Despite sanctions and political pressure, Iran’s missile arsenal has grown to become the most diverse in the Middle East, according to a report from the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA).

The report says that Iran’s missile force, under the control of the country’s Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force (IRGCASF), is a key part of Tehran’s regional power projection alongside unconventional warfare and continued cyberspace projection.

In a statement, Defense Intelligence Agency senior defence intelligence analyst for Iran Christian Saunders said: “Iran employs a hybrid approach to warfare using both conventional and unconventional elements. On the conventional side, Iran’s military strategy is primarily based on deterrence and the ability to retaliate against an attacker.

“Iran also uses unconventional warfare operations and a network of militant partners and proxies to enable Tehran to advance its interests in the region, as well as attain strategic depth.”

Lacking an air force but leading with missiles

“Iran has an extensive missile development programme, and the size and sophistication of its missile force continues to grow despite decades of counter-proliferation efforts aimed at curbing its advancement,” the report reads.

Missile development in the country has seen increases in range and accuracy, alongside an expansion of forces giving Iran the “the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East”. These forces include a mix of close-range ballistic missiles (CRBMs), short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs).

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The missiles, according to the report, give Iran the ability to strike almost anywhere in the region, and even into south-eastern Europe, acting as “a critical strategic deterrent and a key tool of Iranian power projection.”

One of Iran’s furthest-flying missiles, the Shahab 3, is capable of striking as far as central India, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine, up to 2,000km from Iran’s borders. The missile systems are a continuing focus of modernisation efforts for Iran with the report saying the country plans to “increase the accuracy, lethality, and production of ballistic and cruise missiles.”

The report shows the range of different Iranian ballistic missile systems. Source: US DIA.

Saunders said: “Iran will deploy an increasing number of more accurate and lethal theatre ballistic missiles, improve its existing missile inventory and also field new land-attack cruise missiles.”

The country currently does not field any long-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) unlike many developed armed forces across the world. However, report does note that this appears to be a focus of research for the kingdom saying: “Tehran’s desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to develop and eventually field an ICBM.”

In its quest for ICBMs, Iran could also simultaneously push for developments in space technology, an increasingly-contested domain. These two developments go hand-in-hand, with launch vehicles for space assets reaching similar ranges to those achieved by ICBMs.

“Iran continues to develop space launch vehicles (SLVs) with increasing lift capacity—including boosters that could be capable of ICBM ranges and potentially reach the continental United States if configured for that purpose,” the report says, adding that pushes for ICBMs and space launch vehicles will achieve progress on both more quickly as both use “inherently similar technologies”.

“Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles” the report reads, explaining how Tehran has used missiles to fill in an aerial shortfall. Whereas other regional powers operate strong fighter aircraft fleets, the UAE with the F-16 and Israel with the F-35I are notable examples, Iran’s air wing is relatively underpowered.

The report explains: “The IRIAF [Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force] has proven adept at maintaining these outdated aircraft to sustain routine flight operations. Despite some domestic efforts to upgrade older airframes, Iran’s combat aircraft remain significantly inferior to those of its regional adversaries equipped with modern Western systems.”

Tehran’s air force still flies US-made F-14s first introduced in the 1970s, and Russian-built MiG-29s and Su-24s.

Iran’s Air Force still flies Grumman F-14s which first flew in 1970. Credits: US Navy.

Denying a maritime assault

If the summer of 2019 proved anything, it is that control of, or at least power projection in, the Strait of Hormuz and the wider Persian Gulf is an important priority for Iran. The report bolsters this, explaining the role of the Iranian Navy as to “defend Iranian territorial waters and protect the country’s economic interests in the Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and beyond.”

In the case of maritime assault, however, Iran’s greatest strength would lie in stopping ships before they reach the shore. The report explained: “Iran has developed a maritime guerrilla-warfare strategy intended to exploit the perceived weaknesses of traditional naval forces that rely on large vessels.” The country operates a large number of missiles, mine-layers, midget submarines designed “to deter naval aggression and hold maritime traffic at risk.”

Recent naval exercises off the coast of Scotland showcased the threat of guerrilla maritime tactics with ships training to fend off swarm attacks by fast attack boats, like those that would be used in the defence of Iranian waters if war was to break out.

The report said: “Iran operates coastal defence cruise missiles (CDCMs) along its southern coast, which it can launch against military or civilian ships as far as 300 km away.

“Iran also maintains an estimated inventory of more than 5,000 naval mines, including contact and influence mines, which it can rapidly deploy in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz using high-speed small boats equipped as minelayers.”

These forces were used to harass commercial shipping traffic, with the US accusing Iran of attacking oil-tankers and the seizing of the British-flagged Stena Impero which escalated tensions in the region and spurred the creation of an international maritime coalition to protect commercial vessels.

Saunders said: “Iran’s naval capabilities emphasise an anti-access area denial strategy. Benefiting from Iran’s geostrategic position along the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s layered maritime capabilities emphasise asymmetric tactics using numerous platforms and weapons intended to overwhelm an adversary’s naval force.”

Graphic from the report shows the range of Iranian Coastal Defence Cruise Missiles. Source: US DIA.

Unconventional, Unmanned and Cyber power

“Another point of concern to the United States and our allies is Iran’s rapid progress in advancing its UAV capabilities,” Saunders explained.

“Iran sees these as versatile platforms for a variety of missions, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR, and air-to-ground strikes and has steadily expanded its UAV inventory. Iran has deployed various armed and unarmed UAVs to Syria and Iraq for ISR and strike missions.”

These capabilities were revealed to the world in the drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Oil facilities, which Saudi Arabia said were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran”. Tehran denied it was involved in the attack, however, Saudi officials said that missile fragments collected matched the newly-unveiled Iranian Ya-Ali cruise missile.

On an unconventional front, the report reads: “Iran’s reliance on unconventional operations— which is enabled by its relationships with a wide range of primarily Middle Eastern militias, militant groups, and terrorist organisations—is central to its foreign policy and defence strategy.”

Iran is known to have strong ties to a number of proscribed terrorist and militant groups in the region, with the report naming “Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and the Houthis” as tools for Iran to project power and “target critical adversary military and civilian facilities”. The report added: “Proxy attacks against adversary military bases in the region could complicate operations in theatre.”

Iran’s proxy organisations allow it to project influence on neighbouring countries. Source: US DIA. 

This push is reflected in Iran’s continued use of “cyberspace operations as a tool of statecraft and internal security, and it continues to improve its capabilities.” According to the report, Tehran sees cyber operations as a cheap way to respond to threats and commit actions against adversaries.

Like its use of proxy organisations for warfare purposes, the report says: “Tehran often masks its cyber operations using proxies to maintain plausible deniability. However, there are often clear indications that link these operations to Iran’s security apparatus.”

Through a variety of methods Iran, despite international pressure continues to persist as a regional power, with a strong and unconventional military allowing the nation to challenge western powers for regional influence.

Saunders closed his statement saying: “As Tehran expands its capabilities in role as both an unconventional and conventional threat in the Middle East, it is more important than ever that we understand Iran’s military power and the threat it poses to our interests, our allies and our security.”