Ballistic Missiles at War: The Case of Iraq II

A map indicating the attacks on civilian areas of Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait targeted during the “War of the cities”

Iraqi efforts to expand the SCUD-B’s capabilities resulted in development of the Al-Husayn missile. This missile had an increased range of 650 kilometers (400 miles) and was thus capable of striking central Iran. Iraqi engineers reduced the payload to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) and increased the amount of propellant carried by the missile by about 25 percent. Engineers extended the missile’s fuselage to carry five tons of additional liquid propellant to power it for a seven-minute flight. Launch crews could reload and fire an Al-Husayn within an hour.

Defense experts believed that the Al-Husayn had the capability to carry a high explosive or chemical warhead. As for its earlier SCUD-B cousin, launch crews for the Al-Husayn used a locally produced wheeled TEL for operations. There is some debate whether the Al-Husayn was solely of Iraqi design. Several nations, such as the Soviet Union, China, Egypt, France, East Germany, Libya, and North Korea, had the technology or experience with these ballistic missiles to provide Saddam Hussein’s engineers with sufficient information, components, or designs to modify the missile. Hussein also sought technical and component support from two unlikely allies, Argentina and Brazil. Hussein had offered financial help to these nations to develop their own ballistic missile programs. The Iraqis purchased 350 SCUD-Bs in 1984 and 300 more in 1986. These acquisitions provided additional systems for components and flight testing. Additionally, the Soviet Union may have supplied advanced SCUD-C components to allow the Iraqis to expand their weapons’ capabilities.

Iraq now had the capability to strike targets around Tehran. The missile’s seven-and-a-half-minute flight gave Iran little hope for warning its populace to take cover. Additionally, the Iranians had no active defensive capability to shoot down these vehicles, nor did they have a means to identify launch sites for attack by aircraft or artillery. These weapons provided a simple way to threaten cities and attack them without warning, a perfect terror device.

Iraq began to test the Al-Husayn in August 1987. Although flight tests proved the missile could work, there were some concerns. Iraqi engineers had to strengthen the airframe to compensate for larger fuel and oxidizer tanks. Fabrication teams had to extend internal tanks and provide additional air tanks to give adequate pressurization for the increased volume for the propellants. Iraq could use spare SCUD-B components for some assemblies, tanks, electronics, wiring, and other parts. However, they would have to weld them together, always a questionable proposition. In Iraq’s case, the welding quality would eventually affect the missile’s capabilities. Iranian forces witnessed many of these missiles that crashed, without warhead impact, due to welding problems. Pressurization or fuel leaks could have hampered the missile’s operation. Iraq also tried to improve guidance systems to increase the missile’s accuracy. Hussein’s government claimed that the missiles now had a CEP of 500 meters (1,640 feet). Some CEP estimates place the true accuracy at 2.6 kilometers (about 1.9 miles). The Al-Husayn missile effort was still a great strategic leap forward for Iraq. Even so, Iraq wanted even greater ranges.

The other major SCUD modification by the Iraqis was a more radical change to the missile to ensure it struck deeper into Iraq and potentially into other Middle East countries. Iraqi military officials tried to build on the success of the Al-Husayn by further reducing the SCUD-B’s payload and increasing the propellant capacity. Iraqi engineers christened this modified Al-Husayn vehicle the Al-Abbas. Engineers reduced the missile’s payload to only 300 kilograms (660 pounds), but it could strike a target at 900 kilometers (560 miles). Iraqi launch crews could now reach Tehran with ease and many parts of the Middle East as well, including all of Israel. Despite the greater range, the accuracy of the missile proved suspect. The CEP was about the same as that of the Al-Husayn, but official claims credited the Al-Abbas with a CEP of 300 meters (980 feet), less than a short-range unmodified SCUD-B. Iraqi missiles never met these capabilities in flight testing or apparently in the field. However, if crews launched the missile at large urban areas like Tehran and the purpose was to conduct a terror attack, then accuracy might not be necessary.

Iran was not helpless; it could respond to Iraqi missile attacks. Under Iranian air force control, launch crews fired SCUD-Bs against the Iraqis in March 1985. Libya first sold SCUDs to Iran, and then North Korea shipped about 100 missiles to Iran in 1988. News reports named Syria as a source of SCUDs for Iran. Curiously, these same countries may have provided components, technology, and assistance to Baghdad during the war. Iranian missile crews bombarded Iraqi positions and cities in retaliation for ballistic missile strikes. Iran first used fourteen missiles in 1985 launches; decreased to eight the next year; increased to eighteen in 1987; and spiked at eighty-eight missiles in 1988.

The Iranians did not have to modify their missiles. Iranian SCUD missiles did not have to traverse as great a distance to strike major cities as their Iraqi counterparts did. The distance between Baghdad and the border, less than 250 kilometers, or about 150 miles, was closer than Iraqi missile ranges to Tehran. As long as the ground war did not alter the battlefield, Iranian SCUDs could hit their targets. However, the Iranians did have an advantage over the Iraqis. Iranian revolutionary military forces held control of Iranian territory with vigor and wanted to avenge the unprovoked attack on their nation. Religious zeal allowed Iranian commanders to trade blood for territory through human wave attacks against prepared defensive positions. Time was on Iran’s side, as they could use attrition against the Iraqis. Tehran had to just push back the Iraqis and use its unmodified SCUDs. Iran was not motivated to extend its ballistic missiles’ range.

Superficially, Tehran had a tremendous advantage over the Iraqis in terms of missile range. However, several mitigating circumstances limited Iran’s ability to take advantage of this situation. Iran, under economic sanctions from many nations, had problems selling its main export commodity, oil. The constant fighting in the Persian Gulf between Iranian and Iraqi air and naval forces reduced the flow of oil to both countries and affected their ability to gain hard currency to purchase weapons or support. The Iraqis, however, had outside financial support to wage their war against Iran. Islamic fundamentalism threatened Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries that were supported by the Iranian religious and political leadership. These countries started to provide loans and direct financial support to Saddam Hussein in his effort to fight Iran. The Iranian air force was also running out of resources, and its capabilities diminished slowly with time. Iraq could supplement missile attacks with aircraft raids to strike the larger cities. Iran could not do the same with its aircraft and had to rely on ballistic missile strikes that came from a decreasing pool of available weapons. One option for Tehran was to try to build SCUD-B systems. Instead of focusing on ballistic missile modifications, Iranian engineers concentrated only on production capability, but they failed to make operational improvements. The production centers allowed Iranian military forces to launch forty-kilometer-range (25-mile) Oghab vehicles. Oghabs supported ground operations and limited attacks on Iraqi cities. Iranian military commanders used these unguided missiles like artillery.


The conflict between Iran and Iraq dragged on. There was no sense of any negotiations or efforts to end the conflict. Ground operations continued with horrendous casualties. Both sides were bled white with losses. The conflict focused on urban and economic targets to inflict sufficient pain to force one side to capitulate. Iraq would have to rely on aircraft strikes until its engineers and production capability could make the Al-Husayn or Al-Abbas system operational or push Iranian ground forces back. Iran could reply by its limited aircraft, but its SCUD-Bs had sufficient range to respond immediately. By 1987, attacks on cities started in earnest. When Hussein finally gained the capability to launch his Al-Husayn missiles, a new strategy emerged. Iraqi military forces could now hit Tehran without effect. On February 29, 1988, the Al-Husayn demonstrated its operational capabilities when Iraqi military missile crews launched five vehicles into Iran. This capability breathed new life into the Iraqi scheme to change the nature of the war. A new fifty-two-day “War of the Cities” erupted in the theater that would force both sides to the negotiating table.

From February 29 to April 20, both sides traded ballistic missile and air strikes on their capitals and other targets. While the missiles were inaccurate, Iraqi and Iranian SCUDs and their derivatives still produced massive physical damage and some casualties. Like their forebear, the V-2, and its attack on London, the missiles’ purpose was to strike terror on the population. Some analysts believed that the Iraqis’ missile inaccuracies approached several magnitudes above their stated CEPs. However, there were reports of Iraqi missile attacks conducted in salvos that landed around defined targets. Iraqi missile attacks appeared to gain in accuracy as the campaign continued. Even with the missiles’ improved accuracy, cities became the attack’s focus. Conducting a psychological attack on cities was easier than trying to destroy a specific military site like an airfield.

The greater Tehran and Baghdad urban areas sprawled for hundreds of square miles and had populations counted in the millions. Given each side did not have a warning system or a missile defense system, the population could do little except to prepare bomb shelters or leave the area. The only indication of an incoming missile strike was at warhead impact, as the vehicle attained speeds of Mach 1.5. The psychological impact of a missile that could kill many people quickly and allowed no defense terrorized the population. Ultimately, few died from these attacks, but their psychological effect created more impact than physical ones. Iran lost approximately 2,000 casualties and Iraq suffered only 1,000 losses in these attacks. These casualties were minor relative to the size of both capitals and major cities. Crowds could witness the destruction of a block or homes or large craters that forced people to speculate where the next Al-Husayn would land.

Iraq redoubled its efforts to panic the Iranian population. During the period, Iraqi air force pilots conducted over 400 sorties against urban and economic targets. Al-Husayn launch crews fired from 160 to 190 missiles against Tehran and Qom. Additionally, the Iraqis could use their SCUD-B stock to strike other border targets. The Al-Abbas was not ready for operation, but its flight testing and Iraqi propaganda statements continued to spew information about its future capabilities. The rate of Al-Husayn missile attacks was relatively low, about three per day during the “War of the Cities.” News reports concerning the possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons, however, chilled the Iranian population. The Iranian people became convinced that Baghdad had the will and capability to use chemical weapons against them, as reports surfaced about how Hussein authorized battlefield employment of his chemical munitions against Iranian military forces and later the Iraqi Kurdish population. Iranian military forces understood that the Al-Husayn and Al- Abbas also had the ability to carry chemical warheads. These fears forced Iranian populations to consider leaving Tehran and other cities. As the ballistic missile campaign intensified, people started to depart. Khomeini himself evacuated the capital. After news reports made his departure public, millions followed him. Approximately a third of Tehran’s population left for safety. While Iranian morale wavered, Iraqi confidence started to rise. The Iraqi strategy was starting to work.

Iran responded to the Iraqi attacks with its own SCUD-Bs. Iran launched about sixty-one ballistic missiles. These missiles represented most of Iran’s remaining SCUD stocks. Given the quantitative disadvantage in missiles and Iraq’s seemingly large production capability, Tehran needed to evaluate its position. Unlike the failed German V-2 campaign to pressure the British to negotiate, the War of the Cities had succeeded in forcing Iran to consider ending the war. Khomeini could not face a continued bloody war with his neighbor, economic atrophy, and a panicked population. Tehran considered the potential for continued Iraqi attacks with ballistic missiles and aircraft, and the Iranian government decided to accept a ceasefire with Baghdad in July 1988. The Iran-Iraq borders did not change appreciably; Hussein had gambled and received little for his nation’s sacrifice.

Al-Husayn missile attacks helped end the conflict. Given the prospects for peace, the growing discontent for additional casualties, fears of additional attacks, and no capability to win the war, the missile strikes took their toll. The United States had also entered the conflict by protecting commerce and ensuring security for oil deliveries in the Persian Gulf, one of the main weapons Iran used against Iraq. Given the crumbling military, political, and economic conditions in Iran, the ballistic missile launches created conditions that caused a faster unraveling of Tehran’s strategic position. Conventionally armed missiles and strategic bombardment proved a capable weapon against populations that were already in a fragile state to capitulate. Fortunately, Hussein did not arm the Al-Husayn with either a chemical or a biological weapon. With this success, Iraq would continue to develop advanced weapons programs. This lesson was not lost to Tehran, as that government also worked to develop long-range missile systems. Each side would later seek to arm these vehicles with an ultimate weapon, a nuclear device.

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