Ballistic Missiles at War: The Case of Iraq I

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Ballistic Missiles at War The Case of Iraq I

Al-Hussein missiles displayed in their erector-launchers. Baghdad arms exhibition, April–May 1989.

The Soviet “Scud” missile family.

The United States and Soviet Union backed away from a nuclear showdown with the Cuba Missile Crisis. Although the two nations continued to build weapons, the countries agreed to reduce certain types and quantities of nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missiles ranging from the MRBM to a number of ICBMs. Unfortunately, other nations had witnessed how these weapons provided an avenue to strike strategically and to coerce or affect a rival’s behavior. These weapons also became a symbol of national pride so that their mere existence allowed states to demonstrate their resolve in the face of regional disputes or to gain domestic cohesion in the guise of protecting the nation. The Soviet Union and other countries sold technologies and complete systems to bolster client states and earn hard currency from foreign military sales. Two nations that acquired these systems were Iran and Iraq, traditional enemies, but both supported through arms sales by the Soviet Union. Iraq would use its missiles against Iran and would later use them against the United States.

The Middle East erupts: Iran and Iraq

In the late twentieth century, Middle Eastern conflicts had normally revolved around the Arab world and Israel. However, the picture of a unified Islamic world against Israel was not clear. Tensions between secular governments and others, dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, spilled over borders. Different Islamic sects vied for control over nations. Ancient claims over territory did not distinguish between countries that were Arabic, Persian, or Israeli. Other concerns involved economic ones, influence over oil fields and their potential wealth. These problems erupted between Iran and Iraq in 1980. At the end of the conflict, some experts claimed that the two Islamic countries exchanged over several hundred ballistic missile attacks.

Iranian revolutionaries had overthrown a government friendly toward the United States and the West in January 1979. Islamic fundamentalists had created a revolutionary government intent on creating a state that would replace many non-Muslim influences with their fundamentalist Muslim thought and philosophy. Tehran illustrated clearly its focus on removing Western influence by seizing the U. S. embassy. Although the United States gained release of these hostages, the effect was chilling for many nations around the Persian Gulf. One of the goals of the Iranian government was to transform other nations’ governments and societies around the region to mirror its image. Iran tried to export its revolutionary movement west into Saudi Arabia to wrest control over many holy Muslim religious sites. The fundamentalist Islamic Iranians viewed the Saudi monarchy as a decadent group that had betrayed Islam by its continued dealings with the “Great Satan,” the United States and the rest of the West. This same country had supported the former corrupt Iranian government until the revolution. Iraq was also a target, since it had subjugated its Islamic Shiite sect majority; Shiite members dominated Iran. Saddam Hussein and his Sunni sect seemed at odds with the Ayatollah Khomeini by dealing with the godless Soviet Union. Iraq was also a secular state that came into confrontation with the ideals of an Islamic state like the Iranian government. Iran had already deposed of its Shah, who had tried to develop an Iranian secular state.

Iraq was another country subjugated by a single voice. A secular government formed by Saddam Hussein had turned a former monarchy into a socialist government, at least in name. The nation became a threat to surrounding nations such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab emirates, with the potential to spread political instability. These countries feared that Iran and Iraq would spread political unrest in their societies. A powerful Iraq could also threaten Israel directly or through its oil-funded support of its northern Marxist neighbor, Syria. Syrian and radical terrorist groups pressured Tel Aviv’s northern borders and Lebanon. The United States and other nations feared disruptions of oil supplies that could wreck their economies and throw their political futures into disarray.

By 1980, the collision between the Iranian Islamic government of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein seemed inevitable. Iran had depended on weapon purchases and training with the United States. This relationship all changed significantly when Islamic fundamentalists took control of the country and held the U. S. embassy personnel hostage for over a year. The United States refused to sell weapon systems and spare parts to Iran. Similarly, economic problems continued as the United States maintained sanctions, including the refusal to buy oil from Iran. Iranian air power, once a top regional force, had fallen into disrepair. Political will was strong, but Iranian military capability was lacking and had limited sustainability.

Iraq had access to the Persian Gulf through the Shatt al Arab area. Iran and Iraq had forged an uneasy agreement in 1975 over the vital property that allowed Hussein to ship oil from his country to sea lanes for export. Hussein’s government, like those of other countries around the Gulf, depended on oil for its economy. Hussein wanted the Iranian government to allow him expanded access to the Persian Gulf by allowing Iraq to control some islands in the Shatt al Arab. Hussein threatened the Iranians to comply with his demand. The Iranians refused.

Hussein decided to launch an attack on his neighbor. Although Iraqi artillery units had conducted some shelling along the border, Hussein ordered no major attacks conducted on Iranian military units. Through early September 1980, Iraq started to prepare for war. Hussein could achieve many of his objectives if he could defeat Iran. He could preempt a possible Iranian supported revolution that might topple the Iraqi government. Since Khomeini had threatened to topple secular states like Hussein’s, removing this menace was paramount. If Iraq pushed Iran back from the Shatt al Arab, then Iraq would have a secure border. A military victory had the potential to make Iraq the regional military and political power in the Gulf. Hussein could also encourage counterrevolutionary forces in Iran to break Khomeini’s power in Tehran. Hussein had strong motivations to feed his growing economy by taking Iranian oil fields. These motivations helped convince Iraq to take Iranian territory on September 10. Iraq demanded that Iran cede the captured area; Iran again refused and started to mobilize. The Iranians and Iraqis soon found themselves in a long war of attrition that would last until 1989.

Iraq’s military had been supplied by the Soviet Union. Iraq did not have to conduct a major military rebuilding program due to any open conflicts with Israel, previous border conflicts, or revolutions before its fight with Iran. On paper, the Iraqi military had a great advantage over the Iranians. The Iranian military was half the size of its prerevolutionary self. The government in Tehran suffered internal problems as the revolution made radical changes. Iraqi government officials believed that taking the islands in the Shatt al Arab would result in some international debate and minor skirmishing but that eventually the territory would remain in Baghdad’s hands.

Iraq tried to knock the Iranians out of the war early, but it could not. On September 22, the Iraqi air force bombed major western Iranian airfields to destroy aircraft on the ground. If the Iraqis could eliminate the Iranian air force, then any danger of Khomeini bombing major industrial or military sites or Baghdad would be remote. Iraqi aircraft also attempted to annihilate the Iranian navy to ensure it would not interfere with its access through the Persian Gulf. Iraqi failure to remove the air and naval threats would encourage the Iranians and allow them to expand the conflict by striking the source of Iraqi wealth and power, oil. Iranian patrol boats, aircraft, and other forces would later attack shipping and oil terminals. Iranian and Iraqi air forces were roughly equivalent in size and strength. Iranian aircraft could bomb Baghdad, Kirkuk, and a key transportation site, Basra.

The Iraqis also misjudged Iranian will to continue the ground war. Despite the material and training advantages, Iran continued to attack Iraqi positions, and it would not cede any lost territory. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces would conduct human wave attacks against the Iraqis. Soon, the conflict resembled World War I, with fighting between trenches and movements measured in yards, and it lasted for years. Control over areas around the Shatt al Arab and the borders was traded between the two sides. The Iraqis needed a new strategy to break the stalemate.


Saddam Hussein’s arsenal contained some rocket and missile systems before 1980. Hussein authorized his nation’s weapons inventory into operation against the Iranians. These systems focused on supporting battlefield operations. Iraqi systems were a supplement to artillery, not designed for strategic effects. The Iraqis did gain some experience by building and modifying these missile and rocket systems. Iraqi military commanders used multiple rocket launchers and missiles that had ranges of less than 100 kilometers (about sixty miles). The Soviet Union had sold the Iraqis some Free Rocket Over Ground (FROG)-7s (their Soviet designation is R65A or Luna), also deployed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, that had a limited range of sixty kilometers (thirty-seven miles). The FROG-7 was a development from the 1950s that was widely sold abroad. These rockets could not lift a sizeable conventional warhead in lieu of its designed twenty-five-kiloton yield nuclear payload. The FROG-7 had a 450-kilogram (about 1,000 pounds) conventional warhead capacity.

Iraqi military commanders started to use the FROG-7 in its early campaigns against Iran in 1980. The weapon had a single-stage construction powered by a solid propellant engine. This relatively primitive ballistic missile did not have a guidance system but was spin stabilized. The missile had limited usefulness and was very inaccurate, especially against entrenched Iranian forces. The FROG-7 had less capability than a German V-2, but it did possess a key advantage: it was launch capable off a single wheeled transporter/erector/launcher (TEL). An experienced crew could launch a missile every twenty minutes. Normally, another vehicle carrying three additional missiles followed the TEL. The Soviets had improved the FROG-7 by 1980, but it was still a primitive weapon.

Limitations of the FROG-7 forced the Iraqis to reconsider the FROG-7’s use against other targets, cities, or larger urban areas. Early Iraqi missile operations focused on two locations, Ahwaz and Dezful, that had limited military value. The strikes concentrated on supporting Iraqi ground movements into Iranian territory. These FROG-7 attacks were sporadic and of limited value, however. Crews used ten missiles in 1980 and then fired fifty-four missiles the next year. Iraqi military commanders later phased out the missile from a direct combat role with only a single missile in 1982 and two missiles in 1984. Even against relatively large targets like cities, the FROG-7 was ineffective. Some missiles, just like the earlier V-2s, missed the target entirely. Baghdad needed a new missile to strike Iranian cities with more punch and accuracy.

The Iraqi government sought to increase the yield and range of its ballistic missile inventory. It turned to its R-17 (NATO code named SS-1C SCUDB) missiles that the Soviets supplied to Iraq in the early 1970s. The SCUD-B was a single-staged, liquid fueled ballistic missile that used storable hypergolic propellants. A fully fueled and maintained ballistic missile could hit a target at an extended range of 330 kilometers (180 miles) with a CEP of about 450 meters (1,500 feet). SCUD-Bs could carry a 985-kilogram (2,175-pound) warhead. The missile had an inertial guidance system that used three gyroscopes to improve the accuracy of the missile over the FROG-7 despite the fourfold increase in range. Signals to the control vanes on the tail assembly would help correct the flight path of the missile in flight as long as the engine was operating.

The SCUD-B provided added capability to the Iraqis. Soviet engineers designed the SCUD-B to deliver nuclear, conventional, or chemical warheads. The warhead detaches from the missile’s body. This capability provided the Iraqis with an ability to select an appropriate yield with either a conventional or a chemical weapon. The SCUD-B was also a very mobile weapon, like the FROG-7. Crews launched it from a TEL that would raise the missile from a horizontal to vertical position, ignite it, and move to another position to fire another missile. Still, the SCUD-B had problems. Its range was not sufficient to hit Tehran or other key targets. Unless Iraqi forces could take more Iranian territory, the SCUD-B could do little against Tehran. The Iraqis needed improved capabilities since the ground war was a stalemate.

Hussein now faced the prospect of acquiring new longer-range SCUD-Cs which had a range of 600 kilometers (or 373 miles), which still could not reach Tehran. Another option for Baghdad was purchasing advanced ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union (like the OTR-22 IRBM or SS-12 Scaleboard) or building its own ballistic missiles. Soviet sales or deployments of IRBMs were not possible due to ongoing arms reduction negotiations with the United States. Sales of an SS-12 and a SCUD-C might also widen an ongoing arms race within the Middle East that could have long-term consequences for the Soviets. Expectedly, the Soviets declined to sell more advanced and more accurate weapons to Iraq. Saddam Hussein would have to gain ballistic missile superiority by modifying Iraq’s existing stock of SCUD-B missiles or by building variants of the delivery system. Iraqi missile engineers and designers would work on two variants of the SCUD-B, the Al-Husayn and Al-Abbas.

Modifying the SCUD-B into a delivery platform with an extended range required resources. Although the Iraqis had experimented with modifying some missiles, this was very different from extending the range of a relatively large ballistic missile. This effort required additional time, expertise, and funds. The ground war had slowed with no major effective offensive actions that had directly threatened either nation’s capitals. Expertise to improve Baghdad’s missile designs from other countries, such as the Soviet Union, would take time to find and then employ. The continued war on the ground, disputes in areas around oil terminals in the Shatt al Arab, and Iranian attacks on oil shipping lanes affected Iraqi finances. Trading off ballistic missile development against purchasing weapons to fight the war on the ground, air, and sea was a gamble. Still, Hussein started a program to modify the SCUD-Bs.

Iraqi launch crews would use SCUD-Bs and modified variants to attack some cities. Hussein directed these attacks against the cities to break the will of the Iranian population. These operations amounted to terror raids to force the Iranian government to either fail or negotiate an end to the war. On October 27, 1982, Hussein’s missile crews began to replace FROG-7s with SCUDBs. The crews would still launch a limited three SCUD missiles in 1982. SCUD-B crews began ramping up: to thirty-three launches in 1983; twenty-five firings in 1984; a huge barrage of eighty-two missiles in 1985; no launches in 1986; attacks in 1987 to match their record in 1984; and 193 attacks in 1988. There is some dispute about the actual number of missile launches, but most estimates place the number of launches at no more than 251. Iraq focused many of its early SCUD attacks on border cities such as Ahwaz, Borujerd, Dezful, and Khorramabad. Even with their greater range and improvement in payload, these missiles did not provide sufficient damage. Unless the missiles hit a large factory, school, or area where people gathered, they became merely terror devices.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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