Iranian Ballistic Missiles Threaten to Change Battlefield Dynamic in Ukraine
As Russia’s war against Ukraine approaches its second year, several news outlets have reported that Moscow is eyeing two Iranian missile systems in particular as solutions to its missile shortages: the Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar. The main reasons for acquiring these missiles are availability, cost and survivability. Potentially receiving critical military technology in return (e.g., the Su-35), Iran has been more than generous in supplying Russia with the weapons systems it needs in Ukraine. The unit costs for Iranian missiles are much lower when compared to Russia’s Kalibr cruise missiles. Besides, the latter has become vulnerable to advanced air defense systems such as the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, and even Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS) on some occasions, which has pushed the Kremlin to seek alternatives.
When it comes to Iran’s strategic ballistic missile program, many defense analysts and policymakers in the West have been stuck in a military fallacy for years. Arguing that Tehran’s missile program is more of a nuclear deterrence asset, these professionals miss out on the historical fact that Iranian missiles have been actively used in battle. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s marked Tehran’s first strikes (e.g., against Baghdad and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk) outside Iranian territory. Another prominent example came in 2017, when Tehran launched a medium-range missile attack on Islamic State positions in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor region.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has also transferred Iranian ballistic missile systems to allied proxy groups across the Middle East, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Besides arming its proxy groups, Iran has also been sharing its missile technology with rogue states, including North Korea, since the 1980s. This history demonstrates that Tehran’s ballistic missiles are not designed to solely provoke fear in the Persian Gulf Arab countries and Israel. Rather, they are to be used opportunistically within conflict regions throughout the world. Among these regions, Iranian ballistic missiles could indeed be used on the Ukrainian battlefield in coming weeks, as Moscow is seeking additional missiles, such as Iran’s Fateh-110 missile, to counter Ukraine’s heightened air defense capabilities.
Iranian missiles in this category have a much shorter range, from 300 to 700 kilometers (km), than some of the loitering munitions Tehran has already sent to Moscow (e.g., the Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicle). However, due to the speed and large combat payloads of these missiles, they still represent a great challenge for Ukraine’s air defense systems. The solid-propellant Fateh-110 derivatives also have a much shorter launch time, which means more frequent attacks in a shorter timeframe, putting the Ukrainian interceptors under heavy pressure. These missiles are road-mobile, which provides increased flexibility and the ability to avoid counter-battery fire. Notably, in terms of design, the Fateh-110 missiles and derivatives follow a tilted, quasi-ballistic trajectory, which is a challenge for air defense systems. Therefore, the size of the warhead, the difficulty for opposing air defenses to intercept and the trajectory these missiles follow present quite different threats than those posed by Russian cruise missiles and Iranian loitering munitions.
Open-source intelligence suggests that, at present, the military aid packages Tehran has sent to Moscow do not include missiles, but draft agreements for such transfers do exist. However, it will most likely not be until the fall of 2023 that these talks materialize, as Iran is currently still subjected to the restrictions placed on it by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, authorizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The document includes a key clause that restricts the exporting of Iranian missiles and drones with a range greater than 300 km. Yet, this restriction will be lifted in October 2023, when the clause expires. After that, freed from its UN-imposed restriction, Iran could possibly send some of its most sophisticated missile systems, such as the Fateh-110 derivative and the 700-km-range Zolfaghar to Russia. Iran has already been sending threatening messages to the West and would not shy away from sharing its missile systems with Russia, especially under such relaxed circumstances.
Although sophisticated systems such as the NASAMS have significantly boosted the interception rate against hostile loitering munitions and missiles, Ukrainian air space is too big to be defended solely with NASAMS and Patriot air defense systems. As such, the potential arrival of Iranian missiles could both undermine Kyiv’s morale and its ability to fight. Overall, it will pose an imminent risk to population centers and critical energy infrastructure.
Expecting a fast and decisive victory, the prolonged battle in Ukraine caught Russia by surprise. Amid a high-tempo conflict, Russia’s missile arsenal is depleting fast. In this regard, Iran’s missile and drone solutions provide the Kremlin with the perfect alternatives. In the past few months, the infamous Shahed-136 loitering munitions and Soviet-made cruise missiles proved to be more effective and affordable compared to advanced assets like the Kalibr. Yet, due to their flight trajectory and large warheads, ballistic missiles will be a much more destructive threat. Up until now, Ukrainian air defense systems have been effective against cruise missiles, combat drones and loitering munitions to a considerable extent. In the October 2022 strikes, the interception rate against Russian cruise missiles stood at around 64 percent.
However, ballistic missile defense is a different game, and a much harder one to crack. Combined with the country’s limited military resources, the destructive potential of Iranian ballistic missiles would be a significant disadvantage for Ukraine. Providing a successful defense against these missiles will be tricky. At present, the most effective system that can assist Ukraine in this regard is the Patriot—and though transfer has been confirmed, they have yet to be delivered. Famed for its successful performance in various conflict zones, the Patriots have been quite successful in the protection of critical national infrastructure. However, they are not a magic bullet for Ukraine’s air defense. To begin with, the number of Patriot batteries in the US inventory is limited, as many Patriots are already forward deployed in high-threat regions such as the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore. The size of Ukraine’s air space poses particular problems. The country has one of the largest air spaces in Europe, making all-encompassing air defense extremely difficult. In addition, Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure is dispersed throughout the country, creating another hardship.
In a prolonged war and possible renewed Russia offensive in the coming months, the West should refrain from considering Ukraine’s security through a solely defensive lens. Especially in the context of the impending Iranian ballistic missile threat, NATO should provide Kiev with counteroffensive capabilities that can match with Iranian ballistic missiles. These would come with the transfer of offensive systems such as ATACMS. Solutions exist, but the clock is ticking, and these decisions must be taken sooner rather than later.