Despite Moscow’s partial withdrawal from Syria, additional Russian forces have appeared in theatre. One unconfirmed report suggests that Russia has deployed the Iskander short-range ballistic missile to the region—a potentially worrying development if true. The weapon would allow Russian forces to strike deep into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel with virtual impunity—though Tel Aviv has been actively working with Moscow to de-conflict their forces.
The 9K720 Iskander-M—known in NATO parlance as the SS-26 Stone—is a potent short-range ballistic missile. While export versions of the missile have a range of 280 kilometers and payload of 480Kg, the weapons destined for domestic service have a range 500 kilometers, according to Global Security.
Other sources such as the Missile Threat Project, estimate that the domestic version of the Iskander has shorter range of about 400 kilometers and payload of about 700Kg. Either way, that means that the nuclear-capable Iskander-M complies with the limitations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Nonetheless, the missile effectively replaces the OTR-23 Oka (SS-23 Spider) nuclear-tipped ballistic missile—which was eliminated by the INF treaty.
Both versions of the Iskander have a single warhead equipped terminal guidance systems, but the missile’s accuracy depends on the variant. According to Missile Threat, a purely inertially-guided variant would have a 200m circular probability of error accuracy, but coupled with GPS or GLONASS, that could be reduced to 50m or less. If those systems were supplemented by radar or electro-optical sensors, the Iskander’s accuracy could be better than 10m.
The Iskander can be equipped to carry a variety of warheads types. These include a high explosives (HE) variant, sub-munition dispenser variant, fuel-air explosive variant and a HE penetrator variant. The Russian domestic variant can also be used to deliver a nuclear payload. That means the Iskander is a versatile weapon.
The Iskander was designed to evade missile defenses. According to Missile Threat, the weapon can maneuver at more than 30g during its terminal phase. It’s also equipped with decoys to spoof interceptor missiles. As such, the Iskander is extremely difficult to intercept with current missile defense technologies.
The Iskander is not a strategic weapon—it’s a tactical ballistic missile. During combat operations, it would be used to destroy both stationary and moving targets. Targets would range from surface-to-air missile batteries, enemy short-range missiles, airfields, ports, command and communication centers, factories and other hardened targets.
It’s because of the missile's ability to overcome missile defenses that Moscow has placed Iskander-M launchers in Kaliningrad. The weapon affords Russia the ability to use its Baltic exclave to threaten U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and more generally to intimidate its neighbors. It’s probably why Russia deployed the weapon to Syria, if the reports of the missile’s presence are correct.
Meanwhile, Russia has not stopped development work on Iskander upgrades—new missiles are being developed for the system. “This system, the Iskander-M, has a great potential for modernization, which is happening in terms of armaments and missiles in particular. That is, the standard array of missiles is growing and new missiles are being developed,” Aleksandr Dragovalovsky deputy commander of Russia's missile forces told state-owned Sputnik in November 2015.
A new version of the Iskander would undoubtedly be even more problematic to intercept.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Creative Commons.