Artillery: Iskander Stays In Its Cage

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September 23, 2009: Last year, Russian threatened to base several of its new SS-26 (9M723K1, or "Iskander") ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, as a way to threaten the American anti-missile system being built in Poland (to protect Europe from Iranian missiles). Now the U.S. has cancelled the anti-missile system in Poland (much to the dismay of the nervous Poles), and Russia has responded that it will not put Iskanders in Kaliningrad.

Russia had planed to send five brigades of Iskander (60 launchers, each with one missile, plus reloads, which could amount to over a hundred missiles) to Kaliningrad. Iskander has just entered production, and it would have taken several years, at least, to produce the missiles for Kaliningrad. Actually, it probably would have taken five or more years to produce enough missiles for five brigades, because Russian missile production capabilities have sharply deteriorated since the end of the Cold War in 1991. This is one reason why the current Russian government is making so much noise about this imaginary NATO plot to surround and subdue Russia. Losing the Cold War did not go down well in Russia. Rather than forget and move on, many Russians prefer to remember, and use the imagined evil intentions of their Cold War foes to explain away defects in the Russian character.

This Russian deployment to Kaliningrad was also all about a unique feature of Iskander, which is that it is not a traditional ballistic missile. That is, it does not fire straight up, leave the atmosphere, then come back down, following a ballistic trajectory. Instead, Iskander stays in the atmosphere and follows a rather flat trajectory. It is capable of evasive maneuvers and deploying decoys. This makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to take it down.

Russia is buying a special version of the Iskanders for its own military. This version has a longer range (500 kilometers, versus 280 kilometers for the export version) and more countermeasures (to interception). Russia will not provide details. Russia has admitted that it could use Iskander to destroy the U.S. anti-missile systems in a pre-emptive attack. Just in case Russia wanted to start World War III for some reason or another. The threatened Iskander deployment was mainly a publicity stunt, unless you want to seriously consider the possibility that the Russians are trying to start a nuclear war.

Kaliningrad is the perfect place for Russia to start World War III. The area is the former German city of Konisgberg, which was captured at the end of World War II, and kept by Russia, as the boundaries of Eastern Europe were rearranged in the late 1940s. Until 1991, Kaliningrad was on the Soviet Union's western border. But when the Soviet Union dissolved that year, and more than half the Soviet Union split away to regain their independence as 14 new nations, Kaliningrad found itself nestled between Poland and the newly reestablished Lithuania. The small (200 square kilometers, 400,000 Russians, the Germans were expelled 60 years ago) city is still the headquarters of the Russian Baltic fleet and protected by a large force of troops and warplanes. The Iskander missiles would have felt right at home. But all the publicity Iskander got over the Kaliningrad gambit, was mainly useful to encourage export sales.

The Iskander finally completed its development in the last few years. The 3.8 ton missile has a range of 280-500 kilometers, and a 900 pound warhead. Russia sells several different types of warheads, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electro-magnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 30 feet of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 20 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is also a reload truck that carries two missiles.

Russia developed the solid fuel Iskander to replace its Cold War era SS-23 battlefield ballistic missiles (which in turn had replaced SCUD). The SS-23 had to be withdrawn from service and destroyed by 1991, because the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty prohibited missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,300 kilometers. When post Cold War financial problems slowed down development of Iskander, this left Russia dependent on the shorter range (120 kilometers) SS-21 system, along with some aging SCUDS, for battlefield ballistic missile support. Russia used some of these older missiles against Chechen rebels in the 1990s, demonstrating that really does believe in using ballistic missiles as artillery, and a replacement for air support.  

 

 


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