If in its final hours Syria’s crumbling government unleashes a chemical barrage — and some analysts certainly think that’s possible — the regime will probably rely on an arsenal of gas- or nerve agent-tipped ballistic missiles purchased from Iran and North Korea.
But precisely how many and what mix of missiles President Bashar Al Assad controls, and therefore how deadly a chemical strike might be, both remain unclear. Equally unclear is how far the world should go to defend against such a strike.
Chances are, Syria possesses at least three types of ballistic missile that can be fitted with chemical warheads, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. These include Scuds and SS-21s acquired from North Korea and, less clearly, Fateh 110s transferred from Iran.
The Fateh 110s and SS-21s, both around 20 feet long, can reach just 50 and 120 miles, respectively. The Scuds, at 35 feet long, have a longer range: up to 400 miles. All the missiles are mobile — that is, they’re carried and launched by wheeled or tracked vehicles. The Scud’s so-called Transporter Erector Launcher is a heavy-duty offroad truck the size of a tractor trailer.
An Aug. 15 Bloomberg article describes a grim and anxious Israeli public preparing itself for war with Iran. Citizens are filing by distribution sites at shopping malls to pick up gas masks while wondering when the Israeli air force will attack Iran’s nuclear complex. Although it is possible that Iran would restrain itself — leveraging potential outrage at the attack to reverse some of the political and economic isolation it has suffered in the past few years — virtually everyone assumes Iranian military retaliation would soon follow an Israeli strike. Matan Vilnai, the outgoing civil defense minister and a former general, predicts that a war with Iran would last a month and said that Israel should brace itself for hundreds of missile hits each day, which could kill 500 people by the end of the war.
Although Hezbollah pounded northern Israel with short-range rockets for several weeks in 2006 and Hamas still occasionally strikes towns near Gaza, a war with Iran could subject Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other major urban areas and military bases to large-scale and long-range missile attack, the first such missile war anywhere since the 1991 Gulf War. Such a bombardment would test the hopes placed in modern missile defenses, affecting not only Israel but also American plans for the Asia-Pacific, where the United States has made missile and anti-missile systems a core part of its strategy for the region.
Vilnai’s prediction of several hundred rocket hits per day implies that Hezbollah would join Iran, again striking northern Israel with Katyusha and other mostly short-range rockets. But even if it didn’t — fearing another bashing from the Israeli army and the prospect of having to recover without much help from a fracturing Syria — Israel would have to face Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal. Of particular concern is the Shahab-3 missile, which, according to an analysis prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), can fly up to 1,300 kilometers and carry a high-explosive or chemical warhead weighing 760 to 1,100 kilograms. The U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates that Iran possesses 25 to 100 Shahab-3 missiles, deployed both in underground silos and on truck-mounted launchers. (According to the CSIS report, however, Iranian policymakers will have to live with uncertainties regarding the Shahab-3’s dependability, accuracy, and warhead reliability.)
Opposing Iran will be Israel’s Arrow missile defense system, designed specifically for the Shahab-3 threat. The Arrow system is tested and deployed, but has yet to face combat. The United States has positioned a high-powered, long-range X-band radar facility in Israel to boost the Arrow’s sensor capability and supply target data to the Pentagon’s own missile defense network. The performance of both Arrow and the U.S. missile defense system will depend on how well all the various radars and sensors in the region collect, transmit, and integrate their results — something that has yet to occur under the stress of actual combat. In particular, Arrow’s operators should brace for a large attack, perhaps involving a dozen or more Shahab-3s. It is very unlikely that the system has ever gone through a live-fire rehearsal against a dozen or more simulated Shahab-3s. Iran will have a strong interest in launching such a large-scale raid, both to stress Arrow before it can work out any unknown bugs and to use its missiles before Israel destroys them on the ground during follow-up airstrikes.