[Be careful what (comments) you ask for. Geoff Forden suggests that the premise is mistaken, and the Ashura isn’t necessarily solid-fueled at all. See the comments section below.]

Say we woke up one morning, Gregor Samsa-like, to find that all the liquid-fueled ballistic missiles in the Middle East (spread around the region by good old-fashioned North Korean salesmanship for the past couple of decades) were gone, replaced by solid-fueled missiles. Would this be reason for concern?

Probably. Solid-fueled missiles accelerate more quickly than the liquid-fueled variety, raising questions about the viability of boost-phase defenses, as noted in the 2003 APS study on that subject.

They’re also safer and easier to handle than anything that needs to be filled with a toxic, flammable liquid propellant. They don’t need to be accompanied by the same fleet of support vehicles. And they don’t take the same hours to prepare for launch. So they’re even harder to spot than the ol’ Scud-type missiles, and offer less of a time window for pre-emption.

Maybe that’s stabilizing, actually. But the downside is pretty clear.

The point is, along with the hour of the cruise missile, the hour of the solid-fueled ballistic missile is now upon us, or just about. These systems go some way towards ushering in what has been called (with only some exaggeration) “push-button warfare,” negating some of the advantages of the advanced military powers.

The latest development in the Middle East’s solid-fuel revolution is Iran’s multi-stage, 2,000-km-range “Ashura” missile, announced back in November 2007 by Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Najjar. According to MDA Director Trey Obering, its appearance was surprising. He also called it “different.” Translation: nothing like that has been tested in North Korea yet.

Where Did It Come From?

Beats me. That’s one of the nice things about this format: nobody expects you to have all the answers.

Let’s consider a few possibilities, shall we?

Iran. In his lengthy review of Iran’s missile programs from 2006, Uzi Rubin mentions a May 2005 statement by Najjar’s predecessor, Ali Shamkhani, describing progress toward a “twin-engine” solid-fueled missile. Rubin seems to take seriously the idea of an indigenous development in this area. He later suggested as much to Peter Crail at Arms Control Today, although Crail also notes the Chinese background to Iran’s solid-propellant technology.

China by way of Pakistan. Others take the idea of an all-Iranian missile with a mine of salt. Norbert Brügge flatly equates the Ashura to Pakistan’s Shaheen-II, a two-stage solid-fueled missile with a range of 2,000 km, allegedly of Chinese origin. Charles Vick sees some differences (three stages for the Ashura?) but also a common heritage.

Under Pakistan, Circumstantial Evidence For, let’s file the display of the Shaheen-II at the biennial IDEAS arms show in Karachi, adorned with a “Not For Sale” sign. Contemporary reports say it first appeared there at the inaugural show, IDEAS 2002… initially without the sign 2000.

India. This 2006 article by Lee Kass hints broadly that Iran may have had access to some of the technologies associated with India’s two-stage, 2,000-km-range, solid-fueled Agni-II missile. Does he know something the rest of us don’t?

Nobody’s pointing fingers at Russia yet.

Commenters, over to you.