Iskander-M: Russia’s Hypersonic Ballistic Missile System

Photo Credit: Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Getty Images

The Iskander is a Russian mobile short-range hypersonic ballistic missile system that was developed shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officially entering service in 2006, it has seen use in many Russian-involved combat situations, including the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Development of the Iskander missile system

Design work for the Iskander began in December 1988, with the intention of replacing the Scud missile, which was developed by Russia during the Cold War. The first attempt was the OTR-23 Oka, but this violated the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Iskander-M with two missiles on a dirt road
9P78 Iskander-M system on display at Alabino firing range during the Army 2019 International Military Technical Forum. (Photo Credit: Marina Lystseva / TASS / Getty Images)

The manufacture of the Iskander involved three separate parties. Votkinsk Machine Building Plant was tasked with producing the missiles, while the ground equipment fell under the purview of Production Association Barricades. The system as a whole came from the minds of those working with the Design Bureau in Kolomna (KBM), which began developing the weapon in 1993. The hope was this new weapon could overcome air defense systems.

The first successful launch occurred in 1996, and the Russian military began state trials two years later, completing 13 at Kapustin Yar test range. In 2006, following the completion of the tests, the Iskander system was adopted by the Russian Army. At present, they are using the 7.3-meters-long Iskander-M variant, which uses 9M723 missiles.

Iskander specs

As aforementioned, the Iskander-M system is equipped with two 9M723 missiles, which can be targeted independently. Each is equipped with its own warhead, with a payload of 1,500 pounds, and can maneuver in-flight with the use of an inertial and optical guidance system. This allows them to hit moving targets, as well as stationary ones, and be retargeted after launch.

Iskander-M camouflaged with moss and vegetation
Camouflaged Iskander-M complex during an exercise in Transbaikalia, June 2021. (Photo Credit: Ministry of Defense of Russia / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

Once the first missile has been launched, the second can be fired less than a minute later. To acquire a target, the operator uses a variety of tools, including satellite, aircraft, aerial photos, an artillery observer and a conventional intelligence system. Once launched, the missile travels at a hypersonic speed of between 1,200 and 2,600 m/s, and while in flight uses fins to reduce its radar signature.

The Iskander can make use of several types of warheads, including fuel-air explosive enhanced-blast warheads, cluster munitions and those designed for high explosive fragmentation. It can also be equipped with nuclear warheads with a yield of between five and 50 kilotons of TNT, along with ones that act like a flamethrower and can penetrate bunkers.

According to the Russian Army, a single warhead can cause 25,000-square-meters of destruction.

Iskander on the streets of Moscow
Iskander-M during a parade rehearsal in Moscow, 2018. (Photo Credit: Dmitriy Fomin / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

The Iskander system requires a host of vehicles and additional parts to ensure it’s operational. Along with the missiles and the transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle, it also features a re-loading vehicle carrying two reload missiles, a command/staff vehicle, an information preparation station vehicle, a maintenance vehicle and a life support vehicle.

Iskander variants

Aside from the Iskander-M, there are two main variants of the missile, the K and E. The Iskander-K was developed to fire the 9M728 (SSC-7) cruise missile, along with the new 9M729 (SSC-8) long-range missile.

Iskander-K in a field
Iskander-K. (Photo Credit: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

The Iskander-E is the downgraded version of the missile system, intended solely for export purposes. In accordance with Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) restrictions, it features a smaller fuel tank and uses the 9M720 missile. It’s equipped with a simplified inertial system with an accuracy of 30 to 70m CEP, which is not as accurate as the M variant used by the Russian Army.

Armenia became the first international purchaser of the Iskander-E in 2016. A year later, Algeria bought four regimes, totaling 48 TELs and 120 support vehicles.

Use in conflict

At present, only three countries use the Iskander missile system: Russia, Armenia and Algeria. The weapons system has been used in four conflicts, beginning in 2008 during the Russo-Georgian War, when Dutch journalist Stan Storimans was killed.

Russia also deployed the Iskander to Syria during that country’s civil war. In 2018, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov reported the missile system, along with the Smerch and Tornado-G rocket launchers, have proved their combat effectiveness in Syria.

9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missile test launch
9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missile test launch takes place at the Kapustin Yar range as part of the strategic deterrence force drills, February 2022. (Photo Credit: Russian Defence Ministry / TASS / Getty Images)

Most recently, the Iskander has seen use in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, when Armenia used the missiles against Azerbaijani forces, and during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to an advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister, Iskander missiles had been launched from Belarus to Ukraine in late February. As of March 10, 2022, reports from the Chernihiv claimed Ukraine’s Armed Forces had destroyed a Russian Iskander-M division.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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