The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Images of Iraq’s Al Abid launch vehicle, from a UN report. (credit: UNMOVIC)

Saddam’s space program

Bookmark and Share

The invasion and occupation of Iraq is one of the great foreign policy mistakes the United States has made in the recent past. But whereas historians will be asking questions about the war for decades to come, it also offers the opportunity to answer some questions as well. Among the big questions are: What happened to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and why? Why was the CIA so bad at intelligence about the weapons?

But there are also some questions with less immediate impact, but that still retain historical significance. What happened to naval aviator Scott Speicher in the opening hours of the first Gulf War? (A question now apparently answered.) Why did most of the Iraqi air force fly to Iran during that war? Did the pilots do it of their own volition? And did they think it was better to give their old enemy their airplanes rather than lose them to their new enemy’s air strikes? Why did an Iraqi airplane attack the USS Stark in 1987? What exactly did supergun genius Gerald Bull do for Iraq during the 1980s? And what was the Iraqi space program?

In the late 1980s Iraq had a space program. Iraq even got so far as to develop a 50-kilogram test satellite. On December 5, 1989, Iraq launched a 25-meter long rocket from a launch pad 230 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. Iraq described this as a “satellite launch system,” and there were initial erroneous reports that the rocket had placed several objects in orbit. In reality, this was only a test of the first stage and the vehicle’s second and third stages were only steel mockups. The CIA determined that this was not a prototype ballistic missile—it was large and ungainly, and had to be launched from a fixed position making it vulnerable to attack. In a top secret 1990 report, Iraqi Ballistic Missile Developments, the CIA stated that Iraq was indeed trying to build a satellite launching vehicle, but faced many technical challenges, such as staging and guidance.

In the late 1980s Iraq had a space program. Iraq even got so far as to develop a 50-kilogram test satellite.

After the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, it was possible for US intelligence agencies, as well as the United Nations, to roam Iraq collecting evidence about its various weapons programs. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC, gathered substantial information on various Iraqi ballistic missile programs, including information on the Al Abid space launch vehicle. Much of the information was gathered from documents turned over by the Iraqis in 1995 after a high-level defector prompted the Iraqis to preemptively release documents they had been hiding in a chicken farm in order to blunt the defector’s damage. UNMOVIC also gathered additional information after the American invasion in the form of interviews and other documents. That information is now contained in a massive report on various Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs.

Starting a space program

Iraq began its space efforts around 1988. The program operated under several names, including the declared name of Al Abid as well as alternate names such as Bird (“Al Ta’ir” in Arabic) and Comet. Iraq began development of its indigenous space program after an effort to cooperate with another, unnamed, country failed. However, according to UNMOVIC, at least one other country provided assistance, and one or two additional countries were also sought for help but did not provide it. The identities of all these countries have not been revealed by UNMOVIC, probably in an effort to pursue a counter proliferation strategy.

The project was carried out under the overall direction of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization. In mid-1988 the Space Research Corporation (SRC) began studying development of a launch vehicle capable of placing a 100–300 kilogram payload into a 200–500 kilometer orbit. The vehicle had to be developed using existing systems. A second team, apparently consisting of two foreign experts from an unnamed country, also assisted. According to Iraqi officials involved in the program and interviewed later, the project was always civilian—although that was a rather loose definition.

SRC evaluated several different options, including configurations of four to six extended burn-time SCUD rockets clustered around a single extended burn-time SCUD as a second stage and a new third stage. By early 1989, the SRC had settled on a design consisting of five SCUDs clustered for the first stage, another for the second stage, and a “double-base propellant” rocket for the third stage. The foreign specialists proposed a different design: a single SCUD as a core stage surrounded by strap-on rockets consisting of four or eight SA-2 liquid propellant rockets from a surface-to-air missile, or four or eight SCUD rockets. The second stage would be either liquid or solid propellant, and the rocket would also include an apogee kick motor. Space Research Corporation experts rejected this design approach.

The SRC leadership produced a development schedule for the Al Abid with the goal of making the first launch by December 12, 1990. Initially, the design had an enlarged payload shroud to house the satellite, giving it a hammerhead appearance. But General Ra’ad, who oversaw Iraq’s missile development programs, proposed increasing the diameter of the third stage to 1.25 meters in order to avoid this hammerhead shape. He also designed a clamshell payload fairing.

By mid-1989, the Al Abid design consisted of a five-SCUD first stage, a 1.25 meter diameter liquid propellant rocket for the second stage, and a third stage that might have been a modified SCUD with a larger diameter tank. The SCUD is .88 meters in diameter, so the second stage was actually wider than the individual SCUDs used in the first stage.

Testing and foreign assistance

In December 1989 the Iraqis conducted their first test launch of the Al Abid from a fixed launch site at Al Anbar. Although this was only a test of the first stage, it took place a mere six months after the SRC had developed their project timeline—a fast pace that UNMOVIC attributed to foreign assistance as well as the “practical approach in modifying and developing different versions of the SCUD” that project manager General Ra’ad was known for. The second and third stages were steel mockups. A videotape retrieved from the Haider chicken farm in 1995 showed that the first stage worked successfully for 45 seconds until the vehicle exploded. The Iraqis suspected that explosive bolts between the first and dummy second stages may have fired prematurely, causing the accident, but this was still a partial success at getting a complex vehicle off the ground.

The Iraqis also approached two foreign countries to purchase a more powerful engine, but they were rebuffed. The countries offered to launch Iraq’s satellites themselves, but would not sell them engines.

The Iraqis quickly determined that the performance of the second stage was crucial to the overall performance of their rocket. They had increased the diameter of the second stage to boost its power, but ran into additional problems. The SCUD liquid propellant engine lacked the necessary thrust. They initially sought to increase the performance by increasing the expansion ratio of the engine nozzle and changing the fuel. The SCUD nozzle was designed to operate from sea level up, so it was relatively narrow. The second stage would ignite at higher altitude, and if it had a wider expansion it would improve the thrust performance. They changed the expansion ratio from 10 to 30 by adding a skirt. They also changed the TM 185 fuel to diethylenetriamine (DETA) or a mixture of DETA and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH). An initial engine test was partially successful until the expansion skirt burned through—a result of being tested at sea level rather than in at simulated high altitude.

The Iraqis also approached two foreign countries to purchase a more powerful engine, but they were rebuffed. The countries offered to launch Iraq’s satellites themselves, but would not sell them engines. The Iraqis also apparently began developing a new first-stage engine with four SCUD combustion chambers and a single turbo-pump. However, development work halted with the onset of the 1991 Gulf War.

After the December 1989 test launch, the Iraqis decided that the second and third stages of the Al Abid should be tested separately. They planned a test for autumn 1990 that they referred to as Al Kharief, or “Autumn.”

The Al Kharief became the focus of international controversy. United Nations inspectors claimed that this was a new missile, whereas the Iraqis claimed that it was the upper stages of the Al Abid. In reality, it was both part of the Al Abid and a test platform for a nuclear delivery system under development by the Iraqis.

Around mid-1990, Al Kharief work was proceeding very slowly, prompting a meeting of all relevant parties. However, it became clear to project leaders that the development was plagued by disagreements and differing priorities. The Al Kharief test ground to a halt, and the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to the suspension of all activities. According to General Ra’ad, no final report was ever produced and no drawings of the vehicle were available.

The S-13 nuclear delivery system

Saddam Hussein had long sought a nuclear weapon, but Iraq’s program had been sporadic and ineffectual at producing one. In 1987 Iraq started a new program to develop a nuclear bomb, and Iraqi missile experts began discussions with the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission about the development of a ballistic missile to deliver it. The nuclear weapon would have a weight in excess of two metric tons with a diameter of 1.25 meters. The missile required a range of 650 kilometers. These requirements were beyond the capabilities of Iraq’s missiles and so the nuclear weapon designers were told that they would have to reduce the size of their planned weapon.

In April 1989 Iraq started work on Project S-13, the development of a long-range nuclear-tipped missile. A senior Iraqi military leader later stated in an interview that although the weapons designers declared in 1988 that they wanted a missile ready by 1991, he believed it would take until at least 1993 to produce one.

Initially, Project S-13 evaluated three options: a 1.25 meter diameter missile capable of delivering a one-ton weapon 1,200 kilometers; a derivative of the Al Hussein/Al Abbas missile that could reach 650 kilometers; and an unmodified SCUD-B missile with a range of only 300 kilometers.

Clearly Iraq wanted to develop a space program. But why?

Iraqi statements and documents on the S-13 project are inconsistent. Some documents indicate that the Iraqis viewed the new project as a replacement for the existing Al Abbas conventional missile. According to one senior general, his plan was for the Al Abid space launch vehicle’s second and third stages to form the basis of the nuclear missile. But General Ra’ad, who was in charge of the Al Abid development, insisted that he was unaware of plans to use his rocket for nuclear delivery and that nobody ever approached him about using the Al Kharief (the “Autumn” test of the Al Abid second and third stages) for such a purpose. It is possible that General Ra’ad was in fact unaware of or disagreed with the plans, but the disparity remains, and UNMOVIC investigators concluded that there was a tie between the programs, “although the precise details of the relationships are unclear.” UNMOVIC added, “What is clear, however, is that these activities were contributing to the long-term solution for a delivery vehicle for the nuclear weapon under the overall control or oversight of General Amer Al Sa’adi.”

Unanswered questions

Although the United Nations report mentions a 50-kilogram test satellite, it contains no further details, not even a photograph. Also missing are details about the purpose of the program. Clearly Iraq wanted to develop a space program. But why? Was it motivated primarily by prestige, a desire to become the first Arab nation to launch a satellite? Or was Saddam Hussein seeking to develop a satellite reconnaissance capability to monitor his neighbors? Unfortunately, those are not questions of great interest to United Nations arms inspectors, or even US intelligence agencies. But it is possible that a more peaceful, stable, and open Iraq will enable these questions to be someday answered.

The relevant section of the UNMOVIC report can be downloaded here.