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.
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.
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 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).
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).
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.
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.