At left, is an Iranian numerically controlled lathe milling machine forming cooling channels in a rocket engine.

It is impossible to tell the scale of this engine — and therefore impossible to uniquely link it to the Safir second stage.

However, machining these channels, as opposed to using a corrugated insert, is a major technological change from SCUD technology.


David Wright and Ted Postol have done a really first rate job of analyzing the U’nha-2 and Safir development programs, as exemplified by their excellent article on the U’nha-2. But I think it is important to at least consider an alternative: these missiles represent a much larger portion of indigenous production than just assembling components. This is not to say that Wright and Postol are wrong in their conclusions, only to consider the question.

An International Missile Development Consortium?

North Korea is widely viewed as not testing their missiles enough before they sell them to “client” states. The Nodong missile, which forms the basis for the Shahab-3 and its variants, was tested successfully just once before “being sold to Iran and Pakistan.” This is an unreasonable flight test program and has led many to conjecture that North Korea is either buying complete missiles from Russia, missiles already engineered and developed, or missile components. That could, of course, be very possible and has unfortunate implications for the West’s relationship with Russia. Another alternative of this basic idea, just a small variant really, is that North Korea bought the production line for an obsolete or canceled missile system and modified it to fit its own special circumstances. With this head start, it then formed an international “consortium” with Iran and possibly Pakistan to continue the development. Moving its development program into other countries would have significant advantages for North Korea. For one, while Iranian missile launches are controversial, they do not appear as controversial as the DPRK’s missile tests. This is even more true for Pakistan where any controversy is mainly a regional one.

Such a development consortium would not be the first one ever created. The one I am most familiar with is the Badr 2000/Condor II development program where Iraq, in essence, funded the development of the missile by several other nations. Iraq received a number of contributory production plants that increased their capabilities considerably while failing to produce the desired missile. If North Korea bought the equipment for an obsolete or canceled production line, this would undoubtedly violate many of the rules of the MTCR but might not be as suspicious a violation, especially in a country suffering from the economic catastrophe that was Russia in the 1990s, as selling missile components. After all, most of the equipment could be considered dual use and could appear in separate manifests etc. All the subterfuges proliferation profiteers have used in the past. Importantly, it is much, much easier to reverse engineer a production line than it is to reverse engineer a missile component. After all, once you know the production line components, it is quite easy to buy similar or even exactly the same production equipment else where. The difficulty in reverse engineering is to infer the production scheme.

Too Advanced for Purchasing Production Lines?

An Iranian welding the Shahab engine injection head.
This illustrates the shop-floor know-how that is so
important — and so hard to acquire.

If this happened for the Nodong missile, is it possible it could also happen for an SS-N-6? In fact, it seems even more likely to me that it would happen for these more advanced missile components. The world is full of SA-2 engines, as Iraq showed by purchasing these engines in late 2002 ( see UNMOVIC’s Compendium, volume IV, p. 581.) The closer they get to strategic weapons, the more they come under the control of various treaties. (I’m not sure if SS-N-6 missiles ever came under any of the START etc. treaties, do any of you wonk-readers know?) It is possible that makes them harder to illicitly dispose of. It makes their production lines, however, that much more valuable.

( See my posting on estimating the costs of just the know-how associated with the Badr-2000. That alone was worth $75 million.)

What Proliferators Want

Proliferators, just as would-be producers of civilian products, want access to the technology and they are very seldom satisfied with just components. In fact, the financial inducements needed to entice developing countries into foregoing civilian technology transfer have to be considerable. It seems unreasonable that both Iran and North Korea would voluntarily put themselves into the situation David and Ted suggest, that they only have a finite number of components, and make themselves susceptible to the types of international restrictions that would eventually shut off their missile programs.