Syria Missile Development

Today, Syria has one of the largest arsenals of surface-to-surface missiles in the Middle East, including hundreds of Scud missiles that can carry nuclear or chemical payloads to targets throughout Israel. Last year, Israel’s leading newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, reported that an Israel Defense Forces document predicts that by the end of the millennium Syria will have nearly 80 surface-to-surface missile launchers and roughly 1,000 missiles, including Scud-Bs, Scud-Cs, SS-21s and FROG-7s.

Though the Israeli estimate may inflate Syria’s missile prowess, Israel does have reason to worry. U.S. officials believe that Syria has an advanced chemical and biological weapon program. In any future conflict, Israel must plan for Syrian missiles to be tipped with poison gas. “The Syrians see their missiles and chemical weapons as a strategic counterweight to what they perceive as Israel’s nuclear weapon capability.” There is also the possibility that Syrian missiles could strike Israel’s nuclear reactor near Dimona.

Damascus is determined to acquire or build its own missiles that can reach all of Israel and also threaten the capitals of Turkey and Iraq. “The Syrians want the capability to produce ballistic missiles locally,” a U.S. official tells the Risk Report, “but so far their ambition has exceeded their grasp.” With its weak industrial base and stagnant economy, Syria must rely on imports from North Korea to build liquid-fuel Scud missiles, and imports from China to develop larger, more accurate solid-fuel missiles that could fly 600 kilometers. Another official who analyzes missile proliferation concurs: “Syria has a fairly rudimentary infrastructure. It’s not as good as Egypt or Iran, but they are certainly ahead of Libya.” U.S. analysts say that there is a shortage of qualified engineers and missile technicians in the Syrian military.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Syria relied heavily on the Soviet Union for missile supplies and training. But since the end of the Cold War, Damascus has turned to North Korea and China to buy missiles and the factories to produce them in Syria. U.S. officials tell the Risk Report that Damascus is now ready to mass-produce Scud-Bs that fly 300 kilometers.

Soviet FROG-7

When Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad assumed power in November 1970, he immediately began to strengthen military relations with the Soviet Union. One of the immediate results was the purchase of Syria’s first surface-to-surface missile, the FROG-7 (Free Rocket Over Ground). Within a year, Syrian technicians were invited to the Soviet Union to train on the FROG system. The FROG is an unguided, solid fuel missile with a maximum range of about 70 kilometers. It can be fired from mobile launchers and can be equipped with either a high explosive or a tactical nuclear warhead weighing 450 kilograms.

According to a 1985 study by Joseph Bermudez for the U.S. Marine Corps, the Soviet Union first shipped a half dozen transporter erector launchers (TELs) and a half dozen reload vehicles in 1972. By early 1973, an additional six TELs and six reload vehicles were sent. And by the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Syrians had assumed complete operational control of the missiles.

Bermudez reported that during the 1973 war, Syria launched FROG missiles at the Ramat David air base in Northern Israel, Megiddo Airfield, Izhak ben Yaakov Airfield, and Northern Command Headquarters (in the mountains near Zefat). The missiles carried high explosive warheads, operated at maximum range, and missed virtually all their targets. Only one or two FROGs hit the Ramat David air base. The others hit civilian settlements around the air base, including Nahalal, Gevat, Yif’at, Migdal Ha’Emeq and Kefar Barukh. Syria first deployed the missiles just 3,000 meters from the Israeli border, but withdrew them to hardened positions in the mountains around Damascus after Israel’s counter attack on October 11-12. In all, Syria fired about 25 FROG-7s, of which only two or three caused any significant military damage (two are believed to have been duds, and two or three others flew off course and landed in Jordan).

Soviet Scud-B

The FROG’s poor performance led Syria to start looking for better missiles. Within a year, Moscow had agreed to replace the FROGs Syria had used in combat, and also agreed to provide Scud missiles. In 1974, a group of Syrian officers went to the Soviet Union for Scud training, and by the beginning of 1976, the Soviets had shipped a dozen Scud launchers and their support equipment.

The Soviet Scud-B is a single-stage missile that is liquid-fueled, inertially guided, and can carry a 770-860-kilogram payload up to 300 kilometers. The Soviets intended it to deliver nuclear warheads, which explains its low accuracy (CEP–circular error probable, a measure of missile accuracy–is 930 meters when fired to its full range).

It is uncertain how many Scud-Bs the Syrians now have. Syria has passed on some of the Scud-B missiles it got from the Soviet Union to Iran. The number of operational TELS in Syria is also uncertain. Intelligence analysts say it is difficult to distinguish TELs (both with and without missiles) from reload vehicles (both with and without missiles) and replacement missiles. The Middle East Military Balance, an annual survey of military capabilities published by Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, estimates that as of 1994 Syria had 18 FROG-7 launchers, 18 Scud-B launchers and 7 or 8 Scud-C launchers. The TELs, along with their missiles, are reportedly stored in caverns in the mountains outside Damascus. It can take 24 hours to prepare a Scud for launch, and up to 60 minutes reaction time after it arrives at its presurveyed launch site.

Soviet SS-21

When Syria was defeated during the June 1982 fighting with Israel in Lebanon, Damascus blamed Soviet weaponry. Within a year, the Soviets had agreed to supply Syria with the SS-21, the first delivery of this missile outside Warsaw Pact countries. The missiles were shipped in October 1983. The mobile, single-stage, solid-fuel SS-21 “Scarab” can deliver nuclear, chemical or conventional payloads up to 120 kilometers. It is relatively accurate, with a CEP of approximately 300 meters, making it more accurate than the FROG-7. The SS-21’s flight time is between 3-7 minutes and its launcher can be reloaded in 15 minutes.

In 1988, Syria asked the Soviet Union for its more capable and longer-range, solid-fuel SS-23 “Spider” missile, which the Soviets had designed to replace the 1960s-vintage Scud. The SS-23 was designed to fly 500 kilometers, is more accurate than the Scud, and has a shorter refire time. Under the INF Treaty signed by Moscow in December 1988, however, the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate its SS-23 missile and not to transfer it to other countries.

North Korean Scuds

After Damascus was turned down on the SS-23, it went looking elsewhere for supplies and found a willing partner in North Korea. Press reports, citing Israeli intelligence, say the Syrians began discussing a missile deal with North Korea in late 1989, but that the financial package could not be worked out until an influx of hard currency made it possible. Operation Desert Storm provided the needed windfall. In exchange for its participation in the coalition against Iraq, Damascus received about $1 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich gulf states.

Since 1991, Syria has reportedly contracted to buy more than 150 Scud-Cs from North Korea. The Scud-C is a liquid-fuel missile that was first tested by North Korea in 1991 and can fly approximately 500 kilometers. In 1991, North Korea delivered two dozen Scud missiles and 20 mobile launchers to Syria, and in March 1992 shipped some unknown quantity of Scuds, including Scud-Cs and missile components, to Syria through Iran. In August 1992, Israeli intelligence reported that Syria had tested two missiles believed to be North Korean-made Scud-Cs.

By April 1993, a report in Jane’s Intelligence Review estimated that Syria “currently possesses about 250 Scud-B and C missiles (including up to 60 Scud-Cs and about 24 -36 transporter erector launchers).” And in August 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accused North Korea of shipping more Scuds to Syria that summer. Rabin said that Russian planes had delivered the missiles. In December 1993, Clinton Administration officials confirmed that a private Russian airline company had transported special truck chassis that are frequently used as mobile missile launchers from North Korea to Syria. The U.S. had asked Moscow not to allow the planes to fly, but was rebuffed.

In mid-1994 and again in the summer of 1996, Syria flight-tested missiles believed to be North Korean-made Scud-Cs. Although U.S. intelligence will not reveal the exact number of Scuds Syria now has in its arsenal, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Toby T. Gati confirmed in his February 1997 testimony before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Syria had acquired “500-kilometer Scud-Cs from North Korea.”

Israeli and Western officials also report that Syria is now building its own Scud-C missile factory with North Korean help. One senior U.S. official tells the Risk Report that he is “confident that there has been no Scud-C production yet, and it is not as clear whether they have completed any Scud-Bs through they probably will soon.”

U.S. sanctions

The United States has penalized both Syria and North Korea for their missile trade. Under U.S. law, the President can impose sanctions when he determines that an organization has sold missiles or missile-related equipment or technology to a buyer that does not adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an effort by more than 30 countries to curb missile-related exports. U.S. sanctions can apply to a foreign exporter or importer acting wholly outside the United States. By definition, U.S. penalties apply to all subunits of a penalized entity.

In July 1992, the U.S. State Department imposed two-year sanctions against Syria’s Scientific Research Center (CERS) and Syria’s Ministry of Defense for engaging in “missile proliferation activities.” Sanctions were also imposed against North Korea’s Lyongaksan Machineries and the Equipment Export Corporation and Changgwang Credit Corporation and Iran’s Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics.

Chinese M-9

Over the years, Syria has been looking for a missile that can fly far enough to target military sites and cities throughout Israel but would not have to be launched close to the Israel-Syria border, where it would be vulnerable to preemptive air strikes.

In 1988, Damascus thought it had found the perfect candidate–China’s M-9 (Dong Feng-15) missile that can fly 600 kilometers. The M-9 is China’s first indigenously built, single-stage, solid-fuel, land-based missile. It was first tested in 1989, and can fly farther and is more accurate than North Korea’s Scud-C. Because it uses solid fuel, it also can be launched faster.

In July 1988, the Los Angeles Times first reported that China had agreed to sell its M-9 missile to Syria. Citing a U.S. official, the report said that China would supply an unspecified number of the missiles to Syria by 1990. To date, however, there have been no reports of deliveries.

U.S. officials tell the Risk Report that Beijing has agreed not to export its M-series missiles. One official responsible for tracking missile sales says: “There is a firm belief that there is no longer any contract for the M-9.” But it is unclear whether Beijing thinks it has made a promise. In June 1991, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman categorically denied that China had supplied any missiles to Syria, but refused to answer questions about the possibility of future sales. The following month, Chinese premier Li Peng, speaking at a press conference, stated that “I can definitely say that China had not sold any [ballistic] missiles to Syria.”

Because of U.S. pressure, Beijing may not be shipping finished M-9 missiles to Syria, but Chinese companies continue to ship missile-related components and production technology. In January 1992, U.S. officials said China had delivered ingredients for making solid fuel missiles. The New York Times reported that Beijing had shipped 30 tons of chemicals (ammonium perchlorate) used to make solid-fuel missile propellant and had plans to ship an additional 60 tons. Subsequent press reports indicated that two missile plants were under construction in Syria: one in Hama and a second in Aleppo. One of the reports said the plants were designed to produce missile propellant–one for liquid fuel and one for solid fuel. Scud missiles are liquidfueled; the Chinese M-9 is solid-fueled.

Syria is also cooperating with Iran on solid fuel technology, according to U.S. intelligence. In November 1996, the Washington Times reported that according to a secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report entitled “Arms Transfers to State Sponsors of Terrorism,” Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO) sold Syria equipment to develop solid propellant rocket motors. Iran and Syria were also said to be cooperating on a program to convert Syrian Scud-Bs to longer range Scud-Cs.

A U.S. official is skeptical about Syria building its own solid fuel missiles. “They can only do a knock-off program, copying others’ missiles. I can see them building Scuds as long as they can import key components such as guidance packages,” he tells the Risk Report. The official points out that Syria has no systems integration capability to handle missile modifications and that it will be easiest for Syria just to assemble or copy North Korean or Chinese missiles exactly as they are.