The Buzz

These are the 10 Killer Weapons Russia and NATO Would Use in a War

Tensions between NATO and Russia continue to hold steady at the highest levels since the collapse of the old Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union (25 years ago this month).

From the neverending crisis in Ukraine to the ongoing nightmarish civil war in Syria to lingering challenges in the Baltics and beyond, the spectre of a showdown looms over these rival camps. And massive nuclear weapons arsenals on both sides only complicates this dangerous dynamic.

But what would happen if tensions ever escalated to all out military conflict? Who would have the advantage?

Indeed, Russia has built up its military might considerably over the last decade--but would it be enough?

NATO, thanks to Washington’s massive arsenal, is considered the most powerful alliance ever created. But does it have the tools it needs to win in a conflict against the dangerous Russian bear?

For your reading pleasure, we have packaged two articles that tackle this issue from our archives. Frequent contributor Robert Farley (back in 2014) and Defense Editor Dave Majumdar (earlier this year) both explored this issue in depth from opposite sides, with Farley looking at Russia, and Majumdar examining NATO.

So which side stands the tallest if war came? Let the debate begin :


The technologies of war developed since the end of the Cold War (and indeed, in the last decade of the Cold War) remain untested in high intensity combat against sophisticated, resourceful opponents. The NATO alliance (and its most powerful members, in non-alliance conflicts) have soundly beaten foes with aging air defense systems, non-existent air forces, and trivial offensive capabilities.

It remains to be seen, however, how effectively NATO would fight against a determined, well-trained opponent with relatively modern technology. Recent events in Ukraine have, for the first time since the Cold War, raised the spectre of direct conflict with Russia.  If diplomacy fails and politics push the alliance into war, these are the weapons NATO will need to worry about the most.

Iskander Ballistic Missile:

In the final years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed short-range conventional ballistic missiles capable of striking, with great precision, airbases and staging areas well behind NATO lines. The American answer to this was theater missile defense, which (as experience in the Gulf War demonstrated), would not have stopped the opening Soviet volleys.

Anti-ballistic missile systems have improved since the 1980s, but so have Russian missiles. The Iskander-M has a range of 400km, can carry a 700kg warhead of several varieties, and has a circular error probability of around five meters. This makes it deadly to airfields, logistics points, and other stationary infrastructure along a broad front of conflict. Especially given the irregular and broken nature of Russia’s border with NATO, the Iskander gives the Russian military the opportunity to threaten targets deep in Europe.

The Iskander has the capability to retarget in flight, making it possible to engage mobile targets (including ships). It also has a set of built-in evasive maneuver techniques designed to make targeting from missile defenses difficult. In short, the Iskander can threaten to do to NATO forces what NATO forces typically do to everyone else.

The Iskander can put pressure on NATO missile defenses, but also on NATO air forces. Jets operating from forward bases will immediately come under threat of attack, or at least immobilization. If positioned in Kaliningrad, Iskander launchers could threaten a wide array of military and political targets across NATO.

Consequently, we can expect that NATO would target mobile Iskander launchers in the first stage of any conflict. As the history of tracking and destroying mobile missile launchers has been sketchy at best, however, NATO would have to be wary of SRBM attacks deep into the war. And successful attacks against the Iskander launchers depend on the achievement of air superiority over the theater of operations.

Su-27 Flanker Family:

Designed as the USSR’s answer to the F-15, the first Flankers entered service in 1985, but production troubles kept their numbers low until the early 1990s. At that point, the collapse of the Soviet Union significantly reduced the overall production run. The aircraft of the Flanker family combine size, range, speed, and wicked maneuverability into a single deadly platform. With gaunt, unforgiving lines, the Flanker is not a beautiful plane, but its appearance does suggest danger.

The Russian Air Force continues to operate several hundred Flankers in various configurations. The basic Flanker frame has proven remarkably flexible for upgrade, and has become the platform of choice for discerning fighter customers. Variants of the Flanker include the Su-30 multi-role fighter, the Su-33 carrier-based fighter, the S-34 fighter-bomber, the Su-35 air superiority fighter, and several Chinese knock-offs.