There have been a lot of pixels spilled worrying about the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (AShBM). Now comes news that the Iranians have developed and fielded their own AShBM. Hit the panic button!
Iran’s Khalij Fars anti-ship ballistic missile (AShBM) – a weapon that could shift the military balance in the Gulf region – is being delivered to operational units, according to the US Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on the Islamic Republic’s military capabilities.
“Tehran is quietly fielding increasingly lethal symmetric and asymmetric weapon systems, including more advanced naval mines, small but capable submarines, coastal defence cruise missile batteries, attack craft, and anti-ship ballistic missiles,” the report’s declassified executive summary said.
This is the first corroboration of Iranian claims that the AShBM is in service. US officials declined to comment further on the report, which was submitted to Congress in January.
The Khalij Fars is a version of the Fateh-110 tactical ballistic missile with an electro-optical (EO) seeker that enables it to home in on a ship’s infrared signature in its terminal phase. The Iranian media has reported that the missile has the same 300 km range and 650 kg warhead as the more recent versions of the Fateh-110.
Vice Admiral James Syring, the director of the US Missile Defense Agency, submitted a statement to a Congressional subcommittee in June saying: “This ballistic missile has a range of 300 km, which means it is capable of threatening maritime activity throughout the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.” Vice Adm Syring confirmed the AShBM had been flight tested, but did not comment on whether it was operational.
Let us assume for the moment that the Khalij Fars (KF) is indeed operational with the Iranian Forces.
The biggest challenge with any long range anti-ship missile system isn’t building the missile, nor yet even the seeker. It’s building the targeting. Detection, localization, classification and identification at long ranges is a difficult task. Most generally, you have to have some sensor platform relatively close to the intended target. Most nations use helicopters and aircraft for this role. If you can get a helicopter or aircraft in close enough to perform the targeting function, why not make them the shooter as well? That’s one reason the US withdrew the Tomahawk anti-ship missile variant and relied instead on the Harpoon missile with its somewhat shorter range.
But let us again assume for the moment that the Iranians have addressed the long range targeting issue to their satisfaction. How dangerous is this Khalij Fars missile?
Well, it’s not to be ignored. With a reported range of 300km, it’s got more than enough range to hold all of the Strait of Hormuz at risk, as well as significant portions of the rest of the Arabian Gulf. And a 650kg warhead is fairly powerful. Further, the angle of impact of a ballistic warhead would tend to mean the blast will more likely do greater damage below the waterline than a conventional anti-ship missile that impacts above the waterline. And the passive Electro/Optical guidance system means that ships won’t be able to use their electronic support measures for warning of incoming missiles, nor able to jam their radars or use chaff to decoy them.
As the article notes, the Iranians are working with a spectrum of systems to hold at risk shipping, both merchant and naval, in the Gulf, and this is one more arrow in the quiver.
But all is not lost.
First, the range of a ballistic missile is a function of its speed. The shorter the range, the lower the speed of the missile. The KF has a speed of about Mach 3.5. That’s far, far less than the speed of the much longer range Chinese DF-21D missile.
The primary difficulty in intercepting a ballistic target is the speed of an engagement. There’s nothing magical about a parabolic trajectory that creates difficulty in interception. Indeed, the parabolic trajectory makes for simpler tracking. Today’s SPY-1D radar and Aegis computer system have no difficulty tracking such a target from launch to impact. Sea skimming supersonic cruise missiles keep surface warriors up at night because their speed, coupled with the short distance to the radar horizon for surface mounted radars, means that a target has very, very little reaction time. A ballistic missile, however, actually becomes somewhat easier to see on radar as it rises along its trajectory, away from the clutter of the sea surface, or the shore its fired from.
And the Mach 3.5 isn’t terribly excessive for the Standard Missile family to engage. Any Aegis equipped ship should have multiple opportunities to engage any KF missile, from mid-course through the terminal phase, with an excellent chance of defeating it.
And while the KF’s E/O sensor is invulnerable to jamming, it’s not invulnerable to decoying via flares and other infrared techniques.
So while the KF missile might add a new capability to the Iranian forces, it alone certainly won’t fundamentally change the ability of the US Navy to transit and operate in the Arabian Gulf.