Russia Masses Iskander-M Ballistic Missiles Near Ukraine As Its Build-Up Is “Almost Completed”

A new Ukrainian intel report highlights the threat posed by these short-range ballistic missiles, which are flowing in from elsewhere in Russia.

byThomas Newdick|
Russia photo


The continued build-up of Russian troops and equipment in areas of the country adjacent to Ukraine has taken a new and potentially more ominous turn with the appearance of additional Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems near the border as well as missile reloads being transported in open-top railcars. A recent intelligence assessment from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense states that there are now 36 Iskander launchers close to the frontier, putting these missiles within range of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, as well as many critical military targets within Ukraine. As far as is known, all these launchers are for the Iskander-M, which fires an SRBM, although other variants of the Iskander exist, including the Iskander-K firing a cruise missile.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s intel report, which was shared with CNN, suggests that the Russian military build-up is “almost completed,” and points to the Iskander-M, in particular, as a critical weapon system that would likely be used to “destroy vital objects,” should Moscow launch a new offensive against Ukraine, as many now fear.

The report describes “additional tactical groups” of Iskander-Ms having been transferred to Russia’s border regions. Recent videos posted to social media have shown elements of these systems on the move, including additional 9M723 missile reloads transported by train, and clearly visible in open-topped railcars as they pass through Kaluga, around 90 miles southwest of Moscow.

The Iskander-M system, which has the Western reporting name SS-26 Stone, launches 9M723 ballistic missiles that, according to official figures, have a range of 310 miles, although there is evidence that they can fly further than that. Each missile can carry a payload of up to 1,500 pounds that normally comprises a high-explosive or submunition warhead; other options reportedly include fuel-air explosives and bunker-busters. Although understood to be held by special munitions units rather than being issued on a regular basis, nuclear warheads are at least available for the Iskander-M and there has been speculation that Russia may even consider moving tactical nuclear weapons closer to Ukraine, too.

According to Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in the Russian military, a typical Iskander-M brigade typically is equipped with a dozen 9P78-1 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles, which are based on an 8x8 MZKT-79306 truck chassis. Each launch vehicle is provided with two missiles, although multiple reloads would now appear to be available to supply these deployed launchers.

Iskander TEL vehicles drive through Red Square in Moscow during Victory Parade celebrations., AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The Ukrainian assessment appears to be based on three brigades now being fielded in Russia’s border regions. However, Lee estimates that there are likely more launchers now in the area, equivalent to at least four brigades (48+ launchers), including the examples at the test site at Kapustin Yar, east of Volgograd. 

In addition to these, and other launchers already in areas closer to Ukraine, more Iskander-M launchers and related equipment have arrived from the 41st Combined Arms Army, part of the Central Military District. Other Iskander-Ms have apparently arrived in the west from even further afield, after being deployed from the Eastern Military District.

Should Moscow decide to launch a large-scale offensive against Ukraine, a barrage of missiles launched from Iskander-M systems would be a likely means of destroying critical Ukrainian defense infrastructure ahead of any kind of ground campaign. In this scenario, targets would be likely to include command, communication, and control (C3) targets, including command centers, as well as other significant fixed targets, including runways, and other critical warfighting infrastructure. Hitting key targets farther west in Ukraine with standoff weapons such as Iskander missiles would result in a high probability of destruction without putting Russian airpower at risk. For hardened targets such as buried bunkers and fortified structures, they also offer the best chance at successfully putting them out of action.

While Ukraine already faces serious problems in defending itself from any kind of Russian attack, the presence of the Iskander-M complicates things still further. These weapons can be employed using depressed quasi-ballistic trajectories and are reportedly capable of maneuvering in flight, presenting significant challenges even for opponents with more robust missile defense capabilities. As we have discussed in the past, Ukrainian ground-based air defenses are already fairly limited, with the only true anti-ballistic missile capability existing in a handful of Soviet-era S-300V systems. Those S-300 systems would also likely be top targets for the Iskanders if they can be found, and that is if they are really serviceable at this time. The readiness of the country's S-300 systems has been up to ongoing debate.

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Such is the potential significance assigned to the Iskander-M systems near Ukraine that these missiles are increasingly being seen as one of the key indicators of Russian combat potential in the region. U.S. intelligence has apparently also identified movements of additional attack aircraft and Russian Army Aviation helicopters into the region, but further details have not been released. Additional tactical airpower would also be an important signal that a large-scale offensive could be imminent. Furthermore, as part of its planned joint military maneuvers with Belarus, Russia has also announced plans to temporarily deploy aircraft to that country, too. There has long been concern that Russia may launch an attack on Ukraine via Belarus, among other potential vectors.

Other factors under close scrutiny include the total number of Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) that are massing close to Ukraine. A BTG is a combined-arms unit that typically numbers between 700 and 900 troops. As of mid-November, Ukrainian intelligence indicated that around 40 of these units were positioned in regions adjacent to its borders, equivalent to around a quarter of all Russian BTGs.

A Ukrainian military intelligence map showing Russian military dispositions as of last November 15, with around BTGs deployed close to Ukraine’s borders., UKRAINIAN MOD VIA MILITARY TIMES

The latest Ukrainian intelligence report provides further details of assumed Russian troop numbers close to its borders, at over 127,000 personnel. That number includes 106,000 Russian Ground Forces personnel, with the remainder comprising troops assigned to the Russian Aerospace Forces and Russian Navy.

The Ukrainian assessment also put at 35,000 the number of separatists in eastern Ukraine, where, with Russian support, they have been waging a civil war against the Kyiv regime since 2014. The same report also claims that around 3,000 members of the Russian Armed Forces are also based in the east of the country, which Moscow has denied.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops., Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

The Ukrainian report also points to other Russian activities of concern, including a spike in movements by military intelligence units in the border regions, and increased numbers of flights along the border by Russian surveillance aircraft.

Ultimately, the offensive nature of the Iskander-M system, in particular, means its presence, in increased numbers, within reach of Ukrainian targets is an understandable cause of alarm. However, a major Russian assault would also be able to call upon other missile systems with even further range. A barrage of missiles launched from Iskander-M systems could also be accompanied by Kalibr subsonic cruise missiles launched from submarines and warships assigned to the Black Sea Fleet. These missiles, with an estimated range of over 1,500 miles, have been used by Russia during its campaign in Syria, as have air-launched subsonic cruise missiles delivered by different bomber aircraft.

Whatever the ultimate plan for these Iskander-Ms, they serve to underline the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by Moscow when it comes to a potential offensive campaign, one that extends across the board and also includes airpower and artillery. For now, at least, the additional short-range ballistic missiles are a powerful symbol of Russia’s potential to wreak havoc on the Ukrainian military, infrastructure, or population centers, even from afar.

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