Iran’s Tasnim News Agency announced that the government has begun testing a supersonic cruise missile for the first time.
On 9 August 2023, the Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claimed that the government had achieved a significant milestone by obtaining supersonic cruise-missile technology and that it has been testing a corresponding system. Iran’s interest in acquiring this technology is long-standing. In August 2016, then-defence minister Hossein Dehghan announced that Iran would soon start building supersonic anti-ship missiles. Subsequently, in March 2018, two Iranian diplomats were arrested in Ukraine for attempting to acquire parts and documentation related to one such missile, the Soviet-designed Zvezda-Strela Kh-31A (RS-AS-17B Krypton). Iran had similarly sourced subsonic land-attack cruise-missile technology from Ukraine in 2001 in violation of Ukrainian law; it acquired six Soviet-era Kh-55 (RS-AS-15A Kent) strategic cruise missiles, minus the nuclear warheads, from black-market sources.
In October 2019, a company associated with Iran’s defence industry presented a ramjet engine known as the RJ-HP1, which could be suitable for supersonic cruise-missile applications, to Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei. The then-commander of the Iranian navy, Commodore Hossein Khanzadi, confirmed the following year that Iran’s armed forces were prioritising the acquisition of a supersonic cruise-missile capability.
Supersonic cruise missiles are useful for Iran’s asymmetric deterrence strategy because their speed and low-level flight capability make it difficult for defenders to detect and engage the weapons. As the war in Ukraine has indicated, even ageing supersonic designs can pose a substantial challenge to modern air defences.
The benefits for Tehran acquiring a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile are further apparent considering that Iran’s regional adversaries, as well as the United States, have deployed advanced land- and sea-based air- and missile-defence systems in the region. Gulf Cooperation Council member states are also engaged in a major effort to modernise and expand their air- and missile-defence capabilities to address current and future missile threats.
While Iran’s interest in acquiring a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile and the strategic rationale for doing so are clear, other aspects of Tehran’s programme remain unknown. It is uncertain whether the programme will remain focused exclusively on developing a dedicated anti-ship system or whether Iran will consider developing a missile with a secondary land-attack function. Iran may also attempt to develop a dedicated supersonic land-attack cruise missile.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether Iran’s programme is based on a domestic design or is derived from a foreign-acquired system. The latter approach would mirror Iran’s subsonic anti-ship missile-development programme, which began with the acquisition and then local production of Chinese designs, before gradually moving towards adapting these for domestic requirements by expanding their capabilities. If Iran is attempting to reverse-engineer a foreign design, candidates include three systems from Russia: the Kh-31A, which Iran pursued in 2018 in Ukraine; the Raduga 3M80 Moskit (RS-SS-N-22 Sunburn), which Iran reportedly acquired examples of in the 1990s; and the NPO Mashinostroyenia 3M55 Oniks (RS-SS-N-26 Strobile), a ramjet-powered missile allegedly possessed by Hizbullah.
Tasnim News Agency did not indicate whether the supersonic cruise-missile project is being run by Iran’s defence ministry or the IRGC. Given that Iran has run distinct development tracks within each organisation for systems as diverse as loitering munitions, medium-range ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles, it is possible that more than one supersonic cruise-missile programme could be running concurrently.
This article is part of a series from the Missile Dialogue Initiative (MDI) focusing on selected missile and arms-control developments. The MDI aims to strengthen international discussion and promote a high-level exchange of views on missile technologies and related international-security dynamics.