By Douglas Barrie, Senior for Fellow for Military Aerospace, and Henry Boyd, Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis
Recent imagery released as part of official coverage of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to the 26th Missile Brigade at Luga (around 135km south of St Petersburg) shows an Iskander (SS-26 Stone). The transporter-erector-launcher is seen with a launch container for a cruise missile, most likely from the Novator Design Bureau, rather than the short-range ballistic weapon originally deployed by the system. The US government has previously expressed concern that a potential cruise-missile-equipped Iskander, sometimes referred to as Iskander-K or R-500, might be a breach of the 1987 US/USSR Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
The inclusion of a cruise missile as part of the Iskander system may have been in part a Russian military response to NATO’s ballistic-missile defence initiative. Prior to the latest imagery from Luga, however, there was no open source evidence to suggest that it might be introduced into service. Previous imagery of the cruise-missile Iskander, as opposed to the short-range ballistic missile version, has been limited to the test-range at Kapustin Yar, near the border with Kazakhstan, and to a mock-up vehicle at Moscow defence shows. The short-range ballistic missile variant is capable of being fitted with both conventional and nuclear payloads.
The Iskander-K entered the flight test programme no later than 2007, and may possibly have been ready for deployment for several years. The missile itself may be a version of Novator’s 3M14 (SS-N-30) cruise missile. The 3M14 is offered for export as part of the Klub missile system, with a claimed range just below the 300km Missile Technology Control Regime threshold. A domestic variant for the Russian Navy, however, reportedly has a range far in excess of this. The INF lower range threshold is 500km, while the upper one is 5,500km. Were the Iskander-K to have a range comparable to that of the Russian Navy version of the 3M14, then it would likely be well above 500km.
The potential cruise-missile enabled Iskander is not the only Russian system which risks being in violation of the INF. The RS-26 Rubezh ballistic missile now in development may have an operational range that places it within the upper INF threshold, although its theoretical maximum range would be above the 5,500km limit.
Whilst the bulk of Iskander deployments have been, to date, on Russia’s European borders, the first unit to receive the RS-26 will reportedly be the 29th Guards Missile Division, located in Irkutsk, Siberia. This suggests that the Rubezh may have been developed with China’s modernising and modestly expanding missile arsenal as much in mind as the West’s missile-defence projects.