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What Do We Know About Iran's Missiles And Its Arsenal Of Weapons?


Let's listen to some sound from Iran's state media.


GREENE: That, according to state media, is the sound of ballistic missiles being launched from inside Iran. Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two military bases in Iraq that are used by U.S. forces. These ballistic missiles are among the most sophisticated weapons held by Iran, so what do we know about them? Let's ask NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, who covers science and security for us. Hi there, Geoff.


GREENE: So what exactly do we know at this point about these weapons that were used in these strikes on these bases in Iraq?

BRUMFIEL: Well, as you said, based on the footage and reports out of Iran, these appear to be ballistic missiles. So these are basically missiles that shoot very high up into the air and then come down very fast and very hard on their targets. These are similar to the Scud missiles that Iraq used in the first Gulf War, but the difference is that these are much more sophisticated weapons. They have precision guidance, they are apparently capable of carrying decoys that can fool missile defenses and generally speaking, they're believed to be pretty accurate.

GREENE: And this is significant to underscore here, right? I mean, there is some speculation that this retaliation from Iran could come from, like, militias linked to them from inside Iraq. These are weapons that were fired from inside Iran into Iraq, which covers a certain distance.

BRUMFIEL: That's absolutely right. I mean, we're talking hundreds of miles. And these are a totally different class of weapons. So the sorts of rocket attacks that happened at U.S. bases prior to this had been small rockets. The warheads were maybe a few kilograms. These are weapons with warheads that are hundreds of kilograms. These are much, much larger missiles.

GREENE: So sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly who is in charge in Iran. You have the supreme leader, obviously. You have the president. You have the Revolutionary Guard, where Soleimani was a general. And he, of course, is the one who was killed by that U.S. drone strike. Do we know who specifically fired these missiles in this retaliation?

BRUMFIEL: Yes, we do. I mean, these missiles would have had to have come from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and it's specifically their aerospace force. So they are the ones who controlled the ballistic missiles. They've used them in other places, such as Syria and Iraq. In fact, they used them in a deadly strike against Kurdish forces in 2018.

You could think of them as sort of Iran's air force. Iran has sanctions, so it's actually quite hard for them to keep planes in the air. But they can produce these missiles indigenously, and they can use them with great effect to strike targets at a distance.

GREENE: Is this part of a large arsenal? I mean, how many other types of weapons does Iran have at its disposal?

BRUMFIEL: Iran has quite a few other types of weapons. It has suicide drones, it has cruise missiles - those were both used in an attack against a Saudi oil facility last year - it has anti-ship missiles, it has air defense missiles that it used to shoot down the U.S. drone. I believe that was last year as well. I mean, this is important to understand. This is not, you know, a militia. This is a military. And they have a number of relatively sophisticated systems like this that they can use in different ways.

GREENE: Can the U.S. do anything to stop attacks like these that we saw here?

BRUMFIEL: It's pretty hard to do. I mean, these are ballistic missiles. As I said, they come in really fast, and they also are difficult to intercept. Now you can try to strike them before they launch, but Iran tends to disguise its missile trucks as civilian vehicles. They've reportedly dispersed those trucks already from their bases, so you'd have to go into Iran to try and find them. And if you did that, you'd be up against their air defenses. So the U.S. may not have a lot of good options for stopping these kinds of attacks.

GREENE: A lot of information there from NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.