Iran recently announced the existence of another “missile city” whose location was not revealed for obvious reasons. Thick concrete walls of the subterranean missile base were clearly visible in the released video clip besides an assortment of missiles placed in racks or trolleys. Iran boasts about the military facility being equipped with electronic warfare (jamming and anti-jamming) equipment besides the usual paraphernalia necessary to launch ballistic or cruise missiles. Iran will not reveal how many underground bases it has built but there are calculated guesses via Google Earth’s geolocation.
While Iran’s rival intelligence agencies may know a lot more, the data available in the public domain is enough to prove that such Iranian military sites are prone to pre-emptive strikes for it is one of the most satellite-monitored or surveilled countries in the world. As a base prepares to launch strikes, it is possible for Iran’s rivals to launch a pre-emptive attack. If this opportunity is not taken, Iran’s missiles can be intercepted on course to their target. In case of a successful hit in a rival’s territory, safeguarding such sites against deep penetration heavy bombs is not guaranteed.
Iran’s media dubbed the IRGC naval base as having the capability to launch “missiles, naval mines with different ranges, firing at 360-degrees, confronting electronic warfare, and increasing the range and destruction power in operations.”
IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami said at the unveiling ceremony, “What we see today is a small section of the great and expansive missile capability of Revolutionary Guards’ naval forces.” In July 2020, the IRGC’s navy chief Rear-Admiral Alireza Tangsiri claimed that Iran had built underground missile cities along the Gulf coastline, warning of a “nightmare for Iran’s enemies.”
Jane’s Defense reported two days after the missile city’s unveiling ceremony that the underground base is known to have been in existence since at least 2003 and is connected to tunnels that were constructed from 2009. “A known ballistic missile base to the immediate northeast also has tunnels.”
Iran’s military, whose “forward defense” doctrine puts missiles and drones at the forefront, has said that the depots are spread across the country 500 meters beneath the mountains. So far, at least half a dozen such subterranean bases have been located while Tehran has officially announced the existence of three. It is suspected that Iran is busy developing a similar base or bases in Syria where Israel has routinely attacked its T-4 military airbase.
Since the emergence of underground missile bases, various rival powers have invested in them heavily. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union kept nuclear ballistic missiles in a fire-ready condition in underground bases. However, they were not immune from enemy attacks. The concepts of deterrence and balance of power meant that underground intercontinental missiles were never used. Even decades ago, the United States and the Soviet Union could locate each other’s underground missile bases via satellite imagery, espionage or secret aerial surveillance.
In the 21st century, Iran is employing a decades old military strategy and hoping for similar results. Discounting their vulnerability to direct enemy attacks, sabotage, or cyberattacks, Iran has continued to build covert, deep bases to project its military power and display resilience in the wake of conflict.
As the IRGC has been building underground bases for over a decade now, its rivals have developed capabilities to bury them deeper into the ground. Launching an attack from a hidden or underground location leaves its own tell-tale electronic signatures that can be tracked, and the source neutralized.
Considering the vulnerabilities listed above, Iran is seemingly building deeper into the ground on a wider area separated by a network of tunnels while keeping such constructions immune from cyberattacks as much as possible.
The situation also brings to the fore the dilemma of false alarms and miscalculation of rival actions. Such isolated, trigger-ready underground bases like during the Cold War are prone to launching accidental strikes.
To conclude, Iran’s underground bases do not guarantee military superiority over its rivals, however, they still increase the likelihood of a second strike even in conventional terms. The mere fact that Iran prefers to boast of their existence proves that it is more interested in intimidation than initiating a direct conflict, besides serving the objective of boosting public morale while the Iranian people continue to suffer because of deteriorating socio-economic conditions, which have led to ongoing protests and a decrease in the legitimacy of the political system.