Both China and Iran are running rapidly-progressing long-range cruise missile programs, initiated in the early 2000s. The efforts have resulted in a variety of high-end systems fielded in regular service, while in 2021 North Korea has also claimed that it joined the club. Alexander Mladenov reports on how Soviet-era technologies were exploited by these countries in their efforts to obtain a long-sought and often game-changing attack capability over extended ranges.   

A Soviet-era air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile design dating from the Cold Ware-era, the Kh-55 (NATO reporting name: Kent) has been cloned in a good many variations in China, Iran and North Korea. The clones produced in the first two of these countries have been fielded in widespread service in both the land-attack and anti-ship roles.

Once a closely-guarded long-range nuclear strike technology developed in the former Soviet Union by the Raduga Design Bureau in the late 1970s and commissioned in service the early 1980s for arming the Tu-95MS (NATO reporting name: Bear-H) and Tu-160 (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) strategic bombers, the long-range, turbofan-powered Kh-55 fell in Chinese and Iranian hands thanks to the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse in 1991. A huge inventory of Kent missiles, more than 1,000 rounds, was inherited by newly-independent Ukraine, which, however, had no longer intentions of maintaining a strategic bomber fleet capable of delivering nuclear munitions. As result, agreement was reached with Russia for the transfer of a number of Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bombers (eight and four respectively), together with the entire inventory of nuclear-tipped Kh-55s. And while the vast majority of the missiles, no fewer than 575 rounds, were eventually taken by Russia in the early 2000s, another 12 Kh-55s without the nuclear warheads were clandestinely sold to China in 2000 (six) and Iran (six more) in 2001, plus a complete set of test equipment.

This clandestine black-market transaction, involving strategic nuclear-capable weapons, was acknowledged in 2005 by a senior Ukrainian parliamentary official, Hrihory Omelchenko, in his letter to then-President, Viktor Yushchenko. In his letter, Omelchenko highlighted that a special parliamentary investigation, launched in 2004, proved that Kh-55 and Kh-55M cruise missiles with nuclear capability have been secretly exported to third countries. This illegal missile sale, under the false designation X-11, was undertaken with the involvement of Ukraine’s  then premier arms export agency.

China and Iran have actively explored the design of the newly-acquired missiles in an effort to develop their own clones by using the reverse engineering method. China’s defense industry completed this complex job in a fairly prompt manner, with the first tests of a Kent clone reported already during August 2004. Dubbed CJ-10 (ChangJian-10 or LongSword-10), the Kh-55’s Chinese copy has been fielded in service in air-, ground- and sea-launched versions. Iran, in turn, proved much slower to develop and field in service its Kh-55 clones, with the first of these unveiled to the public not before 2015.

The integration of the cruise missiles derived from the Kh-55’s baseline design in the growing strategic arsenals of both countries has provided a serious boost to their long-range strike capabilities, allowing missions where the commonly fielded in large numbers ballistic missiles could not be entirely suitable. Cruise missiles, flying at subsonic speed low and ultra-low altitude, are, by definition, much more flexible, accurate, affordable and survivable weapons to hit targets over substantial stand-off ranges from any directions.

Chinese copy analyzed

The CJ-10 is a Kh-55 clone, also benefiting from the knowledge which the Chinese industry acquired from the study of US-made BGM-109G Tomahawk missiles recovered in friendly countries such as Serbia, Iraq and Pakistan in the 1990s and 2000s. Development works and production are carried out at the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Third Academy in Beijing. Noticeable design changes in the CJ-10 a new-design retractable air intake while the engine is installed inside the fuselage, while the air-launched version, optimised for external carriage also features non-retractable fins, including an added-on ventral fin for better stability lacking on the original Kh-55.     

CJ-10’s air-launched variant is the principal long-range weapon of the H-6K long-range bomber, which is, fact, a Chinese copy of the 1950s-vintage Tu-16, but fitted with all-new engines, a modern digital avionics suite and electronic warfare suite married to a much-refined airframe.

Provided with a 1,100nm combat radius, the H-6K can carry up to six CJ-10s under the wings, while the missile itself offers a 930nm range. The guidance package includes a combination of inertial navigation and satellite receiver, together with terrain contour matching and possibly also uses a digital scene matching sensor for an even better accuracy, but there is no conformation yet of this. The missile was also seen carried by the H-6M, a mid-life upgraded derivative produced from older versions.

There are four types of conventional warheads developed for the CJ-10. The first of these, known as a heavy-type, weights 1,100lb, while the other three types – high explosive blast, submunition and earth penetrator - weight 770lb each. Just like the original, the Chinese copy of the Kh-55 is also believed to have potential to be fitted with a nuclear warhead.

An anti-ship derivative dubbed YJ-100 uses active radar seeker for terminal guidance while inertial guidance with satellite correction is utilized for the cruise phase of flight. The missile sports a 430nm range.  

The DF-10 is a ground-launched version in the line of the Chinese Kh-55 copies, unveiled for the first time in 2009. Range is believed to be 540nm-plus and it comes equipped with a rocket booster, enabling inclined firing from triple-round transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) road-mobile vehicles. The TEL uses launch canisters of octagonal cross section, believed to have been fielded in regular service in 2008, mainly for coastal defense purposes. 

The sea-launched CJ-10 derivative can be fired from ships and submarines equipped with vertical launcher cells and this line of Kh-55 clones also includes both land-attack and anti-ship sub-versions.        

Iran’s cruise missile achievements

The true extent of Iran’s long-range cruise missile capabilities, quietly developed over the years, was revealed for the first time during the attack on the strategically-important oil facilities in Saud Arabia in the September 2019. Seven missiles were used in the strike, with four of these reported to have scored good hits and causing serious damage. The daring long-range strike became possible thanks to the know-how acquired by the Iranian missile engineers from studying the Kh-55 technology, illegally obtained from Ukraine. It was subsequently utilized in the design and production of a family of long-range missiles, including copies with the same size and weight. Later on, the Iranians progressed with the design and production of more affordable scaled-down and simplified derivatives with shorter range and smaller warheads for sharing with allies in Yemen. 

Teheran’s first official announcement on the existence of a cruise missile development program dates back to 2012, referring at the time to the development of a long-range cruise missile named Meshkat that was to be unveiled soon, but this never happened. Another model, this time dubbed Soumar, was unveiled in March 2015, destined for joining the missile inventory of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force. In case of an all-out war with the United States, Iran’s hard-hitting long-range cruise missiles are expected to target a number of important defense and industrial objects such as the US military bases in the Middle East, as well as at oil facilities in region and strategic objects in Israel.

Designed and built by the Iranian Defense Ministry’s Aerospace Industries Organization, the Soumar, 27ft long and with 10.2ft wing span, resembles the Kh-55 and the US-made Tomahawk. In fact, it uses the baseline technology derived from the Kh-55 but comes with a different powerplant. The engine, which is visibly larger than the R-95-300 powering the Russian missile, is installed under the tail in a fixed position while the Soviet-era original has a retractable engine stowed inside the fuselage, which is extended into working position after launch. It is believed that the Soumar is powered by the locally-produced Tolloue-4 turbojet (a non-licensed copy of France’s Microturbo TRI-60-6 model), which is much simpler than the R-95-300, but less fuel-efficient and this way seriously reduces the missile’s range compared to the Kh-55.

The ground-launched Soumar also uses a solid-fuel rocket booster with lattice fins for launch and acceleration to speed allowing the use of the main engine, and then the booster is jettisoned. Other design differences could be found in the shape of the missile’s fins.  

The Hoveizeh, revealed in February 2019, is a much-improved Soumar derivative, with a claimed range of 729nm compared to 380nm of its predecessor, according to the Iranian press. This range extension hints for the use of a new turbofan engine of an undisclosed model (most likely dubbed Tolloue-14) in contrast to the turbojet-powered Soumar; it is also possible that the new missile is also fitted with a smaller and lighter warhead in order to increase the fuel capacity. There are no details revealed on the guidance package but it would be safe to guess that is consists of inertial navigation, enhanced by a satellite navigation receiver but without any further high-end technologies such as terrain contour matching or digital scene-matching area correlation.

The Quads-1 (Jerusaleem-1) is another Iranian-made ground-launched cruise missile, believed to have been developed as a simplified and scaled-down Hoveyzeh/Soumar derivative, featuring 0.34m fuselage diameter compared to 0.514m for its predecessors (as inherited from the original Kh-55). The smaller and lighter missile with range of about 380nm comes powered by an unlicensed copy of the TJ-100 turbojet, made by the PBS Velká Bíteš company in the Czech Republic, rated at 292lb st. Compared to the Hoveizeh/Soumar, the wings are in different position - low-mounted compared to the mid-mounted layout sported by all Kh-55 clones – while fins have no anhedral and both the wings and fins are made non-folding.

The missile was provided to Iran-aligned group in Yemen (non-state actor), named Ansarallah and also known as the Houthy movement, which used it in combat for the first time in June 2019 to hit Abha Airport in Saudi Arabia. At the time, the Iran-backed Houthy movement claimed that the Quads-1 is a Yemeni-developed project. The missile was used with a good effect for multiple strikes on oil refineries and other infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and UAE. Proofs of the Quads’ Iranian origin were obtained in July 2022, when a Royal Navy frigate intercepted speedboats off the coast of Iran, loaded with missiles and parts, intended for the Houthy rebels in Yemen.   

The September 14, 2019 strike on the Khurais oil field and the Abqaiq refinery, originally clamed to had been delivered by the Houthis, are believed to have been launched from Irani soil. Missile parts found in the targeted oil facility showed that it was the Quds-1 used in the attack. This could be regarded as a clear wake-up call, demonstrating the growing operational capability of Iran’s long-range cruise missile arsenal, which is also generously shared with its proxies. 

The Quads-2 is an improved model with longer range, believed to be powered by a fuel-efficient turbofan engine, locally-produced in Iran. Dubbed TJ-HP1, it comes rated at 335 lb st (15% more than the TJ-100) and the missile also sports an extended range of up to 540nm. The Quads-2 was apparently used for the first time in combat during the Houthy November 2020 strikes against an oil facility in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

The list of the latest Iran-made cruise missiles also includes the Abu Mahdi, a naval version of the Hoveizeh, unveiled in August 2020. Believed to have been developed and produced at the Samen al-Aemeh Industries Group at Parchim, it comes equipped with an active radar seeker and its maximum range is claimed to be 540nm. The Abu Mahdi is ground-launched, from a mobile truck-based TEL vehicle.

Iranian defense minister, Amir Hatami, announced in 2020 that an air-launched cruise missile is also in development and this could be a Quds-2 follow-on derivative lacking the booster.