February 5, 2009

Iranian satellite launch - a wake up call

Iranian satellite launch - click for larger imageIranian TV coverage of satellite launch (click for larger image)

On February 3, Iran launched its first domestically-produced satellite into orbit on a Safir (Ambassador) launch vehicle. The launch was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Iran has at least one other satellite in orbit, but that was launched for them by the Russians.

The fact that Iran has a presence in space in and of itself is not alarming - it is the demonstration of the technologies required to put a satellite into orbit that is causing concern in the West, and for sure in Tel Aviv.

A two stage launch vehicle is basically an intermediate range ballistic missile without a guidance system. Instead of carrying a warhead that falls to earth, the launch vehicle carries a satellite into orbit. One can be used for the other. The U.S. Air Force has used decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles to place satellites in orbit.

This is reminiscent of the so-called Iraqi space launch program in 1989. Proud of their efforts, Iraqi engineers televised the first test launch. Prominently displayed on the control console in Arabic was the designator "Project 144/2." Of course, to most people that meant nothing. To U.S intelligence analysts, Project 144/2 was the Iraqi ballistic missile program. We surmised at the time that the space launch vehicle was nothing more than a long range missile project.

One of the failures of the Iraqi program was the inability to properly fire the second stage of the vehicle. Multistage rockets/missiles are required for longer ranges. The Iranians do not have this problem - they acquired much of the required technology from the North Koreans. Most of Iran's missile designs are copies of North Korean systems. The North Koreans have the know-how, and Iran has the money.

Not only is Iran intent of continuing its nuclear research program - which most analysts believe is leading to the development of a nuclear weapon - it seems committed to the development of longer range delivery systems that threaten Israel and beyond.

The Europeans are concerned about Iran's nuclear weapons program and the missile delivery systems being developed, and probably more likely to support the deployment of an American anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.