White House accelerates secret program to sabotage Iran missiles - report

American military officials urged Congress to put more money into "left of launch" programs, meaning programs which rely on sabotaging launchers before they are fired.

By
February 13, 2019 21:23
4 minute read.
Iran missile

A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The White House has pushed forward a secret program to sabotage Iranian missiles and rockets as part of a campaign to undercut Iran's military, according to administration officials in a report by the New York Times.

No one can precisely measure the success of the program, which has never been publicly acknowledged, but the recent failure of Iran's attempted satellite launches raised some suspicion.
The two failures are part of a pattern over the past 11 years. Sixty-seven percent of Iranian orbital launches have failed during this time, suspiciously high compared to the worldwide 5 percent failure rate for similar launches.


Iran insists that it will continue trying, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowing to "continue our path and our military power."


The Trump administration claims that Iran's space program is a cover for its ballistic missile development program. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Iran's satellite launchers have technologies "virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles."


The Times found more than half-dozen current and former government officials who have worked on the American sabotage program over the past dozen years. They spoke on condition of anonymity since they're not authorized to publicly discuss the secret program.


The officials said that the program was created under former president George W. Bush, which attempted to slip faulty parts and materials into Iran's aerospace supply chains. The program continued early in the Obama administration, but eased by 2017 when Mr. Pompeo took over as the director of the CIA.


The head of Iran's missile program, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, accused American and allied intelligence agencies of targeting Iran's missile complex with campaigns of "infiltration and sabotage."


"They want to repeat their nuclear sabotage in the missile area," Hajizadeh told Iranian state television in 2016, promising that the program would never stop.


The CIA declined to comment on the sabotage program. Government officials requested that the New York Times withhold some of the details they had gathered, including the identities of specific suppliers to the Iranian program, since the sabotage program is ongoing.


Aerospace experts warned that Iran's missile troubles could also just be the result of normal malfunctions. The recent rise in failures, though, suggests that the effort to sabotage Iran's space launches and missile tests may have been intensified.


Last month, President Trump noted at the Pentagon that if the attempted space launch had succeeded, it would have given Tehran "critical information" it could use "to pursue intercontinental ballistic missile capability, and a capability, actually, of reaching the United States."


Under President Bush, two covert programs against Iran were established: one focused on nuclear materials, the other on missiles.


The CIA and NSA searched for ways to subvert factories, supply chains, and launchers, according to the Times.


American military officials urged Congress to put more money into "left of launch" programs, meaning programs which rely on sabotaging launchers before they are fired.


With Iran that meant finding the network of supplies and subcontractors Iran uses, which became easier once United Nations sanctions forced Iran to rely on black markets and middlemen. The CIA found these relatively easy to penetrate, according to former officials who spoke to the Times.


Several participants said that the key insight was to sabotage test launches of new missiles, causing Iran to hesitate to embark on mass production.


Under the Obama administration, the program started targeting space launchers as well. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believed that the development and testing of one class of launcher could advance the other. 


Some rocket specialists claimed that the overlap between the two was insignificant. Iran claimed that the space launches had no military value.


When Mr. Pompeo arrived at the CIA, Iranian nuclear activity was no longer the focus. Iran had instead ramped up its missile and space program. Mr. Pompeo shifted focus to the supply chain for rockets and missiles, an area he knew well.


Seeding foreign aerospace programs with faulty parts and materials can take years, and it's almost impossible to know if the faulty technology is ever installed in particular launchers.


There was one occasion when the USA had a chance to check their success, according to the Times. A short-range Iranian-made missile landed in Baghdad's Green Zone, but failed to detonate. One of the American-sabotaged parts was found inside, according to a former senior official.


Iran's size and isolation makes it difficult to monitor the success rate of the sabotage program, but the number of failures suggests that the program is effective.


According to the Times, Iran succeeded in putting a small satellite into orbit in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015. These were the only four clear successes out of a dozen attempts, according to Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard Astronomer who specializes in orbital monitoring.


On one occasion, an Iranian rocket exploded on the launchpad, leaving blast scars, burned wreckage, and a blackened rocket transporter which could be seen by satellites overhead. Iranian officials did not comment on the event.


Iran has so far failed to successfully test the newest generation of its satellite launcher, Phoenix, according to the Times. In the test launch on Jan. 15, Iranian officials claimed it suffered a third-stage failure.


Some experts attribute Iran's poor performance to other factors, such as trade embargoes which block access to the best technology.


A similar sabotage program was directed at North Korea, which suffered through a series of missile failures in 2016.

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