Main Image Credit Zooming past: a test firing of an Iskander missile by Russian armed forces in 2014. Image: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile system is a crucial part of its modern arsenal. This article provides an overview of its features and its impact on present-day conflicts.
Development and Purpose
The 9K720 Iskander, a system at the heart of Russia’s modern precision strike capability, has a long history. Though it has been suggested that the Iskander was fielded as a response to Western missile defences, the history of the project shows that this is only partially true. Nor, as is often assumed, was the system built primarily as a more sophisticated successor to the OTR-21 Tochka. The direct technological predecessor of the 9M723 was the Soviet SS-23 Oka SRBM, a platform that was envisioned as part of a family of systems that would constitute what Marshal Ogarkov described as the reconnaissance strike complex – a networked system of sensors and prompt strike missiles capable of attacking targets across the theatre at very short notice. The Oka, which could be set up and fired in five minutes, was viewed as a serious threat to both concentrations of NATO forces and airbases, given its potential to be used in surprise attacks.
Indeed, then-US Under Secretary of Defence Fred Ikle suggested that accurate conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) could allow the Soviets to achieve goals that they could previously have accomplished only with tactical nuclear weapons – language which mirrored Ogarkov’s own. In truth, this may well have been an exaggeration at the time, reflecting both Soviet bombast and US fears. The Oka, which was estimated to have a circular error probable (CEP) of around 50–100 m, was poorly suited to many conventional missions. The system relied on a combination of inertial guidance and an early digitised scene-mapping area correlator (DSMAC) providing radar terrain contour matching for guidance in its terminal phase. This was a viable means of striking targets that were large, fixed and on well-mapped terrain, but was less useful against camouflaged, time-sensitive or mobile targets. Moreover, the missile was not sufficiently accurate to hit hardened or buried targets or to dispense submunitions reliably.
Finally, the Soviets had to operate under significant limitations to the speed and accuracy with which ISR could be gathered and processed. Sources such as electronic intelligence were limited by poor granularity, while synthetic aperture radar (SAR)-equipped aircraft required substantial human labour to exploit their data. Nonetheless, the Soviets conducted work on more sophisticated variants of the missile before the Gorbachev administration traded them for the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, suggesting that they had high hopes for it. The eventual role of the OTR-23 was to be a capability that could strike a range of hardened or time-sensitive targets at short notice. Despite the agreement reached with Gorbachev, work on the project was likely continued covertly in the 1990s by the Kolomna Machine Bureau under the aegis of a satellite programme. The 9M723 ballistic missile fielded as part of the Iskander system represents the culmination of these efforts, providing Russia with a highly accurate prompt strike capability that can be used for both tactical- and theatre-level missions. In addition, the system can launch cruise missiles – the 9M727 and 9M728.
Iskanders are assigned to Russia’s Missile Brigades, which are separate from the Strategic Missile Brigades that employ the country’s ground-based strategic missiles. The brigades are intended to support the Russian ground troops with operational-tactical precision strikes. At least one brigade is assigned to each of Russia’s military districts.
System Composition and Method of Operation
According to a 2019 Janes article, the Iskander systems are known by the Grau code of 9K270, which refers collectively to the 9P78-1 transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicles – each carrying two missiles – the 9T250E transporter-loader vehicles, the 9S552 command post vehicle and the 9S920 information processing station. An Iskander-M brigade is provided with three battalions, each of which consists of four 9P78-1 TELs for a total of 12 TELs per brigade.
The 9P78-1 is based on an 8x8 MZKT-7930 all-terrain chassis from the Minsk Tractor Plant in Belarus and is fitted with a gas turbine generator that provides power for the elevation and programming of the missiles. The gross vehicle weight of a 9P78-1 is 42.3 tonnes. It can attain speeds of 70 km/h on roads, but is designed to be taken off-road to conduct engagements. The TEL vehicle can be made ready to launch a missile within 16 minutes of travelling, although this is reduced to five minutes if the vehicle is stationary. The TEL is crewed by three personnel, and the 9T250E that is also based on the MZKT-7930 carries a crew of two. It uses a crane to reload missiles onto the TEL and can also dock or undock the missile warheads. Reloading the missiles is understood to take 16 minutes.
The 9S552 and 9S920 vehicles that support the Iskander brigade are understood to be capable of receiving and processing real-time full motion video from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as well as targeting data from the Strelets (Sagittarius) reconnaissance command and control system, which is provided to Russian reconnaissance formations. It allows targeteers to select areas on a map for targeted strikes by a range of Russian long-range assets. The coordinates are confirmed and then entered using a computer in the cab of the 9P78-1. There is a datalink in the rear of the vehicle that transmits the coordinates to the missile and programmes it for the engagement. The type of data likely varies depending upon the seeker used; some are capable of using SAR or optical imagery of the target to enable the seeker head to adjust the missile’s course and ensure a high degree of accuracy.
At operational-strategic ranges, the missile is likely a useful means of striking significant stationary targets including headquarters, industrial production facilities, critical civilian national infrastructure, and hardened storage sites
Once the target coordinates have been programmed into the missile, it is elevated from the horizontal to the vertical position and then launched. Both missiles carried by the TEL can be launched within one minute of each other, and it may be possible for a single TEL to carry two different missiles – such as the 9M728 and 9M723 – with both launched to arrive at the target at the same time, further complicating any air defence efforts. Russian forces have also practised the integration of Iskander and the Tornado-S multiple rocket launcher into a single reconnaissance-strike complex, the mass of the latter complementing the precision of the former.
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance
Russia may now be close to fielding the responsive ISR system envisioned by Ogarkov, at least when operating in geographically constrained battlefields. The adoption of UAVs by the Russian armed forces on a large scale, coupled with their use of automated systems such as the ISBU (informatsionnaya sistema boyevogo upravleniya) to fuse and disseminate data, can allow information regarding mobile targets to be relayed in near-real time. This is, however, subject to the significant caveat that it is probably only viable on a limited scale, in contexts where the Russians can saturate a compact battlefield with sensors and communicate across limited distances. It is noteworthy that the contexts in which Russia achieved this ideal – Donbas and Syria – are relatively small theatres, while the Russian forces have not achieved comparable effects across Ukraine. That said, the Iskander and its enabling ISR assets can likely now accurately strike targets of tactical-operational significance including brigade headquarters, supply depots and communications nodes at very short notice in a compact theatre like Donbas or the Baltic states. Beyond this, at operational-strategic ranges, the missile is likely a useful means of striking significant stationary targets including headquarters, industrial production facilities, critical civilian national infrastructure, and hardened storage sites.
The Orlan-10 UAV is one of the assets that can be used to provide targeting data for the Iskander complex, although its range when remotely piloted is limited to 150 km. This data may be combined with other sources such as radar, SAR and information collected by special forces to inform an accurate targeting mission.
The 9K270 has a range of missiles available to it, which fall broadly into two categories: the 9M723 series of quasi-ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles derived from Russia’s 3M-14 family. The 9M723 missile entered into service in 2006 and appears to have worked its way through several iterations to reach its current capability. The missile body can carry warheads weighing between 480 kg and 700 kg, and the warhead types include cluster munitions, unitary high explosive warheads, and tactical nuclear payloads. While likely to have a range of roughly 500 km if carrying a 700 kg warhead, the missile’s range can be doubled depending on the size of the warhead used and its trajectory – a point tacitly admitted in 2007 by the then-commander of the Artillery and Missile Forces of the Russian Army, Colonel General Vladimir Zaritsky. The terminal descent onto a target is conducted vertically, giving little opportunity for successful interception.
Table 1: Summary of ballistic missile designations
In addition to work conducted on the missile’s engine, the 9M723 received the electro-optical (EO) seeker which the Soviets planned to install on the Oka, reducing its CEP by an order of magnitude to 5–10 m. An accurate EO seeker and a more capable onboard computer called the Baget 62-04, which supports EO image processing in terminal phase, allow the missile to classify a range of mobile targets that could not have been hit by older systems – as illustrated in the conflict in Ukraine, where an Iskander was used to attack a Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile vehicle. The Baget 62-04 is used onboard both cruise and ballistic missiles fired from the Iskander. The JSC Serpukhov Metallist Plant specifically names it as a product manufactured for the Iskander-M in a 2013 report, and research by RUSI has demonstrated its use on the 9M727 cruise missile. Assuming the practice of using common components across different missiles is consistent, the 9M723 likely also carries the Zarya, a system for processing radar feedback that is found on the 9M727. The use of EO seekers and possibly radar allows the 9M723 to be used against a wider range of targets. For example, the Russian Ministry of Defence reported in 2018 that Iskanders had been used to engage ships for the first time, illustrating how a combination of active and EO seekers enables them to hit moving targets. Functionality against ships also illustrates the capacity for high-g terminal phase manoeuvres.
As noted in Table 1, the seeker used may be dependent upon the payload carried. The missiles that are not equipped with a seeker – those carrying cluster munitions – are able to strike within 30 m of their intended target, which is sufficient for cluster munitions to take effect. Those carrying a seeker are much more accurate and may be capable of striking within 7 m of the target.
In midcourse, the 9M723 relies on a combination of DSMAC, inertial guidance and, potentially, satellite navigation systems (including the Russian GLONASS and American GPS systems). As of 2009, Russia was working to incorporate datalinks that could allow the system to draw on data from UAVs and satellite guidance for target designation. While there is no conclusive evidence of success in this regard, it appears likely on the balance of probabilities. The objective of incorporating datalinks on the missile was, after all, being pursued by the Soviets (on the Oka). It is also of note that the USSR had already succeeded in incorporating datalinks on supersonic cruise missiles like the P-700 – though the task of maintaining communication using datalinks is simpler on a cruise missile’s trajectory. Even working on conservative assumptions and assuming a slow and inefficient rate of product development by the Russian defence sector, an objective that has been the subject of several decades of work may well have reached fruition. The frequency of UAV footage of Iskander ballistic missile strikes might also lend itself to the idea that the Iskander can receive in-flight retargeting – though of course there is an obvious sampling bias (strikes conducted with no nearby UAVs are not filmed), and UAVs may be used for the simpler tasks of target designation and battle damage assessment before and after a launch, respectively.
In addition to ballistic missiles, the Iskander can launch three cruise missiles – the 9M727 and 9M728. The advantage of cruise missiles is that they are designed to fly a variable profile that is mostly at a low altitude to reduce the risks of detection and complicate countermeasures. Their slower speeds and more consistent altitudes also make tasks such as maintaining datalinks with satellites easier. The 9M727 may be an earlier version of the 9M728, however, both have been used in Ukraine, and it is not clear what differentiates them. The missiles are understood to fly at altitudes no higher than 6 km, although this may be reduced to six metres on approach to the target. The missiles contain the Zarya and the Baget 62-04 which, respectively, process radar signals and TV guidance. It appears the 9M727 and 9M728 use the latter in their terminal phase. The missiles can carry a 480 kg warhead and have a range of 500 km, leading them to be given the designation R-500. Once launched, the missile maintains an altitude of 50–150 m above land, and when within 20 km of its intended target, the radar guidance system begins to search for the target, according to Janes Strategic Weapons. It can complete an engagement using either a combination of the satellite receiver and the inertial navigation system, or both of these together with the radar seeker. In the latter circumstance, the missile can strike within 1–3 m of its target. Primary research conducted by RUSI suggests that the processing module onboard the 9M727 is the SN-99 – a guidance system compatible with both GPS and GLONASS. The system is common to a number of other cruise missiles including the KH-101 and the 3M-14 Kalibr and, notably, is reliant on a number of key Western components.
Countermeasures and Survivability
Cruise missiles launched from the Iskander rely on low observability and low-altitude flight paths to evade air and missile defences. By contrast, the 9M723 variants rely on a combination of speed, a quasi-ballistic trajectory and penetration aids. With exhaust discharge speeds of roughly 2.5 km/s (comparable to a space shuttle booster), the 9M723 is powerful enough to fly on a quasi-ballistic trajectory that allows it to use aerodynamic drag to manoeuvre without sacrificing either range or speed to an unacceptable degree. The ability to travel on a quasi-ballistic trajectory represents a significant challenge, both because the missile can spend a longer part of its trajectory under the horizon of air defence radar, and because at altitudes of 40 km the missile flies above the intercept envelope of most air defence systems, such as the PAC-3, but below the envelope of ballistic missile defence interceptors.
The role of Iskanders in supporting Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal means that they are not only a war-shaping capability, but also potentially critical to strategies for war termination
Some variants of the 9M723 missile are equipped with the 9B999, a possible penetration aid, which fits into six canisters at the base of the warhead. Preliminary evidence suggests that some of the decoys emit thermal signatures, while others are equipped with jammers to counter active seekers. The decoys may also present an enhanced radar signature to spoof ground-based radar. The inclusion of these decoys is somewhat surprising, given Russian claims that the Iskander is capable of manoeuvring at high terminal phase speeds of 2.1 km/s. One might consider the inclusion of decoys overkill, especially given the age of the S-300 variants employed by Ukraine. This might be preliminary evidence that the 9M723 is less manoeuvrable in its terminal phase than is claimed. Moreover, given that the missile is subject to aerodynamic drag if fired on a quasi-ballistic trajectory, it may be slower in terminal phase than a purely ballistic missile with a comparable range.
In addition to terminal phase manoeuvres, the 9M723 is capable of conducting boost phase manoeuvres. This is simply where the missile conducts rapid and extreme manoeuvres shortly after launch to try to limit an opponent’s ability to locate the launch site. In a 2005 interview with Janes Defence Weekly, Uzi Rubin – the former director of Israel’s Missile Defence Agency – explained that the impact of this on a tactical missile was likely less than would be achieved if a similar capability were integrated onto a strategic missile.
Overall, the attention paid to the survivability of Iskander missiles indicates that the design was concerned with the West’s ability to conduct long-range precision strikes against the 9P78-1 TELs, as well as interceptions of the missiles themselves. Given their importance to Russia’s concept of escalation management and in strikes against an enemy’s critical infrastructure in the opening phases of a war, this focus is understandable.
Iskanders represent a significant capability for the Russian armed forces. They are designed to perform tactical-operational strikes and have been employed to attack an array of targets in Ukraine. Furthermore, their role in supporting Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal means that they are not only a war-shaping capability, but also potentially critical to strategies for war termination. At a strategic level, the system is likely to be central to any Russian attempt at escalation management and war termination through either targeting of critical infrastructure across Europe with conventional precision strikes or the threat of nonstrategic nuclear weapons use.
That said, the Iskander likely also has important battlefield functions. When appropriate ISR is available, the Iskander has demonstrated a capacity to responsively strike key targets, which will be a critical consideration for NATO forces operating in congested theatres such as the Baltic states. Command posts, key logistical nodes and apparently even some tactical capabilities may be considered appropriate targets for the Iskander.
However, Russia’s capacity to operate in this fashion depends on its ability to replenish stocks of precision strike capabilities after expending them at scale in Ukraine. It is here that the sheer scale of Russian dependence on Western technology for many of the systems on the Iskander may prove an Achilles heel. Robust enforcement of export controls could sharply reduce the availability of the guidance and processing systems that have made the Iskander so much more capable than predecessors like the Oka. If denied the capacity to replace missiles at scale, Russian commanders will have to make sharp trade-offs between expending assets like Iskander and husbanding them for deterrence tasks. If the number of missiles Russian commanders can expend is sharply limited, this in turn substantially simplifies the task of air and missile defence for NATO commanders.
This article is the tenth in the Russia Military Report series, which is designed to provide an in-depth understanding of Russia’s military systems. It is the first technical profile of the series and builds on work conducted by RUSI Open Source Intelligence Analysis on the internal composition of a range of Russian systems.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power