Some 14 years after illegally acquiring at least six Raduga Kh-55 (NATO reporting name: AS-15 Kent) cruise missiles from Ukraine (China at the same time acquired six Kh-55s through the same Ukrainian sources), and in the wake of reports that it was developing cruise-missile technologies, Iran revealed the result of its efforts for the first time in early March 2015. The Soumar cruise missile closely resembles the Kh-55, though there are some external differences.
Taken at face value, the unveiling of the Soumar marks a step-change in Iran’s ability to develop and manufacture a long-range cruise missile. The presentation of the Soumar, however, raises as many questions as it answers, at least in the public arena, as to the nature of the programme, the missile’s maturity and its potential performance.
Iran appears to have a number of cruise-missile development efforts underway, with the Soumar possessing the longest range of these. Tehran’s long-range cruise-missile programme was previously associated with the name Meshkat, and this type is more than likely related to the Soumar. The 2013 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report produced by the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center identified the Meshkat as a 2,000km cruise-missile programme, with systems intended for ground, maritime and air platforms.
However, it is a ground-launched cruise missile that Iran has chosen to show first. The Kh-55 design was intended for air launch, with the missile entering the inventory of the Soviet Union in 1983. It provided the Soviet air force with a nuclear-armed stand-off weapon for its Tu-95MS Bear long-range bomber force. The missile entered service with the Tu-160 Blackjack in 1992.
The most obvious external difference between the Kh-55 and the Soumar is the addition of a solid-rocket booster for ground launch. The booster is also fitted with four lattice fins to provide initial post-launch stability. Lattice fins have been employed previously on Soviet ballistic, anti-ship and air-to-air missile designs. The Soumar has three suspension lugs, two on the upper section of the fuselage and one on the booster. Along with the wings, which are recessed in the fuselage prior to launch, the missile’s triangular tail control surfaces would seem also to fold. The vertical tail would otherwise block the missile from being secured to the launch-canister suspension rail. The rear control surfaces also appear to have mass balances at their root, a feature not required on the original Kh-55.
So far, Iran has not released any imagery of sub-component manufacture or final assembly of the missile; nor have any details been released regarding the guidance systems used by the Soumar or its terminal accuracy. The Kh-55 used inertial and digital terrain-contour matching. This uses a digital terrain map of the planned route to compare with the actual terrain and to allow the flight profile to be modified as required. Accurate digital terrain-elevation data is a key element of this navigation approach. Kh-55 accuracy was also driven by its nuclear payload, and as such would be less stringent than that required for a missile armed with a conventional warhead.
It remains a matter of conjecture whether Iran has at any point had external support in developing sub-systems for the Soumar. China has had a close relationship with Iran concerning the provision of a range of tactical anti-ship missiles, while there has been a relationship between Iran and North Korea regarding ballistic systems.
The only launch footage released so far shows the missile being slant launched from a vehicle, followed by the separation of the solid propellant booster motor. There was no imagery of the missile in the cruise or terminal phase of any test.
While many of the details surrounding Iran’s Soumar long-range cruise missile are unclear, what remains readily apparent is Tehran’s desire to bolster its capabilities in this arena. Coupled with Iran’s ballistic-missile inventory, the Soumar would complicate considerably regional missile-defence requirements.