September 19, 2007

Shelf-Life: How Long Can a WMD-Armed SCUD Remain Fueled?

According to Janes Defence Weekly and carried in the Jerusalem Post, a Syrian SCUD-C missile exploded while being armed with a chemical warhead in late July, spreading a lethal mix of nearby WMDs. Dozens were killed:

Proof of cooperation between Iran and Syria in the proliferation and development of weapons of mass destruction was brought to light Monday in Jane's Defence Weekly, which reported that dozens of Iranian engineers and 15 Syrian officers were killed in a July 23 accident in Syria.

According to the report, cited by Channel 10, the joint Syrian-Iranian team was attempting to mount a chemical warhead on a Scud missile when the explosion occurred, spreading lethal chemical agents, including sarin nerve gas.

As you may imagine, other bloggers are tracking this story, and Ynet news adds detail, including that the specific warhead in question was loaded with mustard gas, and that the explosion started due to a fire in the Scud-C's engine.

Chemically and historically, most weaponized mustard gas weapons retain their lethality for decades, but I'd still like to know the answer to some questions about the missile's fuel system to gauge how much of a direct threat this was or wasn't to Israel and to American forces in Iraq.

SCUD-C missiles are single-stage liquid-fueled missiles. Obviously, an empty missile does not catch fire and explode with enough force to detonate surrounding materials. Therefore, this SCUD-C was obviously fueled. This leads to the following questions:

  • How are these missiles typically stored in peace-time Syria, full of liquid propellant, or empty?
  • Is there any sort of practical shelf-life to the liquid fuels used to power Syrian SCUD-C missiles?
  • Are they capable of being stored full of fuel for extended periods of time, or are they only fueled shortly before launch?

The mere act of mounting a mustard gas warhead on a missile does not necessarily mean that an attack is imminent, but if we knew more about how long a loaded Syrian SCUD-C can remain fueled, we might have a better idea just how serious of a threat this may have been.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at September 19, 2007 08:29 AM

The SCUD-C varient was designed for a fuel/oxidizer combination of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and red fuming nitric acid (RFNA) , similar to the the fuel/oxidizer used for the Titan II ICBM (UDMH and nitrogen tetroxide). This fuel/oxidizer pairing had several advantages over other liquid fuels; it could be stored in the launch vehicle at room temperatures - unlike liquid oxygen or hydrogen, which would "boil off" over a fairly short period - and could keep a rocket or missile "tanked" and ready to fire for long periods. The Titan II could be launched within one minute (and most of that time would be spent in "spinning up" and testing the guidance system). Another advantage is the "hypergolic" nature of the fuel pair; no ignition system is required. When the fuel/oxidizer meet in the motor's combustion chamber, they ignite. The main drawback to this fuel pair is the toxicity and corrosiveness of the components. Titan II's had to be periodically detanked and their systems checked for corrosion and regular preventative maintenance performed. How much would you be willing to bet that regular PM was done on the SCUD-C in question?

Posted by: JT at September 19, 2007 09:47 AM

In light of the comment above, does anyone have any information about the maintenance capabilities of the armies of the various middle-eastern regimes?

Do they follow the maintenance protocols? My understanding of some ME culture is that they don't. Is it really possible that they are playing with things that they don't understand? Are they reaching their technical limits?

Posted by: thgrant at September 19, 2007 10:38 AM

all information i've heard as to their maintentance procedures is anecdotal and/or apocryphal.

that beind said, it's consistent in that they're lacidasial about things, with the comment that "inshallah is like manana, but without the urgency".

my question is why were they messing with the warhead on a fueled missle? knowing the dangers of the fuel, i'd think you'd want to attach the payload first, erect the missle, then fuel it when you're ready to fire. this supports the supposition that they're out of their league.


Posted by: redc1c4 at September 19, 2007 11:25 AM

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/19/2007
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Posted by: David M at September 19, 2007 12:08 PM


Well I think the fact it exploded in a dozen engineer's faces is evidence they were out of their league. My question is: How many are good to go towards Israel at any time?

Posted by: Greg Howe at September 19, 2007 12:31 PM

Although I suspect the missle was fueled, that is not necessarily so. In order to disperse the fuel the warhead itself has several lbs of explosive and a proximity fuse. If some dope accidentally armed the warhead, it would find itself appoximately close to the ground and go off all by itself, spreading the gas throughout the nearby environs.

As for maintenance, I can only talk about the 1920's Brigade in Iraq who keep their weapons in excellent order, so I suspect the Syrians have some kind of maintenace program.

Posted by: David at September 19, 2007 01:29 PM

I think we cannot make the assumption that the missile exploded because it was fueled or being fueled. Reading the J-Post article, there's little detail as to what specifically caused the explosion. Even a chemical warhead would most likely have a HE bursting charge to disperse the chemical. As for the competance of the Syrian military, if they are anything like the Jordanians, I would find them less than proficient.

Posted by: BohicaTwentyTwo at September 19, 2007 01:51 PM

When I had questions about the Iraqi T.O.E./order of battle etc..... I got good info from Bill R @ He's a font o'knowledge.
He's currently imbedded in Iraq, but he may have some insight. Bob, d'you wanna e-mail him or ya want me to?

Posted by: Jack C at September 19, 2007 02:05 PM

Thanks, JT. That was a question I was thinking about - what is the corrosive effect of keeping a liquid fueled missile fueled on its seals and valves? Placing that vis-a-vis Soviet quality control, age of the missile and its components, and Syrian maintenance protocols is a good place to start looking for the answer to what happened.

Just considering the safety/quality history of Soviet submarine reactors makes me wonder what that is with their equipment handed over to others that have 'inshallah' as an excuse.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at September 19, 2007 04:22 PM


This article may answer your questions.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at September 19, 2007 04:25 PM

In case the link can't be patched in, the article can be found under the title "Why Arab Armies Lose Wars" by Norvell B. De Atkine.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at September 19, 2007 04:27 PM

I used to know the exact specs on this ..but I do recall that the SCUD was not kept fueled too long because of the corrosive nature of the fuel. If they kept it in a fueled state too often/too long, it would then require major refitting of the fuel tanks and system. For what it is worth - fueling up the SCUDs used to be a major I & W of bad things.

Posted by: GraySix at September 19, 2007 04:43 PM

We also should not discount the possibility that the explosion was purposeful, i.e. sabotage.

Posted by: ThomasD at September 19, 2007 05:53 PM

I have a couple of questions. Did Syria already have chemical agents? If not, where did this come from? I would assume Iran most likely but weren't there reports of Saddam shipping this stuff to Syria prior to the war??

Posted by: Old Tanker at September 19, 2007 07:29 PM

Tanker, indeed there are reports of trucks going from Iraq to Syria.

There have also been stockpiles of mustard gas found in Iraq.

Coincidence? You decide.

Posted by: C-C-G at September 19, 2007 07:41 PM

Put together a basic WMD and missile production/storage list for Syria awhile ago. Currently Syria is using a SCUD-D/NoDong II variant that they have been working on for some time, and have had at least two tests on it. As noted by others they continue to build/mainatain the "C" variant.

The main production area for Vx/Sarin is the al-Safira site, which is also a SCUD production facility and is most likely the site where the 'accident' happened. Others sites for this include: the underground bunker/storage facilities/possible production area at Tal Snan, the Khan Abu Shamat underground missile storage site and the elusive al-Baida site, which is the rumored destination of Saddam's research equipment.

Syria utilizes its phosphate deposits for the trifecta of resources: as a basis for their nerve gas industry, research into biotoxins and refinement, via the MEAB site near Homs to concentrate uranium to 'yellowcake'. Although the Chinese reactor they purchased in the early '90s is strictly a 'research' reactor, Syria was actively shopping around for better from Argentina under Menem. During the 1970's Syria purchased Soviet nerve gas warhead designs from Egypt when Egypt was getting rid of their program. It has been hinted by a few sources that they upgraded those to spin-mix in flight warheads, so that they are binary (like the Egyptian design) but can mix in flight for better completion to nerve agents. Either design has a multi-year shelf life, with maintenance.

As noted in the de Atkine article, Syria has the least capable of all conventional military forces in the ME, and has utilized chemical weapons as a 'balance' to make up for that deficiency.

Ray Robison pointed out an article last year on the nuclear program of Syria, and UK sources point to a gathering of nuclear scientists from Iran, Syria, Saddam's group, and ex-Soviet Republics in Syria, near Haskha. Possibly at the Deir Zzor agricultural facility.

Last part is the Mitutoyo separators and precision instrumentation sold into the AQ Khan network. Approximately 10,000 were sold by Mitutoyo from 1995 onwards, and a good fraction of those went into the AQ Khan network. Some wound up in Libya and Iran, but the trans-shipment of them via Malaysia and Dubai makes tracing them impossible.

Posted by: ajacksonian at September 19, 2007 08:26 PM

I don't buy mustard gas. It's not that fatal. Some reports point to sarin.

Saddam used to load his binaries at the point of use, using "volunteers". Don't know if that would be the case with Syria.

It may be that they were loading the binary version of sarin and had a work accident. Then again, a big enough explosion of fuel would be enough to kill plenty and no gas would need to be involved at all.

Posted by: Chuck Simmins at September 19, 2007 10:17 PM

Chuck they were loading a mustard gas warhead when the rocket exploded, blowing apart all sort of nice things they had nearby, including sarin and VX.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at September 19, 2007 10:22 PM