June 1, 2009  

Flashpoint: Satellite subterfuge

Space programs provide cover for long-range missile development

The famous Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud is believed to have once said: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” meaning that at times you should take things at face value and not search for any deeper meaning.

Fair enough.

But if we agree with Freud, his famous quote also means that sometimes, a cigar isn’t just a cigar and that we should look for the hidden meanings behind simple objects or even events.

The same could be said for the spate of satellite launches — successful and otherwise — we’ve seen over the past few months by countries such as North Korea and Iran.

Sure, these could be legitimate space programs for launching satellites into orbit. Or they could be testing space launch vehicles (SLV) for the purpose of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

It’s likely both.

A two-fer

Of course, countries such as Iran and North Korea have lots of reasons to want a space program. National pride might distract the populace from its social and or economic suffering, helping to legitimize the unpopular regimes.

A successful space program could also build prestige abroad for the ambitious states. While many countries have operational satellites circling the Earth, only nine other nations have launched their own satellites into orbit so far.

Iran, holder of one of the Middle East’s largest ballistic missile arsenals, would be the first Muslim state with a space-launch capability. Tehran has even spoken of a manned space program.

Iran’s Arab neighbors — and others — would be envious as Tehran wrestles for leadership of the Middle East and even the Islamic world, asserting the superiority of several thousand years of Persian culture.

For North Korea, a successful satellite launch would prove the scientific vitality of the dreary communist state, which has long proclaimed the pre-eminence of its Juche philosophy of self-reliance, despite a famine that has starved millions.

It would help level the playing field for bragging rights with its rival, South Korea, which has risen out of the destruction of the Korean War to become one of the world’s most prosperous societies.

Today, satellites are an important component of modern life, including communications, navigation, mapping, commerce and science — not to mention developing advanced R&D for creating economic growth in other sectors.

On a more practical level, despite the expense, it’s also useful to have the infrastructure to be able to launch your own satellites, rather than relying on others to launch them for you.

There are other advantages, too. Satellites can enhance a state’s military might, relaying secure communications, gathering intelligence, predicting weather, providing early warning and targeting opposition forces. North Korea would certainly like to peek across the demilitarized zone at U.S. and South Korean Korea forces arrayed on the other side — or at American ships ported in Japan.

Similarly, Iran would benefit from having the ability to spy on rival Saudi Arabia, U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan as well as get positional data on American naval forces in the Persian Gulf.

Plus, along the same lines, a space program, especially a space-launch capacity, is useful in developing an ICBM capability.

Remember: Moscow’s launch of its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, meant that not only had the Russians bested the Americans scientifically, but that a Soviet ICBM wasn’t far behind. Indeed, the seemingly heavy 180-pound Sputnik was lifted into space by a modified ballistic missile. It was only a few years later, in 1960, that the Soviet Union fielded the SS-6 Sapwood, the first Soviet — and the world’s first — ICBM.

Ballistic missiles and SLVs are almost one in the same. In fact, the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary grouping that restricts trade in missiles and related technology, doesn’t distinguish between them.

And understandably so.

Theoretically, if you can launch a ballistic missile that can place a satellite into orbit, you have the scientific wherewithal to hit a target anywhere on Earth with a warhead, including a weapon of mass destruction.

Indeed, Iran is advancing in that direction — quickly.

Iranian intrigue

On a date in February coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, Iran successfully launched its first satellite, the Omid (Hope), into low-earth orbit aboard a Safir (Ambassador) SLV. The lightweight “entry ticket” communications and atmospheric research satellite, weighing 60 pounds, circled the earth 16 times daily for several weeks before de-orbiting in March after a 50-day mission.

The Safir, which traveled over Pakistan en route orbital insertion of the Omid above the Indian Ocean, is believed to be a two-stage launch vehicle, likely powered by liquid-fueled Shahab missiles. While public details on the Safir are few, some experts believe the Shahab SLV is based on elements of North Korea’s short-range Scud and medium-range No Dong missile engineering, which is believed to have been transferred to Iran.

The Shahab missile, previously thought of in military terms only, is believed to have an operational range of about 1,200 miles, allowing Tehran to reach the entire Middle East as well as parts of southeastern Europe.

Experts estimate a sufficiently powerful two-stage ballistic missile from Iran could reach all of Europe — plus America’s East Coast; a ballistic missile with three stages could range the whole of the U.S. Indeed, Tehran’s budding space work could lead to the development of such an ICBM. It’s clearly not there yet, but Iran has made great strides in just a year.

Further streamlining an ICBM development effort is the belief that Iran’s defense ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are running the space and missile programs. In late April, Iran’s defense minister announced the unveiling of a new generation of missile called the Sajil, reportedly a solid-fueled missile with greater capabilities than the Shahab.

Of course, in parallel with this is Iran’s nuclear program, which many believe has a military dimension — and continues unbridled despite international concerns expressed about Tehran’s supposed ultimate peaceful intent.

A report from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier this year reports Iran has produced as much as one ton of low-enriched uranium (LEU), ostensibly as fuel for a nuclear reactor such as the Russian-built one at Bushehr. But using the 4,000 centrifuges already in existence, Tehran could reprocess the LEU to produce enough fissile material for at least one nuclear weapon within as little as a few months, according to experts.

There are other opinions on this issue, too. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress: “We judge Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.”

2010 is just six months away.

Adding to the concerns about an Iranian nuclear breakout was news last year from the IAEA, which has been monitoring Tehran’s nuclear program for several years. Based on multilateral intelligence provided by member states, the IAEA judged that Iran was working on a nuclear warhead known as “Project 111” for mating with the Shahab-class ballistic missile.

Iran could, in the end, just be working on a space program — not an ICBM program. But, considering Tehran’s record of deception about its nuclear program, hostile rhetoric toward the West, and its grand regional ambitions, it’s hard to believe Iran’s space program is just about satellites.

Unfortunately, Iran’s space efforts follow an unnerving proliferation pattern we’ve seen before.

Korean conundrum

In the late 1990s, North Korea also used a supposed civilian space program to clandestinely manufacture and test a multistage Taepo Dong ballistic missile with intercontinental range potential. Fortunately, the 1998 maiden launch of the Taepo Dong failed to put North Korea’s first satellite into space, but instead landed harmlessly 1,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean after over-flying Japan. The North Koreans insisted the shot had successfully put a satellite into orbit and that it was transmitting patriotic songs glorifying the state back to eager ears in impoverished North Korea.

In 2006, North Korea test fired another Taepo Dong missile. This one malfunctioned about 40 seconds after takeoff, landing a few hundred miles east of its launch site in the Sea of Japan.

Once again, North Korea claimed the shot was space-related, but carried no satellite this time. But, again, like in 1998, very few outside the Hermit Kingdom were swayed by the space-test claim.

Then, in April of this year, in defiance of two standing U.N. resolutions arising from its 2006 nuclear test, North Korea launched another Taepo Dong — possibly with a satellite aboard.

Pyongyang was undoubtedly hoping that the third time would be a charm. It wasn’t.

But while it didn’t launch a satellite into orbit, it was North Korea’s most successful Taepo Dong shot to date. In fact, in the failed launch, there was some notable progress in the North Korea ballistic missile program. From post-launch analysis, it appears the first two stages operated normally. The third stage failed to separate and fire properly, leaving the unspecified payload short of achieving orbit, but briefly reaching the limits of space (60 miles).

Trying to play by international rules by announcing launch windows and closure areas in advance, the first two stages reportedly hit the specified impact areas. But notably, the shot went 500 miles further than originally reported. Building on two previous launches, the North Koreans actually pushed a ballistic missile further than they ever have before, traveling almost 2,500 miles — nearly two and a half times as far as any previous shot. But some analysts believe that this launch, if it had been successful through all three stages, could have reached portions of the Western U.S., carrying a 1,000- to 2,000-pound warhead — about the right size for a nuke.

Pyongyang’s “peaceful space launch” was suspect even before the missile left the pad at the Musudan-ni complex. Before the launch, Blair said: “North Korea is attempting to demonstrate an ICBM capability through a space launch.”

Some even believe his point should be sharpened by adding “supposed” to space launch, insisting the payload carried by the Taepo Dong was a dummy of sorts — and North Korea never planned any space operations at all from the shot.

Adding to the worries, this spring, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, told Congress in a public forum that North Korea “may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.”

Others seem to be quietly echoing this sentiment.

The weeks and months ahead may lead to more provocative North Korean actions, including more long-range missile launches and even another nuclear weapons test as Pyongyang expresses its displeasure with the current state of affairs.

Adding to the angst about the symbiotic relationship between space rocketry and ballistic missiles is the possibility of cooperation between North Korea and Iran on missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea clearly has a nuclear weapons capability. It may have actually miniaturized a warhead for fitting atop an unspecified ballistic missile. But it’s having some troubles with its ICBM-SLV program.

Iran, on the other hand, isn’t a nuclear weapons state yet, even though it may be working on a nuclear warhead. But it has certainly gone great guns in developing a rudimentary SLV — ahead of the North Koreans.

It’s believed the two states are cooperating at some level on ballistic missiles. While there is less public knowledge about nuclear ties, there are plenty of rumors of delegations moving back and forth between Tehran and Pyongyang.

But the possibility of intense cooperation on missiles and nuclear weapons is frightening. It opens up the chance that one may help the other overcome the shortcomings in their lagging program.

For instance, Iran could help North Korea build a more capable long-range ballistic missile. Or Pyongyang could assist Tehran with its nuclear program, helping Iran develop and test a weapon.

Quite simply, this could mean that in the near future, the U.S. could be facing two additional countries — neither one of which is friendly with Washington — that can reach out and touch us in a big way.

The threat to American national security and its interests, arising from such a troubling development is an unfortunate instance where we can set aside the search for hidden meaning — taking it instead at face value.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.