iran flag small Shahab 3

Shahab 3 (left), Shahab 3A (right) (Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems)
Originated From:Iran
Possessed By:Iran
Alternate Name:Shihab 3, Shehob 3
Basing:Road-mobile
Length:16.58 m
Diameter:1.25 or 1.38 m
Launch Weight:17,410 kg
Payload:Single warhead, 1,200 kg
Warhead:Nuclear, HE, chemical, or submunitions
Propulsion:Single-stage liquid propellant
Range:1,300 kg
In Service:2003

The Shahab 3 is a medium-range, liquid-propellant, road-mobile ballistic missile. The Shahab 3 represents Iran’s first successful attempt to acquire medium-range ballistic missiles that give it the capability to threaten targets (like Israel) which lie beyond its immediate borders. The original Shahab 3 missile is nearly identical to the North Korean No Dong 1 missile, and almost certainly is based on technology and parts from North Korea. Pakistan has also shared in this technology to build the Hatf 5 missile. North Korea, a country that has long supplied Iran with missiles and missile technology, began development of the No Dong 1 in the mid-1980s. Neither North Korea, nor Iran, nor Pakistan had well-developed missile programs at the time, so it is believed that the original technology came from either Russia or China. It seems likely that the North Koreans borrowed engine designs from the Russian SS-3 (R-5) missile, though the No Dong missile is significantly smaller. 1 The connection to the Russian missile seems likely for two reasons: First, Russia has been known to declassify obsolete missile designs, thus allowing them to fall into other hands. Second, the No Dong missile is believed to use the same fuel and oxidizer as many Russian missiles. Regardless of where the technology came from, the North Koreans almost certainly did not build the missile without some outside guidance, as their limited experience would have required far more initial testing than is believed to have been conducted. Moreover, both Iran and Pakistan invested in the North Korean technology prior to much testing – a move that they probably would not have made if the success of the technology was uncertain. 2

Shahab 3 on transporter vehicle, 1999.
Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems

Both the No Dong missile and the Shahab 3 missile look much like an over-sized ‘Scud’ missile; however, later missiles represent some major departures that are important from technology and performance perspectives. 3 On the technology side, the missiles use an engine that is similar, but larger than that used on the ‘Scud’ missiles. This fact is important because North Korea’s prior experience was almost entirely gained by modifying – not redesigning – ‘Scud’ engines. From a performance perspective, the increased size allows for a significantly increased range without making a missile that is too large for TEL-basing. While using a single-stage liquid propellant engine (like a ‘Scud’), the No Dong and the Shahab 3 employ a separating RV unit. The ability to build a two-stage missile (engine + re-entry vehicle) is potentially a significant intermediate step between short-range, low payload missiles (like ‘Scuds’) and much longer-range, heavier payload missiles.

Testing began on the No Dong missiles in 1990. In 1993, it is believed that Iran and Pakistan entered into an agreement with North Korea to buy missiles and/or share the technology. At least one No Dong missile was tested in 1993, and Iran and Pakistan likely sent representatives to witness the test. While Iran initially purchased a great number of the No Dong missiles, international pressure seems to have led to the transfer of only a few missiles. In 1997, engine testing on the Shahab 3 began in Iran, presumably with a small number of No Dong missiles or missile components from North Korea. 4

The abilities and specifications of the Shahab 3 are largely based upon foreign speculation and aggressive Iranian diplomacy. Iran is known to rename missile programs, exaggerate about missile performance abilities, and declare that untested technologies are operational. To further complicate the problem, it is frequently unclear which versions of the Shahab 3 are referred to by Iranian officials and western intelligence reports. Contrasting reports suggest that the missile is between 15.6 and 16.58 m in length and 1.25 and 1.38 m in diameter. These same reports place the range between 800 and 1,300 km with payloads varying between 760 and 1,200 kg. 5 The range is likely about 1000 km, but varies widely depending upon the weight of the payload. Heavier and more effective payloads, like those employing first-generation nuclear warheads, would likely have a much shorter range than a smaller unitary HE warhead. The total launch weight is about 17,410 kg.

Most sources suggest that the guidance system of the Shahab 3 is based upon the inertial system used in the ‘Scud’ missiles, giving the missile an accuracy of about 2,500 m CEP. The Pakistani version, the Hatf 5, is believed to employ Chinese guidance technology that significantly improves accuracy. 6 The Shahab 3 may use similar technology, especially in its later variants, but early versions of the missile likely had very poor accuracy. With an accuracy of 2,500 m CEP, the Shahab 3 missile is primarily effective against large, soft targets (like cities).

Warhead options may include biological and chemical weapons, but as ballistic missiles are an expensive and not highly effective method of deploying chemical and biological agents, Iran would presumably favor nuclear or HE warheads for the Shahab 3. 7 Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no secret, though it is not yet known whether Iran has successfully acquired or built nuclear warheads. The Shahab 3 could use a nuclear warhead similar to the warhead design sold by A.Q. Khan to Libya. 8

Following initial testing in 1997, the Shahab 3 was first flight tested in 1998. The test appears to have been largely unsuccessful as the missile exploded prior to reaching any target (though it may have flown over 1,000 km first). A second test in July 2000 successfully flew 850 km. A third test, supposedly of a satellite-launch variant, was unsuccessfully launched in September 2000. A fourth test in January 2002 failed after the missile caught fire during the pre-launch fueling sequence, though a May 2002 test was successful. Tests in July and August of 2002 appear to have been unsuccessful. An eighth test in July 2003 appears to have been successful and reportedly flew over 1,300 km. 9 Since July 2003, the missile is believed to have been in operational use. Subsequent tests have primarily been held for Shahab 3 variants, which are covered in another entry.

Initial production of 12 to 15 missiles per year may have begun as early as 1998, but the number of Shahab 3 missiles and its variants are unknown. 10

  1. Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, Issue 50, ed. Duncan Lennox, (Surrey: Jane’s Information Group, January 2009), 76.
  2.  Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, an IISS Strategic Dossier, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, (East Sussex: Hastings Print, May 2010) 18-19.
  3. Ibid 17-20.
  4. Jane’s, 76.
  5. See Jane’s, 76-79; Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities, 17-24; Anthony H. Cordesman, “Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: Capabilities, Developments, and Strategic Uncertainties,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 14 October 2008, available at http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/081015_iran.wmd.pdf, accessed on 22 October 2010.
  6. Jane’s, 113-15.
  7. Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities, 125-27.
  8. Ibid, 20.
  9. Jane’s, 78-79.
  10. Ibid.
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