While NATO may preoccupied with the capabilities of Russia’s Iskander missile, the far more primitive Tochka, codenamed the SS-21 Scarab by NATO, has been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the last twelve months at the hands of Yemeni rebels and the Syrian and Ukrainian governments.
Tactical ballistic missiles afford ground commanders a means to make precision attack on installations, commander centers, troop concentrations, supply depots and airfields behind enemy lines without needing to control the airspace overhead. They can also be used as means to deploy nuclear warheads or chemical warfare agents.
Such systems have not been extensively employed by the United States or its allies because they have been able to rely on airpower to deliver such strikes. However, the battlefields of Yemen and Ukraine today show that such mobile weapons can wreak considerable havoc, even in the hands of an outgunned rebel army.
The Improved Cold War Rocket:
The Tochka was a successor to the 9K52 Luna-M missile, also known by NATO as the FROG-7. The FROG-7 was an icon of the Cold War—early versions showed up in the Cuban missile Crisis—but it suffered from being highly inaccurate. The Circular Error Probable (CEP)—that is, the radius around the target in which at least half of the missiles would land, on average—was 500 to 700 meters. In other words, you would be lucky to hit a large building with one. Its range was only 70 kilometers, which meant the launch vehicles had to be fairly close to the frontline to hit targets far in the opponent’s rear.
The 9K79 Tochka missile was a smaller, more effective design that entered service in 1975. While the FROG-7 fired unguided rockets, the Tochka used an inertial navigation system which corrected the rocket’s trajectory based on internal gyroscopes and motion sensors. A basic Tochka missile would land within a 150-meter radius of the target half of the time—not “precise” by modern standards, but still a lot more practical than the FROG-7. The range, however, remained only 70 kilometers.
In 1989 the Tochka-U (Scarab-B) entered service. Using improved propellants, the Tochka-U increased the range to 120 kilometers and reduced the CEP radius to within 90 meters of the target using a combination of a GPS system and a terminal guidance radar. Thelater Tochkas can also be fired in a “cruise missile” mode which is stealthier (presumably low-altitude) and more accurate, at the expense of range and speed.
It’s believed that an even more effective Scarab-C with 170 kilometer range and a CEP of 70 meters was developed and tested, but was passed over in favor of the more potent Iskander system.
The Tochka is transported by a long six-by-six 9P129 TEL vehicle launch unit. The system as a whole is highly mobile: the TEL vehicle can roll up to 37 miles per hour, can handle rough terrain and is amphibious. It can also operate in an environment contaminated by nuclear, biological and chemical agents. Deploying a Tochka for launch takes 15 minutes, while reloading takes 20. An accompanying Zil-131 truck tows additional missiles and a missile-loading system.
In terms of payload, the Tochka generally carries either 264 pounds of high explosives or unleashes a devastating array of 50 cluster submunitions with a lethal radius of 200 meters. The cluster munitions can even include anti-tank or anti-runway warheads. It can also carry an AA-60 tactical nuclear warhead with yields ranging from 10 to 60 kilotons, and chemical warheads as well.
More exotic variants exist as well: EMP warheads designed to burst in the air to knock out electronics, and even a guided anti-radiation missiles which allows a Tochka to home onto the radar emissions of radar installations.
Russian Tochkas operate in brigades of 18 launch-vehicles. Each vehicle is assigned two or three missiles to fire. The Russian military is believed to operate 200 to 300 Tochka units, and possesses roughly the same number of nuclear warheads for use with the system. This Tochka arsenal will eventually be replaced by the much more accurate and longer-range Iskander-M system.
Bane of the Saudi Coalition:
Unlike the majority of ballistic missiles, which never see use, the Tochka has caused plenty of death and destruction around the world.
The first operational use of the Tochka appears to have been during the 1994 civil war between factions in northern and southern Yemen—the northern forces fired them at the Saudi-backed Southern side, which ultimately lost. The missiles were kept by the unified military—only for the Tochka missile units to take the side of Houthi rebels in 2014.
These rebel-aligned Yemeni Republican Guard Tochkas wreaked an impressive amount of destruction in the space of a few months, firing missiles against bases held by a Saudi-led coalition opposing the Houthis. To recap the most dramatic incidents:
On September 4, 2015, a Tochka slammed into a Saudi base in Marib, killing 73 Coalition soldiers, the majority from the United Arab Emirates, and dozens of Yemenis, knocking out dozens of vehicles including a LeClerc main battle tank. On December 14 of that year, a missile striking a base in Bab El Mandab is reported to have killed over a hundred Coalition personnel, including the head of Saudi special forces. A month later, a missile striking Al Anad air base reportedly took out drone operation systems and killed over hundred troops, including many in a newly-arrived contingent of Sudanese mercenaries.
These devastating attacks are occurring despite active Saudi countermeasures. Saudi and United Arab Emirate Patriot missile batteries have shot down at least two-dozen ballistic missiles, most of them Tochkas. Air strikes have been directed at knocking out the Tochka launch units as soon as they reveal themselves when opening fire, with some successes—yet the rain of missiles has yet to end. Just last month, media reported three missiles were intercepted by Patriots and one launcher destroyed, while another three impacted in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, killing eight and wounding nine.
The losses sustained by the Coalition in Yemen are shocking, to put it plainly. Despite possessing air superiority, advanced air-defenses, and far greater firepower than their enemies, the Coalition has suffered hundreds of casualties to these missiles. These reflect both the danger posed by the Tochka, but also the failure of the Coalition to take force protection measures to reduce its vulnerability to the weapon.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Syrian government is launching Tochka missiles on rebel positions in Aleppo, Marea and East Damascus. The first reports were confirmed in 2013, and the system remains in active use this year. One account in Russia media states the missile was used to target a conference between two rival rebel groups.
Grozny and Other Incidents:
Over sixty ballistic missiles, mostly Tochkas, were fired into Grozny in the Russian campaign to seize the separatist capital. In one infamous incident, two missiles believed to be Tochkas landed on Grozny’s open-air market, raining one hundred submunitions on Chechens buying food on market day. In the resulting carnage, around 140 Chechens, mostly civilians, were killed. Weapons were being sold in a small portion of the market that was not at the center of the blast.
Though remains of the cluster munitions were found in the aftermath and the missile launches had been tracked by U.S. radars, the Russian government (then under President Boris Yeltsin) maintained the explosion was the result of a fight between criminal gangs gone out of hand. Later, Russian officials admitted privately that the strike had been authorized in order to knock out the arms-trading bazaar in the market.
Russia again launched 23 Tochka missiles in the Russo-Georgia War in 2008, three of them from within separatist-held Ochamchira. Striking Poti, Gori, Racha, and Vaziani with cluster munitions, the missiles reportedly did not inflict great damage, though some accounts insist they played a hand in hitting Georgian airpower on the ground.
Ukraine possesses 90 Tochka launch units, and these went into action against pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and 2015. Many of the Ukrainian missiles are alleged to have failed mid-flight, though some may have caused significant damage. Separatist rebels claim to have shot one down earlier this year, though most analysts consider this unlikely.
A Ukrainian Tochka is believed to have caused a massive explosion in February 2015 when it struck a chemical plant in Donetsk. Shattering windows kilometers away, the blast was first mis-identified by some as tactical-nuclear explosion or the result of a strike from a 2S4 mortar.
Several other countries also maintain Tochkas. North Korea is believed to have an indigenously designed Tochka variant called the KN-2 Toksa. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan own small numbers, presumably ready for use against each other in their decades-long conflict over the Karabakh region. Belarus still maintains 36 launchers, Bulgaria 18, and Kazakhstan an unknown number.
The combat record of Tochka shows that even a Cold War-era tactical ballistic missile with a relatively short range is capable of wreaking considerable havoc—even against a force benefitting from air superiority and advanced air defenses.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: An OTR-21 Tochka on parade in Yerevan, Armenia, May 7, 2015. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain