What's a Scud?
The Scud missiles causing so much anxiety in the world today are Soviet designs that originated in a weapon developed by the Nazis.
- By Bruce Berkowitz
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
(Page 2 of 3)
Western analysts called the Korean R-17 copy the Hwasong-5. Officials in Pyongyang quickly realized that sales of R-17 knock-offs might bring in badly needed hard currency. (Indeed, it was a derivative of the Hwasong-5 that the Spanish navy discovered on a North Korean freighter headed for Yemen last December.) North Korea found a ready customer in Iran, which in the 1980s was in the middle of a no-holds-barred war with Iraq. At this point, the R-17’s genealogy began to double back on itself. The Iraqis, as it happened, had their own Soviet-supplied Scud-Bs. After the Iranians hit Baghdad with a few dozen Hwasong-5s, the Iraqis wanted to retaliate. The Iranian city of Tehran, though, was much farther from the border than Baghdad. The Iraqis’ solution was to extend the range of their Scud-Bs by splicing additional sections into the propellant tanks and using a smaller (and therefore lighter) warhead. Iraq, whose leader apparently couldn’t miss a chance for self-promotion, dubbed the missile al-Hussein. It could deliver a one-ton warhead 370 miles, just far enough to reach the Iranian capital. During the winter of 1988, the two countries fired missiles at each other in what became known as the War of the Cities.
All Scud-derived missiles are mainly terror weapons. Because their gyros and electronics date back to the 1950s, the missiles are notoriously inaccurate. The original R-17 had a circular error probable (CEP) of about 3,300 feet, meaning that half the missiles aimed at a target would land more than two-thirds of a mile away. This never mattered to the Soviets; since they planned to arm the missiles with nuclear or chemical warheads, most targets would still be in the lethal zone. Other countries used the imprecise Scud as a crude device for lobbing a ton or two of high explosives somewhere into an opponent’s cities. In 1988 Iraq fired about 500 al-Husseins at Tehran, killing 1,000 to 2,000 people.
Yet the greater threat of Scuds has always been not what they are today, but what they can lead to tomorrow. After the War of the Cities, the North Koreans took a cue from the Iraqis and began a project to build a Scud derivative that was 50 percent bigger in each dimension. Western analysts labeled the rocket the No Dong (as with all North Korean rockets, the analysts simply named the missile after the town near where it was first spotted). Because the No Dong can hurl a one-ton warhead 930 miles, it can reach any part of South Korea and Japan.
Pyongyang has exported No Dong missiles, components, and technology to Pakistan (where it is called the Ghauri 2) and Iran (the Shahab 3). North Korea reportedly is also developing missiles that combine No Dong and Hwasong components into multi-stage rockets. These missiles, the Taepo Dong series, could reach Alaska, Hawaii, and even parts of the continental United States.
It’s easy to make light of missile programs in North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and other developing countries. Compared to our own, they seem primitive. But each country is really just going through the steps Soviet designers followed 50 years ago: using borrowed technology, making gradual improvements, and combining smaller rockets into bigger, longer-range rockets. And so it’s only a matter of time—probably less rather than more—before these countries, left to themselves, will be able to build truly threatening weapons.
Sidebar: In Brief: Scuds
-During the 1991 Gulf War, a Scud attack on a barracks in Saudi Arabia killed 28 U.S. military personnel and injured 100 more.
-In a move to eliminate Iraq’s Scud arsenal, the cease fire ending the Gulf War limited Iraq to missiles with ranges of less than 93 miles.
-In addition to carrying warheads containing high explosives, Scuds could be modified to deliver biological, chemical, or nuclear payloads.