Dubai Air Show

Cruise missiles in the Gulf: the Iranian-Chinese connection

 - December 6, 2006, 1:38 PM

A complex chain of illegal sales, technology proliferation and cooperation between countries the Bush Administration regards as rogue states has produced what some fear may have increased the threat to naval vessels operating in the Arabian Gulf.

Earlier this year the Ukrainian parliament confirmed that a former officer in the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) sold through the black market some 26 Russian-made, nuclear-capable Raduga Kh-55 (AS-15) cruise missiles. The Ukrainians have charged V.V. Yevdokimov with selling at least six missiles each to Iran and the People’s Republic of China between 1999 and 2001 and with organizing the sale of another 14 Kh-55s before security services arrested him last April.

The Kh-55s sat in storage in Ukraine with the former Soviet air force’s Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. When the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine decided to repatriate all of its nuclear weapons to Moscow, it had no further use for the bombers, but it held onto them for another eight years to use as bargaining chips against Russia in return for debt cancellation.

Long History of Cooperation

While allegations of illegal arms sales by the SBU are nothing new, this sale puts a bigger and more capable cruise missile arsenal into Chinese and Iranian hands. It has also, some fear, increased the scope for cooperation between two nations that share a long history of defense industry ties and have already cooperated on the development of cruise missile systems.

Through a previous contract the PRC had already legally acquired Kh-55s, which they had used (along with additional technology acquired from the French and the Israelis) to design their own C802 cruise missile. However, the Chinese didn’t design the C802 to carry a nuclear warhead, something the Russians did do with the Kh-55. With more Kh-55s acquired from Yevdokimov, China might have bought extra scope for developing variants more theatening than any missile it could have re-engineered from its original stock.

Chinese designers incorporated French design characteristics into the C802, which gave the missile much better range. It also now met the requirements that China’s industrial defense partner, Iran, had set for its own military. Iran then purchased C802s in the 1990s, after which the arms division of Iran Aircraft Industries (IACI) established a licensed production facility to build the missile, which the Iranians renamed Noor.

China included in the deal the technology and the relevant know-how to also produce the TRI 60-2 engine (based on the Microturbo TRI 60-2 acquired from France). Iran then built that engine under the name of Toloo-4, which Iranian engineers claim to have produced since the mid-1990s. Those same engineers said they have reached the last stages of developing a next-generation enhancement of the TRI 60-2. Called the Toloo-5, it will feature a multi-stage, all-supersonic compression section, over 20 percent more thrust and the ability to operate at more than three times the altitude of the Toloo-4.

According to U.S. analysts, defense systems have a much harder time detecting and intercepting that type of cruise missile than they do conventional ballistic missiles. The ability of Iran–suspected by the U.S. of trying to develop nuclear weapons– to field long-range cruise missiles with a low-altitude/terrain avoidance guidance system could complicate the security environment here in the Gulf region. Between what it bought from the Chinese and what it might have acquired from Ukraine, Iran appears to have possibly leap-frogged several years ahead in the development of its cruise missile programs.

Chinese designs account for much of what Iran now holds in its missile arsenal and/or is improving upon with its own engineering. The Chinese designs in turn owe much of their performance to technologies acquired from Russia and France.  

Advanced Russian weaponry delivered indirectly to Iran represents enough of a worry to some Western powers, but those watching the current moves by the Chinese to try to break down or eliminate the European Union embargo against arms sales to Beijing predict bigger headaches down the road.

Technology transferred to China could go the same route the Microturbo TRI 60-2 engine took, say those opposed to lifting the embargo. The journey could well end in Tehran–after an intermediate stopover in Beijing, they fear. That makes the whole issue of nuclear weapons proliferation–and delivery systems to put them on target– much more complicated.  And at a time the world awaits a resolution to the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, any such technology transfer can only make the situation more volatile.