Since the final collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in August 2019, accusations and denials have abounded between Moscow and Washington concerning the controversial issue of the cruise missile range of the Iskander-M operational-tactical missile system (Operativno-Takticheskiy Raketnyy Kompleks—OTRK). Moscow strenuously denies the West’s charge that this OTRK is capable of carrying a cruise missile with a range exceeding 500 kilometers (km). Linked to this alleged violation of the INF Treaty, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) plans to respond this year to Russia’s deployments of the 9M729 cruise missile for the Iskander-M. “As for the Russian SSC-8 system [NATO classification for the 9M729], we will work on air-defense and missile-defense systems, on conventional weapons, on increased combat readiness and on prolonging the warning time,” the North Atlantic Alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on January 13. Stoltenberg called the development of the 9M729 missile “part of the Russian strategy to invest heavily in modern capabilities, including modern nuclear weapons” (RIA Novosti, January 13, 2020).
The United States and its Euro-Atlantic allies believe the 9M729 cruise missile violates the INF Treaty, with a range beyond 500 km, while Russian defense officials reject this claim. Nevertheless, Russia’s closest ally in Central Asia, the Republic of Kazakhstan, recently confirmed the existence of a missile linked to the Iskander-M that indeed exceeds a range of 500 km. According to Kazakhstan’s defense ministry, Russian military personnel conducted a live-firing of a missile on January 9, at a test center in northern Kazakhstan. The missile testing grounds, located at Kapustin Yar, in Astrakhan Oblast, function under the Russian defense ministry based on a bilateral agreement concluded in 1995 (Zakon.kz, January 14, 2020).
As a result of the missile launch, which was reportedly unsuccessful, fragments fell beyond the target area, landing instead in the Bayganin District, of the Aktobe Region, though with no reported casualties or destruction. The Bayganin District, where the missile fragments were discovered, is located beyond the 500 km zone heretofore forbidden by the INF. Pictures posted online confirm that the Iskander-M launched a missile that, in fact, traveled 627 km: more than the officially declared performance characteristics (some sources indicate the distance was 650 km) (Lenta.ru, January 14, 2020; Topwar.ru, January 12, 2020).
In November 2019, the modernization of the Ground Forces OTRK was completed with the Iskander-M system finally fully replacing the older Oka OTRK. These more advanced systems have now replenished the Missile and Artillery Troops (Raketnyye Voyska i Artilleriya—RV&A). Russia’s eleven RV&A brigades are apparently all equipped with them. Paradoxically, the creation of the Iskander system was originally prompted by the 1987 INF Treaty, with a decision taken at the time to scrap the Oka. The Iskander complex was developed by the Scientific and Production Corporation Engineering Design Bureau of Mechanical Engineering (KBM), in Kolomna. The designers of the Iskander system sought to move beyond an effort to simply “modernize” the Oka OTRK, and they built into the design entirely new characteristics (VPK, January 14, 2020).
The Oka was intended to strike military targets: equipment, manpower and physical structures. The Iskander, in contrast, was given a much wider range of targets and the highest accuracy, but at a shorter distance. Its primary focus was the ability to overcome missile defenses. Moreover, the system designers decided to create a launcher that would be invisible to enemy radar detection equipment. Officially, the Iskander would carry a missile capable of a range of 500 km, flying at a speed up to 2,100 meters per second. It was first tested in 1993 and began to enter service in 2006; it is also known to be nuclear capable (VPK, January 14, 2020). This OTRK includes several dozen launchers, transport-loading and command-staff vehicles, as well as auxiliary equipment and uses a common transporter-erector-launcher (TEL); the system can fire both the 9M728 (R-500, SSC-7) and the newer (and longer-range), above-mentioned 9M729 cruise missiles (Profile.ru, January 13, 2020).
To guarantee the ability to overcome enemy missile defenses, as Oleg Falichev notes in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, “The [launcher’s] effective reflective surface was reduced as much as possible, covering the product with a special radar-absorbing layer. To top it all off, one of the research institutes developed a camouflage network that absorbed radio waves and reduced thermal radiation from the PU [command vehicle’s] engine in a combat position. The new OTRK was not a remake of the old one, not a modernization of the Oka, but a completely different weapon, made on the basis of new technologies, and more advanced” (VPK, January 14, 2020).
The development and procurement of the Iskander systems impacted on Russia’s Armed Forces and their military doctrine. Combined with air-defense systems such as the S-400 and coastal anti-ship missiles like the Bastion, the Iskander plays an important role in the Russian variant of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). As Falichev notes, “It consists of the fact that NATO troops cannot be present and move within the range of the A2/AD restricted areas without the risk of receiving unacceptable damage.” Falichev adds, “The Iskander-K [cruise] and Iskander-M [ballistic] missiles, although launched from the same self-propelled launcher [the Iskander-M OTRK], are fundamentally different. Iskander-M uses a high-altitude ultra-maneuverable quasi-ballistic missile with stealth technologies, an electronic warfare module and false targets to bypass missile defense systems and destroy objects protected by them at ranges up to 500 kilometers. Most of the flight takes place at an altitude of about 50 kilometers, which is significantly higher than the ceiling of such air-defense systems as the Patriot” (VPK, January 14, 2020).
The Iskander OTRK is certainly a formidable system, linked not only to Russia’s A2/AD capability but also to its growing high-precision strike regime. The controversy about its maximum range will probably continue to exist, rooted in Russian official denials that it can exceed the 500 km reported range. Still unclear, however, are the precise contours of NATO’s response to this system, which is being swiftly procured for Russian Ground Forces units close to the Alliance’s borders (Profile.ru, January 13, 2020; Izvestia, January 12, 2020).