Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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January 15, 2003

Iraqi Ballistic Missile Force Shows Residual Capability, Even Without Consideration of Possible Secret Stockpiles

Analysis. By David P. Murphy, GIS. This is a general assessment of the effectiveness of the Iraqi ballistic missile force. This assessment offers an analysis of the likely Iraqi view of the past, current, and future progress of their ballistic missile programs, despite the serious material losses during Operation Desert Storm (ODS) and the post-ODS time period. The Iraqi forces employed a mix of ballistic missiles based on the R-11 series of missiles supplied originally by the former Soviet Union. The R-11 was known to NATO as the Scud-A; the successor to the R-11 missile was the R-17, known to NATO as the Scud-B. The Iraqis produced a series of derivatives based on the Scud-B.

Considerable research and analysis were dedicated to the review of Iraqi use of ballistic missiles during ODS. Additional research and analysis efforts were dedicated to the study of the performance of the Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) in defense against ballistic missiles as well as the redirection of tactical strike aircraft to attacking transporter-erector-launchers (TEL) dispersed throughout Western Iraq. The US Raytheon Patriot SAM was not designed originally for the ballistic missile defense (BMD) mission and its performance should be viewed with that proviso in mind.  The tactical strike aircraft tasked with destroying Scud missiles and Iraqi-developed derivatives; this task became known colloquially as “The Great Scud Hunt” during the Gulf War. Important lessons learned by the Coalition forces helped spur the development of theater ballistic missile defenses, influenced improvements in intelligence collection and processing, and been a major force behind upgrades in command, control, and communications.

What were important lessons learned for the Iraqi forces?

Force in Being. It is unlikely to have escaped the attention of any of Saddam Hussein’s advisors that the threat posed by the Scud-series ballistic missiles to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Israel was primarily psychological and symbolic. The total number of missiles fired at both countries varies according the sources cited, but the total number of launches was less than 100. The UNSCOM derived figure was 93 Scud-series launches. This number (93) should be considered in the light of the number of Scud missiles launched during the Iran-Iraq War: 516.

The Iraqi ballistic missile force, as a force in being, exerts disproportionate influence over the policy of the US and other states. The estimated number of systems may range from a low of 20 to a high value of 200. This may not include Iraqi-owned DPRK-origin NoDong-1 ballistic missiles which were shipped to Libya; many (if not all) of these are still in Libya. The effect of the Iraqi ballistic missile force is felt by the deployment of US Patriot SAM systems within likely threatened nations or the positioning of US Aegis cruisers and destroyers armed with Standard Missile Block IV and Block IVA anti-tactical ballistic missiles just offshore, as well as the priority pace of development of the high-value Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. The Arrow 2 was developed not only to meet an anticipated Iraqi ballistic missile threat to Israel, however, but also to meet a larger, longer-term threat from such missiles from Iran, as well as potential threats from KSA-, Syrian-, Libyan- and Egyptian-based ballistic missiles

Threat Technology Level. The Scud series have been replaced by the SS-21 Scarab in the Russian arsenal, but the Iraqi weapons development teams seem to have chosen the Scud series to fulfill a rôle not unlike that of the MiG-21 Fishbed or SS-N-2 Styx; that of a general-purpose weapon. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Iraqis modified the baseline Scud design for greater range through two innovations: 1. reducing the payload, or throw weight, in the warhead section; and 2. bolting additional length in the fuel and oxidizer tanks. The modified Scud missiles were named al-Abbas and al-Hussein. Performance figures cited in sources vary which makes planning to deal with the threat difficult.

The al-Hussein is a single-stage, liquid-fueled missile like the Scud, but with the payload reduced from 800 to 1,000 kilograms (1,760 to 2,200 lb.) to 300 kg (660 lb.). This provides a considerable extension in range from values of 280 to 300 km (152 to 162 nautical miles) to a distance in excess of 600 km (320 nm). An official report lists the range of the al-Hussein as variable from 650 to 950 km (355 to 520 nm). The circular error, probable (CEP) degraded from approximately one km (just more than 0.55 nm) to well in excess of four km (2.2 nm).

A variant of the al-Hussein was developed and is known as the al-Hussein Short, or al-Hijara. This missile seems intended for delivery of chemical and biological agents. The range of the al-Hijara missile is comparable to the al-Hussein. The CEP of the al-Hijara is assessed as greater than that of the al-Hussein, which makes that missile well-suited to the delivery of an area-effect payload.

Another variant existed or may still be in existence; it is known to external analysts as the H-3 and is named for the principal combined arms base in the extreme West of Iraq, where the missile was first discovered.

The al-Abbas is also a single-stage, liquid-fueled missile like the Scud. The al-Abbas reportedly carries only a 140 to 180 kg (308 to 396 lb.) warhead section and is fitted with greatly lengthened fuel and oxidizer tanks. This permits a range of 900 km (490 nm).

In addition to the Scud derivatives, Iraq developed a number of modified surface-to-air missiles (SAM) which were displayed originally at the 1989 arms exhibition in Baghdad. The missiles displayed were SAMs optimized for the  surface-to-surface missile (SSM) rôle; these included the SA-2 Guideline, SA-3 Goa, and SA-6 Gainful. This is a logical development of the practice reported by former Warsaw Pact SAM battery operators of training to use the larger SAMs as SSMs. The SA-2 Guideline presented a particularly severe threat since it possessed a 195 kg (429 lb) high-fragmentation warhead and was fitted with a proximity fuze. Following further along this development path are the al-Samoud, al-Fahd 300, and al-Fahd 500 short-range ballistic missiles based on the SA-2 Guideline booster section. The payload of these short-range missiles has been similar to the SA-2 for the purpose of weights and balances.

Beating the Defenses. Saddam Hussein’s advisors are certain to have pointed out that a postwar analysis of the Iraqi ballistic missile force threat technology level showed it to be superior to that of interceptor missile seekers  mounted against it. While at first glance this statement seems fallacious, consider the simple fact that only one Scud derivative missile was “destroyed” by Patriot SAMs. The sole intercepted missile impacted on a warehouse being used as a barracks with considerable loss of life. This was a result of the Scud derivative missile being damaged; as the missile’s flight path became erratic, the Patriot missile fire control system assessed the target as a “non-target”.

Many of the Scud derivatives flew erratically in the endgame maneuver. It is highly probable that many of the incoming missiles missed by Patriot batteries were assessed as non-targets. This is a software problem and may be resolved readily for Patriot. The same erratic pattern in the flight profile of the Scud derivatives may present a different problem for the US Standard Missile Block IVA at higher altitudes; the problem for the Block IVA resides with its imaging infrared (IIR) seeker. The IIR seeker will be able to detect the incoming Scud derivatives, but the erratic flight behavior may enable the threat missile to "dodge the bullet".

The Middle East Military Balance 2001-2002, edited by Shlomo Brom and Yiftah Shapir, lists five launchers and 20 to 30 al-Hussein warshots with an unknown number of al-Samoud short-range launchers and missiles. This assessment appears to be based on the maximum number of targets that could be handled by the Arrow 2 ATBM fire-control system, rather than the actual level of the threat posed by Iraqi missile units.

Using the Missile Body to Maximize Damage. The Iraqis are assessed to have taken a different view of how to achieve a kill using a Scud derivative. Whereas the former Soviet Union and other major powers armed with tactical or theater ballistic missiles focused on the smallest possible CEP for accurate delivery of chemical, biological, or radiological warheads, Iraqi designers appear to have been working on how to use the entire Scud derivative missile body to inflict damage on an urban target. Following further along this development path are the al-Samoud, al-Fahd 300, and al-Fahd 500 short-range ballistic missiles based on the SA-2 Guideline booster section.

A benefit from the erratic flight path of the Scud derivatives during the endgame phase was their tendency to break up as the missile airframes were overstressed. This resulted, during the 1991 Gulf War, in the disintegration of some Scud derivatives with large pieces impacting at random in Israel and the KSA.

Attacking from Outside. Iraq has also built up a sizeable inventory of ballistic missiles outside of its borders. Iraqi-purchased ballistic missiles are known to be held in reserve in a number of nations, such as Syria and Libya.1 The threat posed by these missiles complicates defense to such a degree that ATBM systems cannot be focused on only one or two threat axes. 

The use of launch sites outside of Iraq can only complicate the response by the US and other nations. If a few missiles are launched from the hinterlands of Libya or Syria,  this does not represent a substantive threat to deployed US forces. 

It is likely that missiles from these launch sites would be used to trigger retaliatory strikes by Israel and thus widen any future conflict into an Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby attempting to engender Arab and Muslim support for Iraq against the US. During the Cold War, when one side would escalate by employing a nuclear weapon, it was called, “crossing the firebreak”. It is quite clear that crossing the firebreak is high on Saddam's priority list. Attacking from outside is but one means of achieving that aim.

Force Camouflage and Deception.  Iraqi forces proved themselves quite adept at camouflage and deception during both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. The level of camouflage and deception and the effectiveness of same is effective in keeping the Coalition, especially the US, guessing at the missile force level available to Saddam Hussein for whatever purpose he has in mind.

The Iraqis were able to reduce the number of successful attacks made by Coalition tactical strike aircraft using precision-guided weapons. While initial reports held that the majority of such attacks had been successful, this number was revised downwards to “40%” after analysis. This percentage has been lowered further since the initial post-ODS exuberance, but the number is still far higher than in any previous conflict involving an aerial conflict.

Beating the Inspectors. UNSCOM witnessed the destruction of only 48 Scud derivatives. Iraq provided documentation on an additional 85 Scud derivatives, 83 of which were confirmed by UNSCOM after excavating the burial pits.

The effect of these weapons on Coalition tactics and force employment was disproportionately more costly than the threat; this has been noted in the many histories written about ODS. An example of the effect that Iraqi Scud derivative missiles had on the conduct war was the fraction of sorties redirected to destroying these systems on the ground; a figure of 25 percent is often quoted.

An official report, quoting an UNSCOM report, liberally seems to show a pathway for the Iraqis to have beaten the arms inspectors. The total number of Scud derivative missiles was 133, with only 48 having been witnessed as destroyed by UNSCOM. The other 85 missiles were allegedly destroyed by the Iraqis, with UNSCOM relying on archaeology to identify the buried material. The total number of warheads produced for Scud derivatives was 210: 157 imported and 103 indigenous.

The only Scud derivative missiles likely to have been destroyed in toto are the 48 observed by UNSCOM. Similarly, the 50 warheads destroyed under UNSCOM supervision are probably the only warheads that can be counted as destroyed.

The remaining 85 missiles and 210 warheads must be assumed to be most likely still in existence; the disparity between the missile body and warhead figures raises many questions. Additionally, there are boosters unaccounted for; at least 120. Added to these figures are any Scud derivatives brought into Iraq in contravention of the post-ODS sanctions. However the numbers are compiled, Iraq has a considerable number of theater ballistic missiles inside the country and a tactically significant number outside Iraq.


1. See, particularly, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 8, 2000: Libyan NoDong SSMs Reported Targeting Southern NATO Sites and Israel. This report highlights Iraq’s involvement in procurement DPRK NoDong-1 ballistic missiles through Libya. Also see Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of October 28, 2002: Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens.