Iskander the Great
The Iskander short-range mobile theater ballistic missile system is the latest armament to burst onto the political arena, serving as a persuasive argument for politico-military discussions taking place in Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. The reason why the Iskander (Western designation SS-26 Stone) has attracted so much attention is that it is quite possibly the most effective and deadly nonstrategic ballistic missile in existence.
From the Oka to the Iskander
In 1980, the Soviet Union adopted the 9K714 Oka (SS-23 Spyder) short-range theater mobile ballistic missile into service, having a range of up to 450 km and a high precision, single-stage solid propellant missile with a nuclear or conventional warhead. This system was developed by the Kolomna Machine Building Design Bureau (KBM). The accuracy of the Oka missile (Circular Error Probable – CEP) is 30 m. Oka missiles were meant to replace the notorious old 9K72 Elbrus (SS-3B Scud) short-range theater ballistic missile with a range of up to 300 km, used by the Soviet Army and forces of the Warsaw Pact. The USA was worried from the start by the outstanding accuracy of the Oka missile. In 1987, exploiting Mikhail Gorbachev’s inclination to compromise, the United States was able to have the Oka (as OTR-23) included in the list of systems to be eliminated under the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, even though the Treaty applied only to missiles with a range over 500 km. The Soviet Union was required to destroy every one of its 106 transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicles and 339 Oka missiles by 1991. Later, the United States insisted that former Soviet allies destroy the Oka missile systems they received in the mid-1980s on a unilateral basis: Bulgaria (eight TEL vehicles and 25 Oka missiles), Czech Republic (two TEL vehicles and 12 Oka missiles) and Slovakia (two TEL vehicles and 24 Oka missiles).
The destruction of the Oka missiles in accordance with the INF Treaty was hotly debated among Soviet politico-military circles and was seen by society as a glaring example of Gorbachev’s «betrayal.» Thus, the Soviet Union and Russia were deprived of their most effective short-range theater ballistic missile. Moreover, the R-17 Elbrus (SS-3B Scud) short-range ballistic missiles («operational-tactical» ones in Russian terminology), based on the design of the German V-2 liquid propellant ballistic missile, were withdrawn from operational use due to their low accuracy and outdated technology. Accordingly, the Kolomna Machine Building Design Bureau began to develop a new and more modern, highly accurate single-stage solid propellant short-range theater mobile ballistic missile with a range of up to 500 km to satisfy the requirements of the INF Treaty. The new system was named Iskander, after the Persian name for Alexander the Great, and intended to fill the armaments gap left by the elimination of the Oka and Elbrus ballistic missiles. Later, it was decided to use the Iskander to replace the Tochka and Tochka-U (SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missile mobile systems with ranges of up to 70 and 120 km respectively, as their service life was to expire after 2000.
The Iskander ballistic missile is 7.3 m long, has a body diameter of 0.92 m and a launch weight of between 3,800 and 4,020 kg, depending on the payload. A Soyuz NPO single-stage solid-propellant engine provides propulsion. The high velocity of the missile allows it to penetrate antimissile defenses. Iskander missiles can fly a depressed trajectory below 50 km and can make evasive maneuvers up to 30 g during the terminal phase, to prevent interception by surface-to-air missiles. The Iskander has several conventional warhead options weighing between 480 and 700 kg, depending on type. These are believed to include cluster warheads with antipersonnel/antimaterial blast/fragmentation submunitions, area denial submunitions, high explosive unitary, fuel-air explosive, high explosive earth penetrator for bunker busting, and an antiradar blast/fragmentation warhead. A nuclear warhead can be affixed to the Iskander, though this capability is not advertised officially. The payload can also include tactical decoys.
The guidance system, designed by the Central Scientific Research Institute for Automation and Hydraulics (TsNIIAG), features an inertial unit with terminal guidance electro-optical correlation seeker with digital target area data. The missile has been reported to have an accuracy of 10 to 30 meters CEP, or even better. Some versions have guidance systems capable of GPS/GLONASS satellite navigation system updates during mid-course and with missile datalink for in-flight re-targeting. Other types of terminal guidance system are possible, using active radar or imaging infrared sensor seekers.
The Iskander ballistic missile system was created in two basic versions. The 9K723 Iskander missile system (sometimes called the Iskander-M or Tender) was made for the use of the Russian Army, using the 9M723 ballistic missile with a maximum range of up to 450 or even 500 km. The 9K720 Iskander-E export version uses 9M720-E ballistic missiles with a reduced payload of up to 480 kg and a reduced maximum range of up to 280 km, to respect the limits imposed by the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
The Iskander 9P78 TEL vehicle carries two missiles. The 9P78 four-axle TEL vehicle was developed by the Titan Central Design Bureau in Volgograd and based on a Minsk MZKT-7930 chassis. It has a length of 13.1 m, a width of 2.6 m and a height of 3.55 m, with the two missiles in the stowed traveling position. The fully loaded weight is 42,850 kg. This TEL has a 650 HP diesel engine, with a maximum road speed of 70 km/h, and an un-refueled range of 1,100 km. The vehicle has a launch crew of three, has full nuclear, biological, and chemical protection and amphibious capabilities. The TEL contains a command post with an automated fire-control system, so that each TEL can operate independently if necessary. The command post has target data and designation, navigation, and weather control positions, as well as built-in system-test equipment. The TEL can be positioned on sloping ground, and leveled with four hydraulic jack supports within 30 to 80 seconds. The missiles are raised to an angle of 85°, which takes around 20 seconds. The reaction time can vary between 5 and 16 minutes, and two missiles can be fired in salvo with 60 seconds between launches. The Iskander missile system also includes a 9T250 transporter-loader vehicle based on a MZKT-7930 chassis, which carries two reload missiles and a crane. This has a crew of two, with a fully loaded weight of 40,000 kg. There are four other vehicles based on the six-axle KamAZ-43101 truck chassis. These are a 9S552 command and control post with four operator stations and a communications suite, a 9S920 mission planning vehicle with two operator stations, a maintenance vehicle, and a crew accommodation vehicle.
A typical Iskander operational battery is expected to consist of two TELs with two reload vehicles, two command and control vehicles, two mission planning vehicles, a maintenance vehicle, and a crew accommodation vehicle. An Iskander battalion is composed of two operational batteries. A Missile Brigade equipped with Iskander missile systems, is composed of three missile battalions, with 12 TELs and 12 transporter-loader vehicles, and a total of 48 ballistic missiles.
Testing of the Iskander ballistic missile system has been ongoing at the Kapustin Yar Test Range in Astrakhan Oblast since 1995. The state tests were complete in August of 2004, and in 2007 the Iskander was formally passed into service by the MOD. Limited serial production of the system began in 2005. Iskander ballistic missiles are manufactured at the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant in Udmurtia and the solid propellant motors are built by the Soyuz NPO (now part of the Tactical Missiles Corporation) at Dzerzhisky. The TEL and transporter-loader vehicles are built at the Barrikady Plant in Volgograd.
Further development of the warfighting capabilities of the Iskander missile system should include the integration of the high-precision R-500 (3M14) subsonic cruise missile, developed by the Novator Design Bureau in Yekaterinburg. The R-500 missile is actually a conventional version of the Soviet 3M10 (RK-55) long-range cruise missile, which was the analogue of the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile. The 3M10, is installed as the Granat (SS-N-21) system with a range of up to 2,600 km on the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarines and was previously deployed as the Relief (SSC-4) ground-based long-range mobile cruise missile system, eliminated by the 1987 INF Treaty.
The R-500 is equipped with a conventional warhead and has an official range of up to 500 km to honor the limits of the INF Treaty. However, several observers have suggested that the R-500 could easily be modified to attain ranges of up to 1,000 km or even more (up to 2,500 km, depending on the size of the warhead).
In November of 2007, the Commander of the Missile Troops and Artillery of the Russian Ground Forces, Colonel General Vladimir Zaritsky said that «at present the Iskander-M missile system fully complies with the conditions of the INF Treaty, but if a political decision were made to withdraw from the Treaty, we would increase the fighting capabilities of the system, including its range.» The R-500 cruise missile guidance system has an inertial unit, a GPS/GLONASS satellite navigation system, and a terminal guidance electro-optical correlation seeker with digital target area data or active radar seeker. Testing of the R-500 cruise missile was completed at Kapustin Yar in 2007, and it was announced that the missile would be passed into service as part of the Iskander system in 2009. The Iskander missile system with the R-500 cruise missile is designated Iskander-K. Six R-500 cruise missiles with vertical launch canisters can be installed in place of the two ballistic missiles on a standard 9P78 TEL vehicle.
Iskander in Service
On January 1, 2007, the 630th Training Missile Battalion with four Iskander TEL vehicles, the first one of the kind, was formed at the 60th Combat Training Center of the Army Missile Troops at the Kapustin Yar Test Range, based in the North Caucasus Military District. According to the National Armaments Programs for 2007-2015, 60 serially-produced Iskander ballistic missile systems (that is, 60 TEL vehicles) will be procured to equip five of Russia’s ten Missile Brigades. The newly equipped brigades will be distributed right across Russia: the 26th (Luga, near St. Petersburg in the Leningrad Military District), the 92nd (in Kamenka, near Penza in the Volga-Urals Military District), the 103rd (in Ulan-Ude, Siberia Military District), the 107th (Semistochny, near Birobidzhan in the Far East Military District), and the 114th (in Znamensk, near Astrakhan, in the North Caucasus Military District). Each of those missile brigades is currently equipped with Tochka and Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile mobile systems. The 92nd and 107th Missile Brigades are to be the first to be reequipped, by 2011, with the first deliveries to begin in 2008. It should be noted that the list of five brigades designated to receive the Iskander does not include the 152nd Missile Brigade in Kaliningrad, the two missile brigades of the Moscow Military District (the 50th in Shuya and the 448th in Kursk), and yet another missile brigade in the North Caucasus Military District (the 1st in Krasnodar).
On May 9, 2008, four TEL vehicles loaded with Iskander missiles of the 630th Training Missile Battalion of the 60th Combat Training Centre of the Army Missile Troops took part in the Military Parade on the Red Square in Moscow. On August 630th Training Missile Battalion took part in Five-Day War with Georgia over South Ossetia. Several 9M723 missiles were reportedly fired from Russia against military targets in Georgia with cluster and high-explosive unitary warheads. According to unconfirmed reports, it was an Iskander missile that inflicted the infamous, high-precision strike on the Georgian Separate Tank Battalion base in Gori. Moreover, the Iskander missile made a direct hit on the arms depot, causing it to explode and inflicting extensive damage on the tank battalion. Russian officials have not admitted to using the Iskander missile against Georgia. However, unofficial reports testify to the high effectiveness of the Iskander missiles, as one of the most devastating and accurate weapons in the Russian arsenal.
The fate of the Iskander missile took a new turn on November 5, 2008, when President Dmitry Medvedev announced in his address to the Federal Assembly that Russia would deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad Oblast as a response to the planned deployment of parts of the American missile-defense system on Polish and Czech territory. In principle, Medvedev’s announcement should not have been a surprise to anyone following Russian military developments. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov had said as much in July of 2007, and similar announcements have been made several times in Russian military circles in 2008. There was even a story about the plans in a September issue of Krasnaya Zvezda, the MOD’s newspaper. In fact, the issue concerns nothing more than the replacement of the Tochka-U missiles of the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade, located at Chernyakhovsk in Kaliningrad Oblast, part of the Kaliningrad Special Military Region, which is under Naval Command.
The rearming of the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade with Iskanders would allow 9M723 missiles with a range of 500 km to reach all of Poland, the eastern parts of Germany and northern Czech territories. It could target all elements of the American Ballistic Missile Defense system planned for deployment in this area, including the radar station in the Czech Republic. The accuracy of the 9M723 missile is sufficient to defeat even heavily fortified targets, including the American GBI silo-based missile interceptors, with conventional warheads. The R-500 cruise missile would allow for an even more effective destruction of targets in Europe from Kaliningrad, and probably at a greater range as well. Moreover, Russia has not excluded the possibility of equipping the Iskander with a nuclear warhead.
However, the decision to rearm the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade with Iskander missiles is only part of a full-scale review of the original plans for their deployment. Two days after Medvedev’s speech, a high official of the Russian MOD told the RIA Novosti news agency that the new plan would have all five brigades armed with Iskanders by 2015 «facing the West.» This would imply that instead of equipping the 92nd, 103rd and 107th missile brigades with Iskanders, the new weapons would be deployed to the 50th and 448th missile brigades of the Moscow Military District, the 152nd in Kaliningrad, and the 26th in the Leningrad Military District, and the 114th in the North Caucasus. On the basis of several subsequent official statements, it seems that the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade in Kaliningrad will be equipped with Iskanders no sooner than 2011, and would be timed to coincide with the deployment of American GBI missile interceptors in Poland.
Clearly, the decision to change the plan for the deployment of Iskander missiles to concentrate on reequipping the European parts of Russia first, reflects the significant deterioration of relations between Russia and the West over the past few years, especially in the wake of the Five-Day War with Georgia. In military terms, the deployment of the Iskander system in Kaliningrad and other European parts of Russia represents a radical increase in the capacity of Russian formations to inflict high-precision strikes against any target in Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe. It is extremely difficult for even the most modern and prospective air defense systems possessed by Western countries to intercept the Iskander ballistic missile. The TEL vehicles themselves proved to be difficult to detect and relatively invulnerable to American forces in 1991 and 2003 during the two wars with Iraq.
The sharp reaction of West European states to the announced deployment of the Iskander system in Kaliningrad comes as no surprise, as it represents a quantum leap for Russian military capabilities in the enclave. However, the Europeans should not forget that it is the American plan to deploy its Ballistic Missile Defense system along the Russian border that has led Moscow to making this decision. The Kremlin has clearly reasoned that the Iskander should be a weighty argument for European discussions on whether they are prepared to sacrifice their own immediate security interests for the sake of America’s politico-military ambitions. After all, the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad are a lot closer and much more real than any hypothetical Iranian missiles.
The Iskander-E short-range theater ballistic missile mobile system was publicly offered for export in 1999, though the sale of such a sensitive article was bound to meet with many political obstacles. Syria and Iran were the first to express an interest in 2000, though Russia apparently refused delivery for fear of spoiling its relations with the United States and Israel. By late 2004, Russia had practically concluded a contract for the sale of 18 systems to Syria, but President Putin canceled the deal at the last minute. Nevertheless, future sales cannot be excluded, and Russia is clearly exploiting the prospect of deliveries to Iran as a playing chip with the United States and Iran. The Iskander-E has become a powerful card in Russia’s hand in the complex game over the Middle East.
Negotiations with the United Arab Emirates have taken place, and Rosoborneksport has also named Algeria, Kuwait, Yemen, Vietnam, Singapore, and South Korea as potential customers. In 2006, KBM representatives announced that a contract for the delivery of the Iskander-E was concluded, but did not name the purchaser. This information has not been forthcoming to date. The Novator Design Bureau has also offered the Club-M missile system with 3M14E cruise missiles and 3M54E/E1 (SS-N-27) antiship missiles for export. The Club-M is actually the export version of the Iskander-K missile system. The UAE has expressed an interest in this system.
However, Belarus is likely to make the first purchase of the Iskander-E. In November 2007, General Mikhail Puzikov announced a government decision to acquire an Iskander-E missile system brigade to rearm the 465th Belarusian Missile Brigade by 2015-2020. Puzikov said that funds had already been allocated and the missile systems would be acquired at domestic Russian prices, in accordance with the terms of the Tashkent Agreement of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The first deliveries of the Iskander-E should begin in 2010.
The Iskander-E and Club-M are unique wares on the global arms market in terms of their technical specifications and warfighting capabilities. The acquisition by any country of the Iskander-E, the Russian arms industry’s most advanced export, is sure to influence the balance of forces in any corner of the world.