As Russia’s Armed Forces await the details and specific implications of the new State Armaments Program to 2025 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV), there is widespread expectation that the military will receive more high-precision strike systems to complement its efforts to develop greater operational capabilities (Utro.ru, June 15; see EDM, June 14). Among these, the Iskander-M road-mobile theater ballistic missile system raises serious concerns for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), not least due to its deployment in Kaliningrad and the fact that it is capable of carrying either a conventional or a nuclear warhead. Presently, the Russian defense ministry intends to build enough additional Iskander-Ms to entirely replace the older Tochka-U system by 2020. However, given the further expansion of the Missile Troops (see below), it is likely that more systems will enter service beyond 2020 (RIA Novosti, June 9).
According to recent Russian military media reports, the process of replacing the old Tochka-U systems with the Iskander-M is progressing well toward its final target in 2020. The Iskander-M is an operational-tactical missile system (operativno-takticheskiye raketnyye kompleksy —OTRK), highly accurate and with a reported strike range of up to 500 kilometers, depending on the missile involved (Izvestia, June 2). The Iskander systems are entering service with the Missile and Artillery Troops (Raketnyye Voyska i Artilleriya—RV&A). The RV&A is a Branch of Arms in the Ground Forces. Officially, there are ten RV&A brigades, with another under formation, spread across the military districts (MDs). There are four RV&A brigades in the Western MD, one in the Southern MD, two in the Central MD and three in the Eastern MD.
Lieutenant General Mikhail Matveevsky, the commander of the RV&A, notes that there is an overall trend toward boosting the proportion of high-precision strike systems in Russia’s conventional Armed Forces. He considers the Iskander-M a key part of this strategy. The missile system is designed for covert preparation and application of high-precision missile strikes in operational-tactical depths against a variety of targets with a guaranteed range of damage of 50–500 km, functioning in any conditions, including active counteraction by the enemy with anti-missile defense and electronic warfare (EW) (RIA Novosti, June 9). Matveevsky is equally confident that the rearmament plans to 2020 are on course for successful implementation, meaning that all the missile brigades will be fully equipped with the Iskander-M.
Indeed, the Iskander-M and precision-strike systems are also playing an increasingly frequent and prominent role in Russian military exercises. During a recent drill conducted in Tajikistan, Moscow deployed the Iskander-M for the first time beyond its borders as an indication of the growing role such systems are playing in Russian military operational planning (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 25; see EDM, June 7). In late May, Russia and Tajikistan staged Dushanbe Anti-Terror 2017 conducted by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Anti-Terrorist Center, on the territory of Tajikistan. The exercise included 2,000 Russian military personnel and 300 vehicles and weapons systems, including aviation. Russian military personnel from the Central MD rehearsed attacks on terrorist and insurgent groupings in the foothills of the Eastern Pamirs, and cooperated closely with Tajikistani servicemen (Tvzvezda, June 14). In this context, Moscow also tested the combat readiness of its 201st Military Base, headquartered in Dushanbe. The exercise was staged in response to growing concern in Moscow and Dushanbe that militants from Afghanistan could cross the border and destabilize the small Central Asian state (Inosmi.ru, May 29).
A high-profile element of the exercise was the deployment of the Iskander-M to Tajikistan; marking its first use outside Russia. Colonel Yaroslav Roshupkin, an assistant to the commander of the Central Military District, explained that the Iskander-M was used against a simulated headquarters and camp of insurgents in the mountains of Tajikistan. The Iskander-M was deployed to the Liaur training ground and launched missiles against the hypothetical opponent at a range of 120 km (Vzglyad, June 1). In early June, the Russian defense ministry released footage of the historic launch of the Iskander-M outside Russia (Sputnik News, June 3).
The exercise also witnessed the use of Tu-22M3 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers. In another indication of the way the Russian General Staff is learning from operations in Syria, the Tu-95MSs involved in the exercise fired cruise missiles against the simulated terrorist camps. The strategic aircraft were tasked with destroying enemy reserves. However, in terms of the unusual deployment of the Iskander-M, the commander of the Central Military District, Vladimir Zarudnitsky stated that the OTRK was airlifted to Tajikistan by an An-124 Ruslan transporter. The Iskander-M system would have been located either at the 92nd RV&A Brigade in Totskoye or the 119th RV&A Brigade in Elanskiy, both in the Central MD (Vesti, May 25).
It is possible that the Iskander-M was deployed to the exercise in Tajikistan to test the system’s transportation and launch capacity as a prelude to its similar use in the forthcoming Russia-Belarus Zapad 2017 exercise, in September. However, while the deployment of the Iskander-M may feature in Zapad 2017, depending on the requirements of the bilateral exercise and its scenario vignettes, Moscow is not yet contemplating selling the system to Minsk. Dmitry Shugaev, the head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, recently stated there are no plans to supply the Iskander-M system to Belarus. “At the moment, there have been no official requests for the acquisition of these complexes from the Belarusian side,” Shugaev noted during the 8th International Exhibition of Armament and Military Equipment (MILEX 2017). This contradicts a claim made in October 2016, by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, that Belarus had purchased from Russia S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and several Iskander batteries (Kommersant, May 21).
Russia’s top brass, despite the relatively low-scale use of high-precision systems in Syria, appears to have drawn the lesson that such assets will play a greater role in future Russian military operations. While the target re-equip of the RV&A with Iskander-Ms predates the operations in Syria, the appearance of this OTRK in Dushanbe Anti-Terror 2017 seems to confirm the surge in interest in high-precision strike systems. Nonetheless, the high-profile use of the Iskander-M in Tajikistan involved a comparatively modest strike 120 km away, rather than showing its reported longer range. But with the presence of other strike systems, including air-launched cruise missiles, it seems the exercise planners were experimenting with the high-precision mix necessary to ensure a guaranteed destruction of enemy forces.