Iran Now Has Mobile Ballistic Missile Launching “Magazines” For Its Underground Bases

New footage shows ready-to-launch ballistic missiles on a railway-type system within a cavernous subterranean complex.

byThomas Newdick|
Iran photo


Video and photos have emerged showing for the first time an underground Iranian ballistic missile facility in which groups of missiles ready to fire are moved around massive tunnels using an automated railway-type system. The vertically-stowed missile “magazine” appears to bring groups of missiles into position for rapid, consecutive launching from the cavernous subterranean bunker.

On its YouTube channel, the quasi-official Iran’s Military Achievements Media states that “Wagons carrying ballistic and long-range missiles can create continuous shooting conditions in this platform.” The same source adds that “the quantity and continuity of the missile fire will increase impressively in a safe atmosphere,” i.e. within the protected underground cavern.

The location of the facility seen in the latest imagery is unconfirmed, but Iran is known to have built underground caves to protect ballistic missiles operated by its Revolutionary Guards Corps in the past. Previously, imagery from within these caves showed long lines of ballistic missiles sitting on launchers, a process that now seems to have been refined, or at the very least augmented, using the automated railway system.

The thinking behind the system seems to be to allow launches of ballistic missiles in quick succession. Since the missiles on their individual platforms are ready to fire, there is no need to reload individual launchers using a crane or trans-loader. The magazine method would potentially allow many more missiles to be fired from a single bunker while increasing the chances of the outbound missile strike overwhelming anti-ballistic missile defenses.

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The new method is also much more space-efficient. While previously, bulky conventional transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) would be parked and moved under the firing apertures in the cavern's ceiling, using this new approach, Iran could potentially massively increase the number of missiles stowed in each underground complex. Some of the tunnels in which the rail-mounted missiles are being transported also look too narrow to accommodate conventional TELs or towed launchers.  

The concept seems also to be broadly aligned with Iran’s recently announced “missile farms,” in which short-range ballistic missiles are hidden in buried launchers to help reduce their vulnerability to pre-emptive strikes. You can read more about recent developments in this area here

In the case of the railway missile magazine, however, the weapons themselves have been identified by analysts as Emad liquid-fuel, medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), a derivative of the Shahab-3. The Emad is reported to have a range of around 1,000 miles and is considered to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead if such a capability existed. The Emad missile was apparently developed around a new re-entry vehicle (RV) fitted with fins to give it increased maneuverability, accuracy, and additional stability. 

A close-up view of an Emad IRBM as personnel prepare to move it from its transport cradle to the rig that will bring it into a vertical position., IMA MEDIA SCREENCAP

The missiles on the magazine assembly also appear to be separated by dividers, which could include all the umbilicals and pre-launch test equipment required for them to be fired in an autonomous, or near-autonomous manner. Although it is not clear from the available imagery, it’s reported that each missile “clip” contains five rounds. In a wartime scenario, it might be expected that the fueled and ready-to-launch Emads would be fired first, with the aim of getting as many as possible into the air during a first strike, before their underground facility was destroyed.

While the imagery shows the missiles being raised into the vertical on their multi-round launch platforms and then moved around within underground tunnels, it is unclear how they would actually be fired. Normally, Iranian missile caves like this have ports in the roof through which the missiles are launched. However, the proximity of the missiles to one another as arranged within their magazines suggests that there might be another stage in the process, in which an individual missile is moved into a launch chamber, to avoid damaging the adjacent missiles when it blasts off. These facilities are thought to have a number of launch chambers arranged in rows, so each 'clip' with five missiles could be separated into five launch chambers for a coordinated launch.

Two Emad IRBMs await being lifted onto their rail-mounted platforms to join the magazine, with another two missiles already in a vertical position., IMA MEDIA SCREENCAP

Intriguingly, Hinz also points out an interesting parallel to Nazi Germany’s rail-mounted V-2/A4 ballistic missile system and how those weapons were fueled. He highlights how the Iranian missile complex shares similarities with the La Coupole bunker that was constructed by the Germans in northern France as an underground V-2 launch facility during World War II, as well. 

An Allied reconstruction of the 1944 conjectural reconstruction of the La Coupole bunker in France, including rocket preparation chamber and tunnels., U.K. GOVERNMENT/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Other observers have pointed to the writing on the side of the missiles, which seems to read “UAE.” However, some of the lettering that follows this has been obscured with a placard and there’s no other evidence to suggest that it refers to potential targets in the United Arab Emirates. It is possible that the missiles are pre-programmed for their intended targets for expediency and launched in groups at those colocated targets in an attempt to overwhelm missile defense systems.

A crane lifts an Emad MRBM from its trolly. The “UAE” inscription is clearly visible on the missile body., IMA MEDIA SCREENCAP

Above all else, this new missile launch system reveals that the country is clearly interested in expanding and improving its already extensive underground missile facilities that, in the case of a full-scale conflict, would likely be one of Tehran’s primary means of striking an early blow against its enemies.

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