What is Moscow up to?
Russia Keeps Testing Nuclear Missiles That Could Kill Millions
Russia is on a nuclear-capable missile testing spree, having tested short-range and both land and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in recent months.
On June 16, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released a video showing troops testing a 9K720 Iskander short-range mobile missile system. The fifty-second clip is reportedly from exercises in Russia’s Far East region. The Iskander came into service in 2006 and was first used in the war with Georgia in 2008. Moscow designed it in order to replace its Scud missiles.
According to Missile Defense Advocacy, the Iskander has a “range of 400-500 km and uses both inertial and optical guidance systems to achieve an accuracy of 10-30 m CEP. It can carry conventional and nuclear warheads up to 700 kg and employs a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) and decoys to defeat theater missile defense systems.” Other analyses have noted that the “Iskander complexes can fire different types of missiles, which is a truly unique quality.” The conventional munitions capable of being launched on the Iskander include cluster warheads, fuel-air explosives, and bunker-busters. The Iskander-M can also fire cruise missiles.
The Iskander has repeatedly been a source of tensions between Russia and the West. Besides its use in the Georgian war, it is believed that Russia deployed the Iskander missile to Crimea shortly after seizing the territory from Ukraine. This was problematic for at least two different reasons. First, at the time Russian president Vladimir Putin was making not so subtle nuclear threats to the West, and the Iskander is capable of carrying nuclear weapons. “Undeniably, this is very bad because these missiles can carry nuclear warheads,” a Ukrainian general said at the time. Secondly, because the Iskandar has a MaRV capability it could be used to target moving ships. Given Crimea’s proximity to the Black Sea, this was seen as highly threatening by NATO commanders.
The United States and its allies have also expressed dismay with Russia’s decision to deploy Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad is a strategically-located slice of Russian territory on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Previously, Moscow has defended these deployments as temporary responses to NATO buildups in the Baltic area. Earlier this year, however, Russian media confirmed that the missile had been permanently stationed in Kaliningrad. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė responded to the news of the permanent deployment by saying that this “means a threat not only to Lithuania, but also to half the European states.” Russian military officials countered by saying that it was necessary in light of the “the constantly expanding military infrastructure of foreign states near Russian national borders.”
In late 2016, an Israeli satellite company reported seeing the Iskandar in Syria. “iSi EROS B very high resolution satellite imagery, taken on 28 December, is the first visual evidence of the system presence in Syria. Two Iskander Vehicles are clearly visible at a logistic site beside the northeastern part of the runway. Those two elements are most probably SS-26 Trans Loading vehicles,” a press release by the Israeli satellite company iSi said, the National Interest reported. The press release added: “This revelation approves several unconfirmed reports of the Iskander presence in Syria and uncovers the system’s deployment site.”
Most of Russia’s Iskander missile batteries are actually deployed in Russia’s Eastern military district where the latest test took place. In July 2017, The Diplomat reported, citing Russia media outlets, that another Ground Forces missile brigade had received the road-mobile 9K720 Iskander-M missile system. According to the report, this was the fourth brigade in the Eastern military district to receive the system. By contrast, at that time only two other brigades in Russia’s other three other military districts had received the 9K720 Iskander-M missile system. “Whereas the task of Iskander-M OTRKs being deployed in Russia’s Western MD is to hold U.S. and allied forces in the Baltics and Poland at risk,” Guy Plopsky, the author of The Diplomat article wrote, “the systems stationed in the Eastern MD appear to primarily serve a different purpose: strengthening both Russia’s conventional and nuclear deterrence against China.”
The Iskandar is not the only nuclear-capable missile Russia has tested in recent months. In late March, Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video showing a test of the Sarmat, its new intercontinental ballistic missile. As Michael Peck has previously written on these pages, the Sarmat is “a hundred-ton, twelve-warhead behemoth which makes America’s thirty-nine-ton Minuteman ICBM look like a rocket-propelled toothpick.” The new ICBM is also believed to be more accurate than its predecessor. The March test was the second one for the Sarmat following an earlier one in December of last year.
Even more recently, last month a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) test fired four Bulava (RSM-56) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The Bulava has intercontinental range and Russia’s Defense Ministry said the four missiles were fired in just twenty seconds time.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of the National Interest.