The Iskander Threat

Few modern weapon systems have the power to captivate popular imagination the way the Iskander does. Partly this stems from the lack of a clear specification, both for operational security reasons and because the system violates the (recently deceased) INF-treaty. Another reason for the allure is that the system represents a new capability, which so far has not been found in the Russian (nor in too many other countries’) arsenal, and lastly but not least the simple fact that it can carry nuclear warheads.

Iskander-M being launched. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, there is widespread confusion amongst non-defence geeks about how exactly the Iskander and other ballistic missiles differ from the more widespread cruise missiles, and how to defend against enemy Iskander-attacks. This blog will strive to sort out some of these misconceptions, and give a picture of how the Iskander threat should be evaluated.

The basic Iskander, Iskander-M, is a ballistic missile. For those into the details, the system’s official GRAU designation is 9K720 while the missile itself is designated 9M723. The word “ballistic” means that the missile roughly follows a ballistic trajectory, i.e. the path an object would take if you would throw it. A big rocket engine propels the Iskander up in the air, after which it will fall down onto the target. It isn’t a pure ballistic trajectory, the missile is guided and can make course changes, but it can’t e.g. regain height once it has started diving.

As said, the exact performance is shrouded in secrecy. The most often quoted figures is a range of 400-500 km, and a warhead of 700 kg. However, professor Stefan Forss already in 2012 noted that the official numbers doesn’t quite add up, and calculated a range of 500-750 km, while also noting that some Russian sources “could imply a heavy penetrating warhead weighing about 1,300 kg.” Note though that 700+ km ranges aren’t possible with such a heavy warhead in current configuration (the range calculations were made based on a 400 kg nuclear warhead). The missile likely has a CEP better than 10 meter under ideal circumstances, i.e. half of the missiles will fall within that distance of the target. A 700 kg warhead hitting within 10 meters, especially considering the kinetic energy of the approaching missile, does make the weapon viable to use against individual buildings with a conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) warhead, something which was not the case with Cold War missiles such as the SCUD or Tochka. However, like the earlier missiles, the Iskander is only capable of attacking fixed targets.

It is obvious that if you are supposed to reach a target hundreds of kilometers away with a ballistic trajectory you will need to go fast or high, preferably both. This is what makes shooting down ballistic missiles so hard. The Iskander missile dives towards the target at speeds of 2-3 kilometer per second. Trying to shoot down a maneuvering target falling towards the earth at eight times the speed of sound is extremely difficult, and require a very fast missile placed close to the target of the Iskander. The Patriot system does feature missiles capable of intercepting Iskanders (though their efficiency is questioned), and this is what the Swedish Army is in the process of acquiring. Needless to say, the capability doesn’t come cheap: the Swedish deal is valued at 2-3 billion Euros, which will give four batteries with anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft missiles.

However, the Iskander isn’t exactly cheap either. A missile brigade, there are ten to twelve in total in the Russian Armed Forces, feature twelve launchers meaning that the opening salvo of all Russian operational Iskanders would have a hard cap of 288 missiles. This would likely be lower as 100% availability is usually restricted to utopia and all brigades wouldn’t be directed against a single target anymore than all armoured brigades would.

Now, a hundred unstoppable conventional warheads raining down on Finland would cause issues. Targeting strategic sites such as bridges, headquarters, utilities such as power and water plants, would very quickly make things complicated. However, this is not in and by itself a war-winning weapon. Granted there could be a second wave, possibly even a third, but the supply of missiles aren’t endless. High-end weapons comes with a cost, even if you’re trading in rubles. In the end destruction caused by traditional air strikes coupled with cruise missiles will quickly become a bigger issue.

MiG-31 with Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile at the Moscow Victory Day parade 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A short note on the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. This is a large missile carried by the MiG-31 heavy fighter. It is part of the family of recently unveiled Russian “super-weapons” aimed at ensuring a Russian nuclear deterrent in the face of developments when it comes to missile defences. The Kinzhal seems to be a modified version of the Iskander-M missile, which thanks to higher launch speed and height gives it a range of over 800 km (1,000 to 3,000 km is often quoted, but it seems that these numbers include the combat range of the aircraft). Kinzhal seems to be a more realistic option compared to several other of the unveiled systems, but exact specifications and whether Russia will field a conventionally armed version are still unclear.

Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles are a completely different breed of beasts. They are in essence unmanned aircraft carrying a warhead to a target. The size, range, operating methods, launching platforms, and warhead types varies, but in essence they have an engine and wings to allow them to fly long distances, and then crash into whatever their target is. Often the cruise missiles fly towards their targets at very low altitude, using the terrain to mask their approach. The Finnish Air Force operate the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile, while the Navy’s current and upcoming anti-ship missiles both exhibit similar traits (it is largely a question of nomenclature/taxonomy rather than any practical differences if anti-ship missiles should be counted amongst cruise missiles or as a detached family of their own).

The firing unit of the NASAMS, sporting six canister mounted AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Source: Maavoimat FB

Now, as the cruise missile flies like an aircraft towards its target it can also be shot down like one, using the regular means of fighters and ground based air defences. Cruise missiles can make tricky targets due to their low altitude, speed, and (in some cases) stealthiness, but a modern SAM-system such as the NASAMS of the Finnish Army should have no problem in bringing down one, provided it is located in the appropriate spot.

As opposed to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles have shown a nasty tendency to proliferate. In part this is due to the low(er) cost compared to modern ballistic missiles of the same class as the Iskander. The most famous example of a modern Russian cruise missile is the 3M14 Kalibr land-attack missile (think Tomahawk/TLAM), which sports a range of 2,000 km and comes in at a unit cost of 1.1 million Euro. The weapon is officially in use aboard a number of modern Russian warships (including submarines), and likely it is this very missile that is carried by the Iskander-K under the designation 9M729. Yes, confusingly enough there is both a ballistic missile-carrying version of the Iskander and a cruise missile-carrying version. Generally, if people refer to something simply as the “Iskander”, it is the ballistic missile-carrying Iskander-M they mean.

The 9M729 is also at the centre of the INF-controversy which led to the US declaring the treaty void (INF doesn’t cover sea-based missiles, but as soon as the Kalibr was brought ashore it became illegal under the INF-treaty).

An Iskander-K with one of it’s two cruise missile containers raised. Source: Vadim Grishankin via Wikimedia Commons

If it is the unstoppable nature of the ballistic missile that makes the Iskander-M a threat, it is the large number of missiles coupled with the vast range that makes the Kalibr/Iskander-K one. Finland is within range of the Kalibr of both the Baltic as well as the Northern Fleet, where the vessels of the Northern Fleet effectively are beyond the reach of the anti-ship weapons of the Finnish Defence Forces.

Conclusions

The Iskander-M is a threat. So is the Kalibr/Iskander-K and other cruise missiles. However, they have very little common with each other, besides the fact that they transport warheads into enemy territory (as does strike aircraft). Phrases such as “the ability to defend against Iskander and Kalibr-missiles” are sometimes thrown around as if they are referring to a single capability, when in fact they are vastly separate issues. We already have the capability to defend against cruise missiles in all three services, with weapons such as the NASAMS, Umkhonto, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Acquiring point-defence capabilities against the Iskander for four possible targets would be a project comparable in cost to two Squadron 2020-projects. Not vessels, but two complete projects of eight vessels in total. As such, it is hard to argue with the official Finnish position that we’ll simply have to disperse and be prepared to suffer a number of Iskander hits, while at the same time investing further in medium-range air defence capabilities to defend against cruise missiles and enemy aircraft. The combination of Squadron 2020, HX, and the Army’s new GBAD-program will make the skies over Finland much deadlier for an attacker in the upcoming decades. Just not for their ballistic missiles.

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Beyond NASAMS

In the shadow of the HX-fighter competition, the state of the ground based air defences in Finland has again appeared in the headlines. The short story is that in the mid-90’s Finland acquired the Russian Buk-M1 air defence system as part of Russia paying off the Soviet balance of the clearing accounts. However, while the system certainly is competent, questions soon arose if it was wise to operate a high-tech system which the main adversary had built? Especially as knowing the exact capabilities of the radar and missile is of crucial importance when it comes to defeating radar-guided missiles.

By the mid-00’s training new conscripts on the Buk stopped, and the system was phased out (never trust a Finn who says something is retired, the last conscripts who trained on the system most likely had another ten years in the reserve, during which they were assigned to a wartime unit operating the missiles, giving a ‘real’ retirement date around 2015) and replaced by the NASAMS II.

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The launcher of the NASAMS, sporting six canister mounted AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Source: Maavoimat FB

The NASAMS is a controversial system in Finnish service. Not because it is bad, it is very much amongst the most modern ones available, but because it is of significantly shorter range than the Buk it replaced. Most crucially it has a ceiling of around 10,000 meters, meaning that most modern fighter aircraft can simply operate above this. This isn’t necessarily as big a drawback as it is often portrayed to be. Operating above 10,000 meters place high demands on sensors and weapons if you are to hit anything, and it means that you are easily spotted by air surveillance radars, meaning that the advantage of surprise is long gone by the time the target is overflown.

Still, this has left Finland without a long-range surface-to-air missile for the first time since the late 70’s, and talk about the need for something heavier has been going since the decision to procure NASAMS instead of Aster. The big question is what?

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An Iskander TEL raising one of its missiles into firing position. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

One issue which has been raised is the defence against ballistic missiles, i.e. missiles which are fired at a high angle, fly up to significant heights, and then ‘fall’ down at extreme speeds to hit a target. The Russian 9K270 Iskander-M is the embodiment of this threat, and comes equipped with either a conventional warhead (usually quoted at around 500 kg, but possibly with an option for a heavy penetrating warhead above 1,000 kg) or a nuclear one. The big improvement of the Iskander compared to the 9K79 Tochka U it replaced is the significant improvement of accuracy, which for the Iskander is quoted at a circular error probability of below 10 meters (i.e. half of the Iskanders will land within 10 meters of the intended target), meaning that it can reliably be assumed to hit individual buildings or bridges. As such, many has voiced the opinion that Finland need a system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.

…and it is in the crossroad of these ideas that we find some of the most common misconceptions, which warrant a slight detour before looking at the latest developments.

To begin with, the ballistic missile threat is not new to Finland, nor is the associated A2/AD-problem, but these have been a part of the Soviet/Russian arsenal for decades. Even with the improved accuracy of the Iskander, it is not a war-winning weapon, as the limited number of missiles available and the rather limited damage caused by a single hit makes it impossible to take out dispersed targets. In other words, while it is possible to hit the command centre of a unit, it is not possible to wipe out the unit itself. The Iskander also needs target information before launch, meaning that it is best used against stationary targets.

Another issue often overlooked is how hard it is to shoot down a ballistic missile. Crucially, while a modern long-range air defence system can sport ranges of over 100 km against air targets (at high altitude, at lower altitude the earth’s curvature creates shadows), the corresponding ranges when trying to intercept a ballistic missile approaching at very high speed and steep angle are significantly shorter. While the exact performance is secret, some sources state that the maximum range is a few tens of kilometers, creating a significant problem with regards to how to base air defence batteries to be able to protect a certain target. The implications of this is that a single battery might have a hard time defending both the Upinniemi naval base and central Helsinki, depending on the parameters of the intercept.

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A Patriot battery from the US Army deployed in Sweden during exercise Aurora 17 last autumn. Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten

As such, it is no surprise that Finnish officers are focusing on dispersion and hardening strategic targets instead of acquiring anti-ballistic missile capabilities. This is in marked contrast to Sweden’s decision to acquire the Patriot. Here, while the decision is not yet finalised, the ability to field the PAC-3 missile (or potentially the upcoming PAAC-4/Stunner/SkyCeptor) to take down ballistic missiles has played a key role. However, the capability doesn’t come cheap, as the total price tag of approximately 1 to 1.2 billion Euro will buy three to four batteries, each with a single radar and three to four launchers. However, the amount and types of missiles acquired will also play a huge role when it comes to cost, and the preliminary request, described as being “generous in size”, lists 200 PAC-3 (for anti-ballistic missile use) and 100 PAC-2 for use against aircraft, for an additional 1.5 billion Euro. The exact kind of combat management system involved will also play a role, as it seen in the case of the 8.6 billion Euro Polish deal for a comparable number of firing units (four batteries with four launchers each, with 208 PAC-3 missiles) as the Swedish order.

All things considered, any kind of anti-ballistic missile coverage is probably outside of the scope of the Finnish Army’s wishlist, with the focus being solely on the ability to shoot down aircraft at longer and higher ranges than what the current equipment is capable of. However, even within these bounds, there are still a significant number of different options available on the market. With this in mind the Logistics Command has now issued a Request for Information to “around ten” companies. Interestingly enough, the interview with brigadier general Renko, deputy chief of the Logistics Command, says that he would like the new missile to be part of the current NASAMS systems. At the same time, he notes that this is not purely about introducing a new missile to old launchers, but that there needs to be more batteries out in the field to improve coverage.

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This unremarkable looking little truck is the Fire Distribution Centre (FDC), the ‘brains’ of the NASAMS II. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

The obvious choice which has figured in reporting is the AMRAAM-ER. Where the basic NASAMS uses the same AMRAAM missile as found on e.g. the Finnish F/A-18 Hornets, the AMRAAM-ER marries the basic AMRAAM seeker (with improved steering code) to the engine of the ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile), giving a significant increase in both range and ceiling (50 and 70% respectively according to Raytheon). This means that both goals of the RFI could be met by buying more NASAMS batteries, and having both baseline and ER-versions of the AMRAAM in service. The big problem for the AIM-120 AMRAAM is that it is something of a victim of its own success. It is operated by a stunning 37 countries, meaning that no small amount of Russian research is likely going into how to defeat it. Especially if the AMRAAM will continue to be a key part of the Finnish airborne air defences as well, which is likely to be the case unless Rafale takes home the HX-competition, it might be good to ask whether all air defence eggs should be placed in the same basket?

At this point it should be remembered that one of the key points of the NASAMS is its modularity. It is unclear exactly which parts are integrated into the Finnish NASAMS systems, e.g if our ITO 05 (RBS 70 BOLIDE) are able to plug into the NASAMS’s Fire Distribution Center (FDC), something which Kongsberg claim is possible. However, if the Army really likes the current AN/MPQ-64F1 Improved Sentinel radar and associated systems, another missile could potentially be integrated into it. It is hard to see the reasoning behind this, and I am tempted to believe that the journalist misunderstood the general, who instead expressed a wish for the new system to be part of the current Finnish integrated air defences, i.e. sharing the same air picture as well as command and control structures.

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A French SAMP/T launcher being readied. Picture from Swedish exercise Aurora 17 last year. Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten

If we assume this is what the Logistics Command means, it opens up a vast number of possibilities. One is the very same SAMP/T-system which competed (and lost) against the NASAMS ten years ago. The SAMP/T, also known as ASTER, is the closest competitor to the Patriot, and is also available both with “normal” and anti-ballistic missile missiles. As was the case last time around, both it and Patriot will probably be judged to be too expensive (although the Swedish deal is controversial at it turned out the SAMP/T offer was 150 million Euro cheaper than the Patriot one).

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The launcher of the Israeli SPYDER-MR system. Source: Pritishp333/Wikimedia Commons

However, below the high-end Patriot and SAMP/T there are still plenty to choose from. MBDA, the company behind SAMP/T, offers the CAMM-ER and ASPIDE 2000, and while information is somewhat scarce, both are likely superior when it comes to range and height compared to the baseline AMRAAM. Saab has the SRSAM BAMSE, which offer an altitude coverage of 15,000 meters, and the benefit of operating on a different wavelength, Ka-band as opposed to X-band, than the NASAMS, making it harder to jam both at the same time. Israeli company Rafael offer the SPYDER-MR featuring their Derby-missile with a range of 50 km and a ceiling of 16,000 meters. A more exotic (and highly unlikely) option is the Japanese Type 11 missile system built by Toshiba, of which very limited information is available. Still, it does look like it could potentially fit the bill, and during the last years Japan has opened up for potential arms exports. South African Denel Systems has a number of different versions of the Umkhonto, the basic IR-version of which is currently in service with the Finnish Navy. Some of the more advanced concepts might be able to compete with the baseline AMRAAM, though it is doubtful if they will have enough reach to satisfy the demands of the current RFI. Still, Denel does offer a ground-based launcher, and is probably included amongst the companies receiving the RFI.

The winner of the eventual RFQ which is to follow the current RFI is likely found amongst those mentioned above. The defence forces would like to sign a deal in 2020, and notes that this is tied to HX and Squadron 2020, as all three programs play significant roles in the overall air defence of Finland. If e.g. the CAMM in its sea-going version is adopted for SQ2020, it might increase the chances for CAMM-ER being adopted as the ground-based solution. In the meantime, it does feel like the AMRAAM-ER is the favourite, with the big question being whether relying too much on a single missile seeker for both air and ground-based is too high a risk compared to the synergies it would give?

And as it happens, Kongsberg and Patria a week ago announced that they will open a Missile Competence Centre in Tampere, specifically mentioning their work NASAMS in the press release. Funny how these things come together sometimes.

Air and Sea Traffic in the Gulf of Finland 6 October

It seems evident that 6 October was a day of heavy Russian military air traffic in the Gulf of Finland, reminiscent of certain episodes during the second half of 2014. Unfortunately, another episode also reminded of 2014, in that the Russians twice intruded on Finnish airspace. The first intruder was a single Su-27P, ‘red 42’ (RF-92414), which briefly entered Finnish airspace over the sea south of Porvoo 16:43 local time. It was intercepted by Finnish QRA, which duly photographed the armed Russian fighter.

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The first intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

The Russians had time to deny this incident, before the next intrusion took place at exactly the same place a few hours later. Another Su-27P in the ‘Red 4x’ sequence flew the same route inside Finnish airspace, and was documented by Finnish QRA at 21:33.

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The second intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

Both aircraft carry a mix of short-range highly manoeuvrable R-73 IR-missiles, mid-range R-27T IR-missiles, as well as long-range R-27ER semi-active radar-seeking missiles. This varied load-out is nothing new, and e.g. on this photo taken by US fighters during the Cold War the same missiles (though in older versions) are found on the same stations.

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Su-27 with same variety of missiles, photographed in 1988. Source: US DoD

In theory the mix gives the Su-27 and unprecedented ability to target different airborne targets near and far, though in reality the different versions of the R-27 are starting to show their age. The lack of an active radar seeker on the R-27ER is also a significant handicap.

As noted, both intrusions took place at the same location, outside of Porvoo. A map released by the Finnish Border Guards leave little doubt that the intrusions were intentional, as both fighters flew the same track with a few hours in between. Both fighters entered Finnish airspace flying straight towards Kallbådagrund lighthouse (and in the general direction of Helsinki), and then turning parallel to the border just inside of it, before dashing out at the same location.

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The flight path of the first intruder in red, the track of the second intruder in blue, and the extent of Finnish airspace in green. Source: Rajavartiolaitos

Notable is that while earlier intrusions have often been by cargo planes, and have often been blamed on the weather (in the cases where the Russians have conceded that they indeed have intruded on Finnish airspace), the weather during 6 October was good, with no reason to deviate. It is extremely rare that Russia have made these ‘visits’ with fighters, and the use of armed fighters to send a message like this is a step up in rhetoric.

An interesting question is related to the general state of readiness for the Finnish fighters. The closest permanent QRA is stationed at Kuopio-Rissala airbase in the central parts of Finland, from where the flight time would seem prohibitively long (especially as there has been no reports of supersonic flights by the Finnish Air Force).

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A pair of armed F/A-18C Hornets parked at Kuopio-Rissala airport earlier this year. Source: own picture

The air force naturally refuses to give any details regarding the alert level and where the fighters that intercepted the Russian air traffic were based. During 2014 it was acknowledged that the air force temporarily based Hornets on civilian air fields in the southern parts of the country, including Helsinki-Vantaa international airport, to reduce intercept times. Finnish MoD Jussi Niinistö praised the reaction times of the Hornets, and noted that in addition to the two intruding Su-27P’s an unspecified number (‘several’) of identification flights were made. He also noted that this took place on the same day that Finland signed the bilateral defence cooperation deal with the US, and that the Russian behavior did not affect this in any way. It seems likely that the Finnish Air Force had some kind of prior knowledge, or that they were able to change their stance and react very quickly to the sudden increase in air traffic.

The Finnish authorities have asked the Russian ambassador to explain the intrusions.

In yet another twist, Estonian airspace was intruded upon a couple of hours after the second Porvoo-incident.

The QRA duty for the Estonian airspace is currently handled by a detachment of German Eurofighters, which, like their Finnish colleagues, had flown a number of identification flights during 6 October. If the intruder was photographed is not yet known. The Eurofighters currently operating out of Ämari air base are five aircraft from TaktLwG 74, homebased in Neuburg. The raw performance of the Eurofighter when it comes to climb rate and acceleration makes it right at home when it comes to these kinds of intercepts, and according to open sources the German fighters reached 848 knots (~1.3 Mach) during their missions, the highest speed noted in any intercept over the Gulf of Finland during 6 October.

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An intercept from last month where German Eurofighters identified a Russian Su-27. Note drop tanks and air-to-air missiles on Eurofighter, as well as lighter missile load on Su-27 compared to what was carried this time. Source: Bundeswehr

Another part of the puzzle came on 7 October, when Estonian sources claimed that the ro-ro vessel Ambal then in transit was carrying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The vessel is operated by Anrusstrans, which sports a small and varied fleet of cargo vessels and tugs. The vessel arrived in Baltiysk on the evening of 7 October. Crucially, she had been transiting the Gulf of Finland during 6 October, leading some to speculate that the Russian fighters had been escorting her. It is possible that the air and sea traffic was part of an exercise aimed at practising how to transfer reinforcements to Kaliningrad, an operation which would require air superiority over the Gulf of Finland and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea during the transit, though a traditional escort mission where fighters would follow a lumbering merchantman at (relatively) close range seems unlikely. It is also unclear if the Iskanders are the only units moved to the exclave during the last days, or if other units have been transferred as well.

Of further interest is the fact that on 5 October it was reported that two Buyan-M class corvettes that had transited the Bosphorus seemingly heading towards Syria, instead could be heading for the Baltic Sea. The introduction of these highly capable corvettes armed with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Baltic Sea would add significant fire power to the Russian Baltic Fleet.