Iran’s New Ambassador of Death

By Adil James, MMNS

g-us-100822-bomber-10a.grid-6x2 Middle Eastern leaders who use hyperbole to describe their military prowess cause more raucous laughter than apprehension on the part of their enemies. 

Saddam’s “mother of all battles” has spawned literally two generations of “mother of” jokes.  Iran’s new weapons platform, dubbed ominiously “the Ambassador of Death” by President Ahmadinejad, has been mocked as an “Envoy of Annoyance” by Noel Shachtman of Wired Magazine, however the drone could potentially be an important development in the Iranian arsenal.

Analysis by the Huffington Post shows that the Ambassador is a relative weakling when lined up next to its US and Israeli counterparts, who boast range an order of magnitude farther, and similarly outsized payloads.  For example, the Reaper boasts a range of 3,682 miles, and a claimed payload of 3,000 pounds.  Israel’s Heron has a range of 5,000 miles and a payload of 4,000 pounds.  The Ambassador, however, is about twice as fast as the other presently available UAVs, at 560 miles per hour (although the US has a new Avenger drone planned which is expected to be nearly as fast as the Ambassador).

The so-called Ambassador of Death is really a missile platform.  Honestly it seems strange for a potential defending army in an asymmetric war to use a drone to launch missiles, especially cruise missiles, until you consider the danger that Argentine pilots faced in the Falklands war when trying to get close enough to launch their Exocet missiles.  In all their practice war-game missions against their own Argentine destroyers, the Argentine jets were “shot down” while attempting to launch their missiles (despite the success they enjoyed in real war).

And given the past lopsided defeats handed to enemy air forces by American pilots armed with extremely advanced weaponry, keeping real trained pilots on the ground might be wise during such a conflict.

The Exocet is a 1,444 lb. “Fire and Forget” weapon which the Argentine air force used to great effect in the Falklands war.  Its range is about 35 miles, its cruising speed Mach .9.  At the beginning of the Falklands war, the Argentine air force had only a handful of Exocets, five.  But these five Exocets humbled the mighty British Navy in only a short time.

The Argentinians at the beginning of the Falklands war believed that their chances in the war hinged on sinking British aircraft carriers—without the carriers the British would face long delays in attacking Argentina.

On May 4th 1982, an Argentinian SP-2H Neptune located the destroyer HMS Sheffield and gave her coordinates to the most advanced airplanes the Argentines had, Super Etendards, armed with Exocets.  At 10:35 that morning the Neptune again located one large target and two medium targets and radioed the information to the two Super Etendards, which after searching, located their targets and launched their AM.39 Exocets at exactly 11:04AM, and then returned to their bases.

Onboard the Type 42 Destroyer HMS Sheffield, Operations Officer Nick Batho saw an incoming smoke trail and identified the Exocet only a few seconds before it was to hit his destroyer.  It hit with tremendous force, eventually sinking the destroyer. 

The second Exocet fired that day is said to have narrowly missed the HMS Sheffield, falling harmlessly into the sea.

In fact the Sheffield had been placed where it was as a part of a picket line to prevent attacks on the British aircraft carriers, and so even in sinking, the Sheffield accomplished her mission.

May 25th 1982, the Argentines identified other targets via land-based radar, and flew a sortie.  The Super Etendards found and targeted another large vessel, successfully sinking the cargo ship MV Atlantic Conveyor at about 4:30PM, with two Exocet missiles.

ON May 30th, the Argentines finally found what had been their main target from the beginning, the British aircraft carriers.  Unfortunately for the Argentines, however, they only had one Exocet missile left.  A sortie of two Super Etendards (capable of launching the Exocet) and four A-4C attack aircraft, engaged the Invincible at about 2:30PM.  They targeted and launched their last remaining Exocet missile (at a target too far away to see with their naked eyes) and turned for home, while the A-4C’s went on to press the attack with guns and bombs, merely following the smoke trail of the Exocet to guide them to their enemy.  Seeing black smoke pouring from the wounded Invincible, they expended their cannons and bombs, and without seeing a conclusive result they turned for home, avoiding all surface to air missiles.

The official British Navy account of the incident was that the Exocet had missed or been diverted, but the Invincible was delayed in returning to port and had new paint on her in approximately the position that the Argentine A-4 pilots said had been burning that day.

In addition, on June 12, 1982, the Argentines fired two land-based EM38 Exocets against the HMS Glamorgan, damaging that ship although the ship was saved by the prompt evasive action of the crew.

However, despite the 3-for-5 effectiveness of the Exocet during the Falklands war, Iraq launched 200 Exocet missiles with on-again off-again success in the late 80’s.  However, two of the Iraqi Exocets did target and heavily damage the USS Stark  on May 17, 1987, killing 37 sailors but not sinking the ship.  The rumored punishment by Iraq for the wayward pilot who shot those two missiles was execution.

All of this is very relevant to the attack on Iran that it is popularly agreed to be brewing.  The EM39 Exocet missiles are, at least on paper, inferior to the missiles fielded today by Iran.  Though heavier and with larger warheads than the smaller Iranian missiles, their range was vastly less than some new Iranian anti-ship missiles.

The new ambassador of death drone is claimed by Iran to have a range of 620 miles and the capacity to carry one “cruise missile” or two 250lb bombs.  Iran likely has three categories of active anti-ship cruise missile platforms (the smaller two with two variants each), the smallest of these platforms could potentially be used on the new drone weapons platform.  The smallest category is the Kowsar 1 and 2—however both of these variants are designed to be fired only from land or sea.  These both have approximately 50lb warheads (about one seventh of the Exocet’s), and a range of about 15 miles, and speed approximating the Exocet’s (about Mach .8).  Version 2 of the Kowsar is a fire and forget weapon which performs its terminal guidance using “millimeter wave radar,” a type of active homing radar.  The ambassador of death is capable of carrying the weight of the Kowsars, although it appears they cannot now be fired from the air.

The next level up is the Noor—this is the most common missile in the Iranian arsenal.  This missile can be fired from land, sea, or air.  The Noor is based on a Chinese anti-ship missile, the C-801.  The Iranians bought approximately 200 Chinese C-801’s and reverse-engineered them to create their own anti-ship missile.  This warhead is 363 lbs—the same as the Exocet.  It would be effective against medium size warships, such as frigates, cruisers, and destroyers.  Its range is about 25 miles.  It is designed to penetrate a hull using kinetic energy then explode inside the hull.  This missile is too heavy to attach to the ambassador of death, at about 1600 lbs.

The Noor 2 has been modified to use a turbojet rather than a solid rocket motor, and this was designed to increase the range dramatically, to an estimated 105 miles.  The Noor 2 also has increased capacity due to more complicated maneuvering algorithms that make it much more lethal than the Noor 1, including last minute evasive maneuvers, and a pop up attack designed to fly up immediately before impact and then down through a ship’s deck. 

Either the Noor or the Kowsar was the missile used by Hezbollah to damage the INS Hanit, a Saar-V class corvette that was hit by an anti-ship missile launched by Hezbollah from the Lebanese coast on July 14, 2006 during the Israel-Hezbollah war.  The Saar 5 class ships are Israel’s most advanced surface ships; they have three, which cost them $260 million each.  4 Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack, which forced Israeli ships to back away from the coast during the war.  When Hezbollah fired the missile, the ship was about 10 miles away, about 60 seconds away for the missile.  There was fairly significant damage to the Hanit, a ship of about 1,000 tons displacement (about 1/5 the size of the HMS Sheffield sunk in the Falklands), forcing it to be towed into port and killing four soldiers.  The Hanit is also about 1/5 the size of the Glamorgan which faced a serious threat from the Exocet that hit it. 

It is unclear whether a Kowsar or a Noor hit the Hanit—most Western commentators believe it was a Noor.  But potentially a strike with a Kowsar could have caused the heavy fire damage and damage to ship control and steering that ensued.  Judging from (1) the clandestine means by which arms were smuggled to Hezbollah, mandating small weapons, and (2) the fact that Israel relentlessly targeted the kinds of vehicles that could fire the Noor during the war, the argument that the Kowsar rather than the Noor was used gains credence.  Also, the Noor 1’s range would extend all the way down to Haifa.  The modified Noor 2 would be presumably able to reach to the far southern Mediterranean border of Israel.  Yet no such very long range shots were attempted by Hezbollah during the war.  Therefore it seems that the damage inflicted on the Hanit was a shot that was more effective than expected, but from the Kowsar and not the Noor.

Finally, the Iranians have the Raad missile.  This is the largest Iranian anti-ship missile, and has the longest range.  These were developed from the body of the Chinese Silkworm, but with many improvements in guidance and propulsion.  It can skim the sea at only 3-5 meters, engage in last minute maneuvers, and can execute a ‘pop up’ attack on the deck of the target.  This is a 6,600 lb. missile.  The warhead is 660 lbs, a shaped charge designed to threaten even the heaviest Western destroyers.  The range is 223 miles, meaning that the Raad can threaten the entire Persian Gulf and can likely control access to the Gulf, provided Iranian stockpiles of the Raad are not immediately destroyed during a potential war.

Therefore based on this analysis, it is unlikely unless Iran modifies the missiles that might fly from the Ambassador of Death, that it will be used in conjunction with their existing anti-ship missiles to impact shipping.  They could harass shipping using pairs of 250 lb bombs, and simultaneously use the Ambassador for reconnaissance, however such reconnaissance may be unnecessary if they can see Israeli targets using radar, and it appears that the Ambassador of Death is designed primarily to attack ground targets.  However the Ambassador’s existence is another arrow in Iran’s quiver as it seems to approach a dangerous war.


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