Russia's Iskander Missiles Are a Real Threat to NATO's Navies

By Vitaly V. Kuzmin -, CC BY-SA 4.0,
September 18, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaNavyMilitaryTechnologyWorldBlack SeaIskander

Russia's Iskander Missiles Are a Real Threat to NATO's Navies

Here's how.


Key point: Anti-ship missiles are one of the deadliest weapons that could be used on aircraft carriers and their escorts.

First, China developed long-range "carrier-killer" ballistic missiles. Now, Russia's Iskander ballistic missile system may have the same mission.


In late July and early August, Russia conducted two simulated "electronic launches" of the 9K720 Iskander-M (NATO code name, SS-26 Stone) against ships in the Black Sea, according to Russian media.

"An 'electronic' launch likely means a field combat simulation where the missile unit prepares and performs all procedures for a real-world launch without firing a live missile," explains the Russian Defense Policy blog. 

But exactly which missile did Russia pretend to launch? The Iskander, developed in the 1970s as a replacement for the Scud, is a road-based mobile launch system that can fire several models of ballistic and cruise missiles. The  Iskander-M is a single-stage ballistic missile, armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, and a range of 500 kilometers (311 miles).

However, the Russia Beyond news site describes how the Iskander system can fire anti-ship versions of the R-500 Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of 500 kilometers (311 miles).        

"These missiles are readjusted for targeting second and third-class destroyers – basically ships that are capable of carrying Tomahawk missiles and parts of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system," Russia Beyond writes. "Ships of this class – aside from the USS Ticonderoga – act as the main launching pads for Washington’s precision-guided Prompt Global Strikes.

The anti-ship missiles can fly towards their targets at 2,000 kilometers per hour (1,243 miles). They also skirt above the water – at an altitude of only 5 to10 meters (16 to 33 feet), which means hitting it with any sort of sea-based anti-missile defense systems is practically impossible. The missile’s payload ranges from 200 to 500 kilogram (441 to 1,102 pounds). The lighter ones normally target destroyers, while the heavier ones are intended for cruisers."

"There’s no running from these assassins," Russia Beyond dramatically declares. In fact, a missile traveling at slower than Mach 2 can be shot down by missiles or point defense cannon.

But the implications of the Russian tests -- and the publicity in the Russian media -- is clear. Russia is sending a message that it can use ballistic missiles -- or at least ballistic missile launchers -- as anti-ship weapons.

If this sounds familiar, it is. While China may copy a lot of Russian weapons, Russia may be taking a page from China's "carrier-killer"  missiles, which are modified DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Though the DF-26 has the U.S. Navy worried for the safety of its aircraft carriers, ship-killing ballistic missiles are still an untested weapon, dogged by questions such as their ability to long-distance moving targets like a ship.

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But also note that the DF-26 has an estimated range of 2,500 miles, much greater than a Kalibr or an Iskander-M. A 300-mile missile may be a useful coastal defense weapon in confined waters like the Baltic or Black Seas, enabling Russia to prevent NATO ships from getting too close to its territory. But it's not a long-range access denial weapon.

The obvious question is: If Russia can launch short-range anti-ship cruise missiles from ballistic missile launchers, then why not long-range ballistic missiles like China does? A major stumbling block would be whether these long-range anti-ship missiles, because they could potentially carry nuclear weapons, would violate U.S.-Russian arms control treaties. Nonetheless, it would not be surprising to learn down the road that Russia has developed its own carrier-killer ballistic missiles.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This first appeared in August 2018.

Image: Creative Commons.