Iran's "Tomahawk" Cruise Missile Packs a Punch
On March 8, the Iranian defense ministry revealed a new strategic cruise missile—the Soumar.
New for Iran, that is. Named after a city destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War, the Soumar is a reverse-engineered copy of the Soviet-made Kh-55 cruise missile. But it’s one of the longest-range weapons Iran has—and comes with a fairly sophisticated guidance system.
Iranian state television recently aired footage from its unveiling ceremony, which depicted a mobile launcher capable of carrying five Soumar missiles.
So what’s this new-ish missile really capable of? Quite a lot, actually.
The Soumar is in many ways comparable to the Tomahawk. Like the U.S.-built missile, it uses an in-built terrain-matching contour navigation system to fly toward its target while hugging ground features. This gives the missile a means to avoid detection when traveling close to an opponent’s air defenses.
The missile has a maximum range of up to 3,000 kilometers—marking a record for Iranian cruise missiles. If fired from Syria, it could possibly strike targets in southern Italy.
Tehran acquired at least six sample Kh-55s from Ukraine—allegedly through the black market—in 1996 for a price of $4.5 million.
The missile is also capable of carrying nuclear warheads—though Iran doesn’t have any, and doesn’t have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons small enough to fit.
Less than one year ago, an Iranian parliament member introduced the missile by the name of “Meshkat” and cited a range of “more than” 2,500 kilometers. This is likely a reference to the Kh-55, which must carry additional conformal fuel tanks to reach its 3,000-kilometer range.
These extra fuel tanks did not appear at the Soumar’s unveiling.
Iran operates several other land-attack cruise missiles. Its Noor missile carries a 230-kilogram warhead at a range of 120 kilometers. The country’s Ya Ali missile carries a 200-kilogram warhead at a longer range—up to 700 kilometers.
But these are not strategic weapons. The Soumar is. Which means it has enough range to knock out an enemy’s higher-level targets—such as command and control centers, military bases and infrastructure.
This makes the Soumar an important step for Iran—although Tehran will likely face serious technical challenges if it tries to use it during a war. For one, to navigate at low altitude, the Soumar would need precise ground-terrain data from its launch site all the way to its target.
It wouldn’t be hard for Iran to feed targeting data into the missile for strikes against Israel—as Iran has a military presence in Iraq and Syria. But acquiring the precise contours to target southern Europe would be extremely challenging.
If Iran modified the Soumar to target shipping, Tehran could pressure the Bab Al Mandab Strait—connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden—and Suez Canal traffic.
It’s theoretically possible that Iran could install the Soumar on fighter jets—like the Tomahawk derivatives the U.S. designed to fit on F-16s. The AGM-158 JASSM is the current iteration of these American fighter-launched cruise missiles.
Don’t say Tehran … couldn’t. The Iranian air force has already installed land-attack versions of the Noor missile on its F-14, F-4 and Su-24 fighter jets.
And even with a shorter 2,500-kilometer range—without conformal fuel tanks—the Soumar is still deadly. Iran’s obsolete F-14, Su-24 and F-4 jets could fire their missiles toward an unspecified target in a pre-defined area—and do so from thousands of kilometers away.
In any case, the Soumar missile is a technological milestone—even if Tehran never deploys it—or uses it only in the ground-launched, land-attack role. Its TVD-50 compact turbofan engine is reliable and efficient, and Iran might use it to help further develop jet-engine drones and other advanced cruise missiles.
Which is to say that the long-term effect of a piece of military hardware often isn’t how it’s used, but what you learn while developing it.