear on that. An Iranian article claims that in a 2013 test, the missile struck a moving naval target with eight-meters of accuracy (recording here).
Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) are rare and difficult to defend against. China’s development of DF-21D and DF-26 ASBMs has raised concerns about the survivability of aircraft carriers. The Khalij Fars, however, has one-quarter the DF-21’s range at 190 to 220 miles, and relatedly a lower maximum speed of Mach 3 compared to the DF-21’s Mach 10, making it easier to intercept. Like the Chinese missiles, the Khalij Fars would also require external reconnaissance assets to provide initial target-cueing for its inertial guidance system. However, the Khalij Far’s limitations are significantly mitigated by the fact that the Persian Gulf is quite confined, with only between 25 to 250 miles separating the western and eastern shores.
Iran also claims to have developed a Mach 4 anti-radiation variant called the Hormuz-1 and Hormuz-2 which are designed to home-in on land- and sea-based radars respectively. If real, these would be the world’s first anti-radiation ballistic missiles.
In 2016, Iran also showed off a modernized “Zolfaghar” variant of the Fateh capable of carrying thirty thirty-seven-pound submunitions, and with a purported range of 434 miles—enough to strike Riyadh from Iranian soil. Later photos suggested the Zolfaghar was made of up filament-wound fiber to reduce weight, thereby increasing range.
Skepticism of the Zolfaghar’s reach was largely quashed on June 18–19, 2017 when in retaliation for a terrorist attack on the Iranian parliament that killed eighteen, the IRGC fired six Zolfaghars targeting ISIS-held Mayadin, Syria. The missiles were launched 370 miles away in Kermanshah, Iran—the first missile strike launched from Iranian territory since 2001.
Despite Tehran’s claims that all six missiles landed on target, however, the strike’s accuracy was questionable. An assessment by Jane’s suggests only one or two missiles landed in Mayadeen—hitting an open field, causing no casualties. The IDF reported that three missiles landed in Iraq (the border is over forty miles away.) An Iranian general later claimed the Iraqi explosions were casings jettisoned by the missiles prior to impact.
Then on September 8, 2018, two months after the IRGC lost ten soldiers in a border skirmish with Kurdish separatists, Iran launched seven Fateh-110B missiles on another cross-border strike targeting the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran, located in Koya, Iraq. This far deadlier attack killed eighteen Kurds and injured at least fifty. Footage of the strike released by Iranian media depicts two missiles striking a compound, suggesting greater precision.
Finally, on October 1, 2018—a week after gunmen massacred twenty-five in an Iranian military parade—the IRGC launched a third cross-border salvo: six Fateh-110 and medium-range Qiam missiles targeting the ISIS-held town of al-Bukamal, Syria. However, two of the Qiam missiles may have crashed during launch (the IRGC claims otherwise). Iran claims the strike killed twenty-five ISIS fighters, but locals and the U.S. military reported the strike inflicted no damage.
The succession of Fateh strikes in the last nineteen months signal a new willingness by Tehran to use its ballistic missiles—both those on home soil and deployed to Syria—to pressure adversaries across the Middle East.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: U.S. Government