Key Point: Tehran knows it might actually be able to cause some real damage with its missiles.
In 2009, it became clear that China had developed a mobile medium-range ballistic missile called the DF-21D designed to sink ships over 900 miles away. This then-nascent technical achievement gave rise to a still-ongoing debate over the survivability of the U.S.’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, as the DF-21D outranged the strike planes serving on carrier decks. This further compelled the U.S. Navy to introduce anti-ballistic missile capability to its destroyers and cruisers in the form of the SM-3 missile.
Ballistic missiles travel in an arcing trajectory to maximize range and velocity, sometimes even exiting the Earth’s atmosphere before plunging down towards their targets at unthinkably fast speeds—in the DF-21’s case, up to ten times the speed of sound. However, until a decade ago there were no operational anti-ship ballistic missiles (though one was developed by the Soviet Union, but did not enter service) because it’s a lot easier to program a ballistic missile to hit a city or military base, than to have one strike a small, moving target—ie, a ship.
However, just two years later Iran announced it too had already developed an anti-ship ballistic missile. Tehran is infamous for habitually exaggerating or fabricating claims about its military technology—but in 2013 footage of an apparently successful missile test was released, and by 2014 U.S. intelligence briefings confirmed the missile’s deployment.
The missile, which has the rather on-the-nose name Khalij Fars (“Persian Gulf”), is derivative of Iran’s domestically developed Fateh-110 short-ranged ballistic missile. The truck-born Fateh-110 series can be fired on short notice because it uses solid fuel; by contrast, liquid-fuel rockets require days to gas up.