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The Iskander Threat To Europe: Bluff Or Real?

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Martin Sieff
Washington (UPI) Nov 11, 2008
Can Russia produce enough Iskander-M missiles to equip five battalions by 2015? Critics say it's a bluff. But don't bet against them.

Russia is upping the ante on its threats to target the proposed new U.S. ballistic missile defense base in Poland to protect the Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe against the threat of Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chose the very day after Sen. Barack Obama's historic presidential election victory to repeat the Kremlin's threat to deploy the Iskanders in the Kaliningrad oblast, or region, to the north of Poland and target the proposed base. He did so in his first state of the union televised address to the Russian people -- the highest-profile platform possible.

On Friday, only two days later, the RIA Novosti news agency cited a Russian Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying that by 2015, the Kremlin would have a minimum of five missile brigades deployed on Russia's western border with new Iskander-M short-range missile systems.

"By 2015, the Iskander system will be put in service with five missile brigades, primarily near Russia's western border and in the Kaliningrad region," the official stated, according to the report.

A report in Moscow News Monday downplayed the significance of these reports as bluff. It questioned whether Russia's military-industrial complex, still crippled by the loss of its Ukrainian-based factories and iron ore and coal resources following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, could produce that number of Iskanders. And in any case, the Iskander has a very short range of only 160 miles (280 kilometers), the newspaper said.

Basing such missiles on Russia's western border with Belarus would still put them out of range of the ballistic missile defense base for 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors that the United States is currently building in Poland to defend the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe against any threat from Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles in the future.

However, the Moscow News report is misleading. RIA Novosti more accurately gives the Iskander-M's operational range as 310 miles (more than 500 kilometers). This would allow Iskander-Ms based in the Kaliningrad region to hit targets anywhere in Poland. It also would put most of the Czech Republic within their range, including the likely site for the advanced radar tracking array essential to guide the Polish-based GBIs to their targets. And eastern parts of Germany would be within their range too.

The Moscow News report also said that after eight years of efforts, Russia still has only one squadron equipped with the Iskanders. These kinds of bottlenecks remain extremely common in the Russian military-industrial complex, despite the enormous investments that Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin has poured into the sector over the past eight years.

But if there is one thing the Russian military-industrial sector, like its Soviet predecessor, is good at doing, it is being able to focus resources in a handful of key areas to push them through to effective mass production and reliable operational deployment.

Even if the Kremlin cannot meet the target of five missile battalions armed with Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad by 2015, it is likely to have enough of them there to do the job.

Finally, the Iskander-Ms will not be deployed against Poland only from Kaliningrad. They also will be deployed by Belarus, Russia's most loyal ally among the former Soviet republics, along the Polish-Belarus border, the Russian Defense Ministry official told RIA Novosti.

"Belarus is our ally, and we ... will deliver these systems to that country on a priority and most favorable basis," the news agency quoted him as saying.

(In Part 2: What makes the Iskander so deadly?)

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