The potential Russian deployment of Iskander missile systems to Western Europe was not unexpected. In July 2008, Moscow first threatened to deploy theater ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad as a direct response to NATO's intention to push forward the ballistic missile defense (or BMD) program. Washington's reformulation of the program in September 2009 — known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach (or EPAA) — pacified Moscow temporarily. However, Poland's confirmation as a missile defense basing site in 2011, along with Washington's decision not to cooperate politically or militarily with Russia, generated renewed tension. Then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's response at the time was to threaten wide-ranging deployment of the Iskander.
The Significance of the System
The 9K720 Iskander (NATO designation SS-26 Stone) is a theater ballistic missile system and a direct descendant of the SS-1 Scud. There are three iterations of the system. The Iskander-E, or export version, features a missile with a range of 280 kilometers. The Russian service version is the Iskander-M, which has a range between 400 and 480 kilometers. The Iskander-K R500 has the characteristics of a cruise missile and a range of at least 500 kilometers.
All missiles can be loaded with a variety of warheads. Conventional cluster munitions, earth penetrators and blast/fragmentation types are available as well as thermobaric and electromagnetic pulse options. While the Iskander missiles can carry unconventional payloads, it is highly unlikely that the Russians would deploy tactical nuclear weapons there, since Poland and Lithuania are members of both NATO and the European Union.
The Iskander system comprises six vehicles and four missiles. The eight-wheeled transporter erector/launcher carries two missiles that can be fired within five minutes of authority to launch under optimal conditions. Additional vehicles provide fire control, maintenance and logistical support. Iskander brigades typically consist of 12 six-vehicle detachments.
Former Russian president and current Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said in November 2011 that American tinkering in countries on the borders of Russia would not be tolerated. The pursuit of ballistic missile defense in Europe, the positioning of U.S. forces to support the program and the continued refusal to allow Russian buy-in will continue to disturb Moscow. If Iskanders are deployed in Kaliningrad as a response, they would represent a direct threat to planned interceptor batteries and radar sites in Redzikowo, Poland.
In addition, Moscow is likely feeling empowered politically and will look to influence countries it perceives as pushing back against its geopolitical aspirations. The proliferation of Iskander systems is a reminder to former Warsaw Pact countries that Moscow retains the capabilities to strike back against developments it opposes. Russia must still tread carefully, however, because a backlash against strong-arm tactics would push the very states Moscow is seeking to influence toward the West. The missile platform is also a powerful motif for propaganda, and Russia hopes that the message will resonate at home as well as abroad.
The Realities of Missile Defense
The overall design of a ballistic defense system is inherently tethered to geography and tempered by the effectiveness of its component parts. A layered network of systems works in concert to identify, track and engage possible targets. Ballistic missiles fly high and fast on fixed trajectories, spitting out multiple warheads at their apogee. To achieve an intercept, the array of a defensive system using current technology must be along a ballistic missile's predicted flight path.
The EPAA relies on a number of systems based around U.S. Aegis architecture. Key components include fixed and mobile radar installations for detection, X-band radar facilities for targeting and tracking and SM-3 missile batteries for interception. While initial phases focused on a maritime capability, future stages will see not only land-based installations in Romania and Poland (by 2015 and 2018, respectively) but also significant improvements in technology, capability and reach. On March 15, Washington canceled the fourth phase of the project to try to encourage negotiations with Moscow. Russia is unlikely to change its core position, however, since even though the ballistic defense shield is not fully operational, that will not always be the case.
While the primary goal of the project is to defend the United States and Europe against ballistic missiles from Iran, the flagship project also demonstrates an ongoing commitment by the United States to its other Central and Eastern European allies as well as NATO. The largest-scale NATO joint exercise in more than two decades, Steadfast Jazz, took place Nov. 2-9, amassing more than 6,000 troops from across NATO in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. While the exercise is an important sign of NATO's unity and readiness, the United States' contribution was smaller than expected, which drew criticism. Reassurances about Washington's commitment will be especially valuable in the wake of aggressive Russian moves.
Given that the EPAA is specifically aligned against a ballistic missile threat from Iran, Russia's opposition does not seem to make sense. The trajectory of Russian ballistic missiles aimed at the United States is farther to the north, an arc closer to Iceland than Scotland and completely out of range of current European-based systems. Russia can also fire enough missiles to overwhelm the anticipated capacity of the European defensive shield, thereby rendering it ineffective.
Russia's main concern, however, is twofold. Regardless of a negotiated solution with Iran, Washington's pursuit of the EPAA secures an enduring footprint in Central and Eastern Europe, a region of direct interest to Russia as it seeks to reassert its presence and influence. Moscow resents Washington's meddling and is fearful of any attempt to contain its strategic ambition across its periphery.
Additionally, while the Kremlin knows that European missile defense is no threat to Russia's strategic nuclear capability right now, one of the strengths of the Aegis system, and the EPAA in general, is its capacity for evolution. Further phases of the EPAA will seek to deploy enhanced systems with greater area coverage and capability. Russia is not blind to this.
The Importance of Timing
Although developed through the 1990s, the Iskander system went into mass production only in 2006. While initial reports stated that a total of 60 transporter erector/launchers would be purchased by 2010, by 2011 only 30 systems (and 75 missiles) were in service. The sluggish production, exacerbated by the requirement to train on operational equipment, could explain why Russia has not deployed the Iskander in meaningful numbers until now. Regardless of the delay, the Iskander system will quickly become a core component of Russia's land forces. The Kremlin intends to have another 10 operational Iskander brigades, or 120 more launch systems, by 2020.
The Iskander is a tactical system, however, and Russia's concern has always been with its long-term strategic capabilities. Even Moscow cannot deny that, despite efforts at rejuvenation, its existing conventional military is decaying and is unlikely to ever return to Cold War force levels. In place of overwhelming manpower and materiel, the Russians will increasingly rely on their nuclear capability as a strategic deterrent. There is deep concern in the Kremlin that a long-term projection of ballistic missile defense could ultimately nullify Russia's strategic nuclear capability if left unchecked, thereby shifting the balance of power in favor of the West.
Russia must also deal with the fact that its existing ballistic missile arsenal is aging at a time when NATO members are looking to improve their own offensive capabilities. Russia has already named the Sarmat as the successor to its RS-20B Voyevoda intercontinental ballistic missiles. A legacy of the late 1960s, the Voyevoda class (known to NATO as the SS-18 Satan) is nearing the end of its service life. The replacement Sarmat is expected to be operational by 2018, though problems with ancillary programs and the significant expense of the project may cause delays. Maintaining a strong nuclear capability is a cornerstone of Russian foreign and defense policy and Moscow will not allow anything to jeopardize that.
While a potential hazard for Europe, it is important to put the Iskander system in context. Although it is a capable platform — and a reminder that the Russians can still produce competitive weapons technology — the Iskander is not a super weapon but simply another tool in Moscow's arsenal.
As Russia seeks to strengthen its position on the global stage, bring its periphery into line and protect its legacy and long-term strategic aims, it is sure to use any means at its disposal. These may be military (as seen in Georgia in 2008) or diplomatic (as seen recently in Ukraine), but it is unlikely that Russia will try to pick a direct fight with NATO or the West.
As long as it sees the ballistic missile defense program as a threat to its long-term ambitions — regionally and globally — Russia will act aggressively in an effort to maintain equilibrium. If not able to directly influence the West, Moscow will seek to coerce states that it feels may have been co-opted by Western powers. The potential deployment of Iskander to Kaliningrad has made Poland and Lithuania uncomfortable, which was the intention all along.