Iran Unveils Underground Ballistic Missile Launch Silos
Iran recently announced the commencement of the 'Great Prophet 6' wargames which will involve the firing of many types of surface-to-surface missiles like the Shahab-1/2, Khalij Fars, Fateh-110, Sejil and Qiam by the IRGC. This is the latest in the series of 'Great Prophet' wargames which often involve large-scale exercises by the IRGC that often vary in type of training, from coastal defence to special forces deployment to missile testing.
Pictures of the exercise have yet to come in, but the trend with previous exercises indicates that they will be posted online eventually. However the timing of this announcement was also paired with the announcement that Iran was deploying ballistic missiles in underground silo launch facilities. More importantly, this announcement was paired with a video tour of the facility, a remarkable insight!
Youtube Video (In Persian): http://youtu.be/oKPjXp7u6VI
Article and Screenshots (In Persian): http://www.militaryparsi.ir/news-service/160-news/533-irannews.html
Previously, it has been hypothesized that Iran had deployed missiles in silos due to overhead imagery courtesy of google earth. The most well know potential facility is located south, south-west of the city of Tabriz and was was first uncovered in the open-source community (to the best of my knowledge) by, friend of the Arkenstone, Sean O'Conner at "IMINT&Analysis". Unfortunately the original article is no longer accessible but a description of the facility can be found on Wikimapia.
A second class of underground facilities can be found missile storage compounds across the country, from Kermanshah, to Khorromabad, to possibly Isfahan. These do not have the characteristic qualities of the other silos but are associated with missile storage and hardened underground construction, so it's not out of the question. An example of this imagery from the city of Kermanshah can be found on this blog. However there is no consensus on these structures identity as of yet.
According to the video, Iran reportedly has had this capability for 15 years - since 1996.
However, the identity of the site shown in the video is unknown. The reporter is flown out of Tehran in a Lockheed L-1329 Jetstar VIP transport aircraft with blocked out windows - the first visual indicator of heightened security. The flight, according to the video, takes 1.5 hours which could put it pretty much anywhere along the western border depending on any number of things including airspeed, route taken, altitude flown, etc.
The van drives right up to the doorway of the underground facility before the reporter is allowed to disembark, another indicator of high operational-security. One notable feature however is the presence of camouflage netting on the above-ground building which indicates some effort at concealment. This assertion is backed up by the fact that the actual entranceway into the facility is rather mundane. It's a single case of spiral-stairway descending from a simple doorway directly into the main hallway without so much as a checkpoint, metal detector, or blast door.
After descending the main staircase, the reporter and his escort are deposited directly in the main hallway which is lined with painted murals and brightly lit by flourescent lights. The hallway slightly slopes downward, continuing for probably around 75-100 m (estimate) when it takes a gentle turn to the left and slopes down further.
The video then cuts to a shot of them walking down a stair-case which may or may not start from where the hallway mentioned above disappears from view. At the bottom of the stair-case is a landing with a very interesting picture on display. The picture is of a team of IRGC soldiers fuelling a missile during the Iran-Iraq war, but because of a fouled mechanism the soldiers are having the fuel the missile with nothing more then a bucket; a task I'm certainly not envious of.
Immediately adjacent to this landing on the left-hand-side is a large blast door leading into the actual silo itself. The silo houses a Shahab-3A missile though the silo is notably wider and taller then the Shahab-3 stationed in it which indicates the possibility that the silo has been built with future expansion in mind. This is supported by a brief mention in the MilitaryParsi article above though it's unclear if this is official information or pure speculation.
Also shown is test footage which shows a Shahab-3 being fired from an underground silo. However, certain indicators point to it taking place at another facility, or at least another location then the silo toured. The initial boosting of the missile out of the silo shows that the underground facility in the test is far more spacious with the entire space around the missile pad hollowed out. It's also worth noting that in the small second we got an area shot of the silo doors, the surrounding area looked like it was not significantly built-up which in turn increases the possibility that it's a camouflaged facility.
While the purely technical value of this development shouldn't be excluded from discussion about these silos, far more important in my opinion is the strategic value from such a confirmation.
This is primarily because no non-nuclear country that I know of deploys silo-based ballistic missiles, the implicit point being that this indicates Iran was working on, or is now working on a nuclear weapons program. The logic behind such a statement being that silos aren't useful on the conventional battlefield. It's static nature means that they'll never be able to manoeuvre to bring targets within range or to evade air assets tasked with their destruction. The last one is particularly important; while a successfully disguised silo base would be able to fire at least a salvo of missiles before being detected they would be prime targets after that and it's unlikely a large base could reliably manage to conceal itself against all forms of surveillance. Furthermore, the costs invested into a full-time facility complete with staff and construction costs would be far greater then even a great number of TELs and with a limited potential rate of fire and inability to resist bunker-busting PGM strikes after detection, it would be unlikely that the high initial cost would ever be offset in a conventional conflict. The primary advantages of using a silo-based system, which is near-immediate reaction time, is nullified in most cases in a conventional war because it is unlikely that the time saved, up to a couple hours would prove decisive, especially when comparing them to mobile TELs and the likely disciplined training that IRGC missile units go through.
These advantages, rapid reaction and survivability however become much more important when talking about them in context of nuclear weapons because both are needed in order to ensure a 2nd strike capability.
However, this is Iran we're talking about which means that applying the template of cold war missile politics to Iran might not work. Iran is known to use long-range missiles (like the Shahab-3) in a conventional role as a strategic weapon all by itself. This does present a scenario for the use of conventional warheads. However this alone seems a weak explanation as there no credible explanation for why silos are being used instead of TELs.
One overlooked explanation might be that they're legacy facilities being used for no other purpose then because the cost is already sunk into construction, there's no reason not to. This theory looks particularly attractive if they are in fact, 15 years old. Piggybacking on this, if we believe the 2007 NIE report which asserted that Iran had a nuclear program pre-2003, these 15-year old silos may hail from a time when Iran actually did intend to fill these silos with nuclear missiles.
In any of my Persian speaking readers catch anything in the video that is worth posting about that I missed, please don't hesitate to mention it in the comments below.
Comments on the missile exercises themselves coming later...