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Middle East , Missile and Space

Why Iran Desperately Wants Soviet Kh-31 Missile Technologies; Parts for the Elite Mach 3.5 Platforms Reportedly Smuggled to Tehran for Study

August 05th - 2018

The Iranian military has long relied on North Korean, Chinese and from the late 1980s Soviet, weapons technology to modernise its armed forces. While the Iranian ballistic missile program is heavily derived from North Korean technologies, with the majority of Iranian platforms including its most prolific Shahab-3 and Khorramshahr being licence built variants of the Korean Rodong-1 and Musudan, the country has long looked to China for cruise missile technologies. Iran’s Oghab and Nazeit missiles are heavily based on Chinese technologies, while the well known Nasr anti ship cruise missile is a direct derivative of the Chinese C-704 almost identical in its appearance. China reportedly played a key role in establishing production facilities for the Nasr in 2010, a platform restricted to subsonic speeds but capable of striking with a high degree of accuracy when deployed by Iranian F-4 Phantoms. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Iran followed the examples set by China and North Korea, seeking to acquire the superpower’s world leading defence technologies from cash strapped successor states and recruiting valuable weapons scientists to aid in its own defence programs. While Russia’s economic recovery from the early 2000s put an end to such practices and the leaking of valuable technological secrets, Ukraine has since the overthrow of its government in 2014 and subsequent economic decline been a prime target for those parties which have sought state of the art Soviet technologies, particularly in the fields of missiles and shipbuilding. Iran has reportedly been among the many parties attempting to exploit this opportunity.

In January 2015, just months after the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, there were dire warnings that Ukraine's Yuzhmash enterprise, facing a lack of funds following the deterioration of relations and downgrading of cooperation with Russia, would become a source of invaluable knowhow for Iran or North Korea to earn much needed funds. While Yuzhmash specialised in ballistic missile technologies, which Iran has primarily acquired from North Korea, the Iranian military has reportedly looked elsewhere in Eastern European country for technologies needed to modernise its armed forces. A number of reports have indicated that in early 2018 Iranian diplomats, including the country’s military attache in Kiev, were found smuggling parts for Kh-31 anti ship missiles - including invaluable technical manuals which could allow Iranian manufacturers to more easily reverse engineer the system’s technologies and produce similarly capable missiles domestically.

Entering service in 1988, the Kh-31 represented the pinnacle of Soviet anti ship missile technology and could represent a game changer for the Iranian armed forces if acquired. The missile travels at approximately four times the speed of the Nasr, at Mach 3.5, and is the first supersonic anti ship missile designed to be deployed from fighter aircraft such as the Soviet MiG-29 and Su-27. With the Iranian armed forces fielding Soviet built MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 strike fighters of their own, and other platforms such as the Su-22 and F-4 which could potentially be modified to deploy the missile, the platform could well revolutionise the anti ship capabilities of the Iranian Air Force - a key asset in light of the country’s growing tensions with the United States and the importance of U.S. carrier operations off the Iranian coast to America's plans for a potential war. Other variants of the Kh-31 are designed for an anti radiation role - namely neutralising enemy air defence networks by targeting launchers, command centers and radar installations. These missiles could serve as an effective force multiplier for Iranian ballistic missile forces against against adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as against U.S. military facilities in the Asia Pacific - neutralising their defences and thereby leaving them considerably more vulnerable to ballistic missile attacks.

Technologies from the Kh-31 could potentially have been used to enhance the capabilities of indigenous Iranian missile designs such as the Oghab and Nazeit, and these technologies remain a highly valued prize for the country's armed forces. With Syria and North Korea, two of Iran’s closest defence partners, reportedly already fielding the Kh-31 - and able to provide Tehran with its technologies far more discreetly, claims that Iran has sought to acquire the missile’s technologies from Ukraine are somewhat questionable. This is particularly true considering that Ukraine does not have access to the latest variants of the missile, only the technologies inherited from the Soviet Union in 1991, while North Korea for its part has developed its own derivative as the Kumsong-3 (KN-19) with reportedly superior capabilities to those variants in Ukrainian hands. It remains a possibility however that covert acquisitions from Ukraine could have been seen as a more cost effective means for Iran to acquire the technologies of the Kh-31 rather than purchasing them directly from its defence partners. 

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