While Iran’s habitual ballistic missile tests and transfers easily make international headlines, the country’s other projectiles – specifically its cruise missiles – seldom get the same top-billing. But on Saturday, international outlets cited Iranian press reporting on a new land-attack cruise missile (LACM), and its subsequent test-firing. Such developments in the Islamic Republic should not be treated as a one-off, even if the missile may not be an original. Iran is developing a diverse missile capability, one that will be able to deliver both conventional and unconventional payloads, as well as take advantage of different flight trajectories – be they cruise or ballistic.
Iran’s “newest” cruise missile, dubbed the Hoveizeh, is a LACM that can reportedly travel 1,350 kilometers (km) and according to Iran’s defense minister, was successfully flight-tested at 1,200 km. Iranian sources attest that the Hoveizeh is a variant of the Soumar LACM – which was first unveiled in 2015. The Soumar is an Iranian copy of the subsonic Soviet Kh-55 that Iran illicitly procured from Ukraine in 2001.
What makes the Soumar and Hoveizeh different from the Kh-55 is that the Kh-55 is air-launched from strategic bombers (which Iran does not have). Conversely, both Iranian LACMs are surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) that appear to be launched from canisters and use a solid-rocket booster. Both the Soumar and the Hoveizeh were unveiled with grid/lattice fins attached to the rocket booster at their tail end. A 2015 launch video of the Soumar shows this booster dropping-off seemingly prior to entering the midcourse portion of the flight. Depending on the exact speed the missile is traveling, grid fins can provide enhanced steering and less drag. Given that the Soumar and Hoveizeh travel at subsonic speeds, it is unclear what value the grid fins provide, especially if they remain only for the boost phase.
While the payload weight of the Hoveizeh was not reported, its Soviet progenitor was used to carry nuclear warheads. During the unveiling of the Hoveizeh, Iranian officials reported – for the first time – the range of the Soumar LACM, which they placed at 700 km. Prior to this, open-source analysts and Iran Watchers (including this author) assumed that the Soumar could travel as far as the Kh-55. It’s possible, however, that this considerably lower-range reported by Iranian officials is an attempt to frame their missile force as tactical and not strategic, and thus under Iran’s self-imposed 2,000 km range cap for missiles – a ban which regime officials routinely say they can transgress. On the other hand, it also remains a possibility that this shorter range is the result of Tehran’s reported inability to domestically produce turbofan engines. Such an assessment necessarily complicates the limited open-source understanding of the Soumar and Hoveizeh LACM’s functioning component parts.
Moreover, both the Soumar and Hoveizeh are produced by Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), an entity subordinate to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). Both MODAFL and AIO are sanctioned by the US and the EU (but pursuant to the nuclear deal, will receive sanctions relief from the EU by 2023).
The name of the missile, Hoveizeh, refers to a city in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province close to the Iraqi border, and there are marshes with a similar name on the Iraqi side of that border. Both the city and the marshes featured prominently in the bloody 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. This is not the first missile that is named after an Iranian city that saw conflict during that War (see Long War Journal report on the Khorramshahr ballistic missile). The timing of the LACM’s unveiling – during the “Eghtedar 40” or Power/Authority 40 defense exhibition commemorating Iran’s Revolution – is not coincidental. Tehran has long used flashpoints in its history, such as the anniversaries of the 1979 Revolution or start date of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq to unveil new armaments and weapons systems. This anniversary, which puts the regime at 40 years old, comes amid a turbulent time as Iran faces ongoing social, political, and economic turmoil and remains in the throes of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. To that effect, missile tests can be interpreted as signals of resolve to domestic and foreign audiences alike.
Missiles form a key pillar in the Islamic Republic’s security and defense strategy, enabling the regime to have a credible deterrent against perceived foreign aggression. A robust missile force also permits Tehran the ability to coerce and intimidate regional adversaries, as well as continue its involvement in low-intensity conflict throughout the Middle East without fearing direct kinetic reprisal. Cruise missiles also offer Iran the capability to offset the evolving ballistic missile defense capabilities of its adversaries. Cruise missiles hug the terrain they fly over, are smaller, and require less infrastructure to support than ballistic missiles. In summary, a functioning LACM capability provides Tehran new ways to reach targets in the event of hostilities, making the regime’s missile force more stratified and thus more lethal.
An overemphasis by the West on seeking to check Tehran’s ballistic missile program has led to inattention to Iran’s cruise missile capabilities and intentions, which is an evolving threat. When unveiling the Hoveizeh, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF), who oversees Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, proclaimed, “Our main focus now is on [the] production of cutting edge cruise missiles and land-based missile defense systems.” Washington should not wait for Iran to make good on that promise.