SS-21 Scarab: Russia's Forgotten (But Deadly) Ballistic Missile

September 12, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaDefenseTechnologyBallistic MissilesWar

SS-21 Scarab: Russia's Forgotten (But Deadly) Ballistic Missile

While the world worries over other weapons platforms created by Moscow, this one is inflicting some serious battlefield losses.

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