April 10, 2011: China recently introduced, for the export market, the M20 ballistic missile. This is a system where two of these 3-4 ton missiles are carried on a large truck transporter/launcher. What is worrisome to Russia is that the M20 looks very similar to the Russian Iskander (9K720) system. Increasingly, Russia has accused China of stealing a great deal of Russian military technology, and warned of repercussions if China tried to sell these copies to the export market. China has had plenty of time to steal Iskander's secrets. So far, China has not revealed details of the M20's operation sufficiently to make detailed comparisons with Iskander. But if the M20 contains too many of the Iskander special features, there could be, if not war, then litigation.
Iskander began development near the end of the Cold War. The first successful launch took place in 1996. The 3.8 ton Iskander has a solid fuel rocket motor and a range of 280-400 kilometers, with a 400 kg/880 pound warhead. The missile can be stored for up to ten years. Russia sells several different types of warheads, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electro-magnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 10 meters/31 feet of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 20 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is also a reload truck that carries two missiles.
Russia developed the solid fuel Iskander to replace its Cold War era SS-23 battlefield ballistic missiles (which in turn had replaced SCUD). The SS-23 had to be withdrawn from service and destroyed by 1991, because the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty prohibited missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,300 kilometers. When post Cold War financial problems slowed down development of Iskander, this left Russia dependent on the shorter range (120 kilometers) SS-21 system, along with some aging SCUDS, for battlefield ballistic missile support. Russia used some of these older missiles against Chechen rebels in the 1990s, along with a few Iskanders. The Iskanders were more effective. But the Iskanders cost more than a million dollars each, which is several times more than what SCUDs go for.
Russia has had little success finding export customers for Iskander. Russia has not been able to buy many of these missiles itself, even though they entered service five years ago. Some were used against Georgia in 2008. Also that year, Russia threatened to send some to Kaliningrad, as a way to threaten the new NATO anti-missile system being built in Poland (to protect Europe from Iranian missiles). A year later, Russia decided to not send the missile to Kaliningrad, because the U.S. had decided against setting up the anti-missile system in East Europe.
Initially, Syria, Kuwait, South Korea, India, Iran, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates expressed some interest in Iskander. The export version, Iskander-E, would have a shorter range (280, instead of 400 kilometers) and fewer countermeasures for the warhead. But so far only Iran has expressed willingness to buy, but this is unlikely because of international sanctions against sending offensive weapons to Iran. In any event, Russia took Iskander off the export market three years ago because the Russian Army was suddenly buying, and that had priority over export orders. Thus far, about 30 launcher vehicles and 75 missiles have been built. Each 8x8, 40 ton launcher vehicle carries two missiles and a crew of three.
Russia originally planned to build at least five brigades of Iskander (60 launchers, each with two missiles, plus reloads, which could amount to over 150 missiles). Iskander was just entering commercial production three years ago, and only three brigades are believed in service. One was deployed near St Petersburg, much to the consternation of nearby Estonia.
Russian missile production capabilities have sharply deteriorated since the end of the Cold War in 1991. This is one reason why the current Russian government is making so much noise about this imaginary NATO plot to surround and subdue Russia. Losing the Cold War did not go down well in Russia. Rather than forget and move on, many Russians prefer to remember, and use the imagined evil intentions of their Cold War foes to explain away defects in the Russian character.
This threatened Russian deployment to Kaliningrad was all about a unique feature of Iskander, which is that it is not a traditional ballistic missile. That is, it does not fire straight up, leave the atmosphere, then come back down, following a ballistic trajectory. Instead, Iskander stays in the atmosphere and follows a rather flat trajectory. It is capable of evasive maneuvers and deploying decoys. This makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to take it down. Russia is buying a special version (Iskanders-M) for its own military. This version has a longer range (400 kilometers) and more countermeasures (to interception). Russia will not provide details. Russia has admitted that it could use Iskander to destroy the U.S. anti-missile systems in a pre-emptive attack. Just in case Russia wanted to start World War III for some reason or another. This threatened Iskander deployment was mainly a publicity stunt, unless you want to seriously consider the possibility that the Russians are trying to start a nuclear war.
Kaliningrad was the perfect place for Russia to start World War III. The city is the former German city of Konisgberg, which was captured at the end of World War II, and kept by Russia, as the boundaries of Eastern Europe were rearranged in the late 1940s. Until 1991, Kaliningrad was on the Soviet Union's western border. But when the Soviet Union dissolved that year, and more than half the Soviet Union split away to regain their independence as 14 new nations, Kaliningrad found itself nestled between Poland and the newly reestablished Lithuania. The small (200 square kilometers, 400,000 Russians, the Germans were expelled 60 years ago) city is still the headquarters of the Russian Baltic fleet and protected by a large force of troops and warplanes. The Iskander missiles would feel right at home.