Russia has deployed at least one Iskander missile system to its Humaymim Air Base in Syria, although it is unclear if it is the ballistic or cruise missile variant.
The Iskander transporter erector launcher (TEL) was spotted in footage broadcast by Russia’s Zvezda TV channel on 27 March. The system could be seen on the east side of the runway at Humaymim as an An-124 transport aircraft took off from the base.
The TEL, which is 13 m long, can be seen at the same location in Airbus Defence and Space satellite imagery taken on 20 March.
Like numerous other Russian military systems, the Iskander is mounted on an 8×8 MZKT-7930 chassis. However, the one at Humaymim does not match any other known systems, including the K-300P Bastion-P anti-ship missile system, which is in Syrian service. The superstructure needed to accommodate the Yakhont missiles launched by the Bastion-P is notably longer than that of the Iskander.
The Iskander-M that is in service with the Russian Ground Forces carries two tactical ballistic missiles that are designed to penetrate ground-based missile defence systems. Although the Iskander-M missile is often said to have a range of 500 km, it must officially be less than that to conform to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It can be armed with submunition warheads that allow it to neutralise dispersed targets such as artillery and air defence batteries.
There have been reports since 2005 of Syrian interest in acquiring the Iskander-E, the 280 km-range export version of the Iskander-M, and even claims that some systems have been delivered. There has been no confirmation from more reliable sources of any such transfers taking place and Russian officials have consistently said there is no intention to sell the Iskander-E to Syria, at least until deliveries to the Russian military have been completed.
Russian nuclear-capable Iskander missiles deployed in Syria
Russia has deployed its most advanced tactical missile system, the Iskander-M, in Syria in the last few days, debkafile reports exclusively from its military and intelligence sources. The Russian Iskander is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and has never been made available to any foreign army for operational use.
No nuclear-capable surface missiles were deployed in any Arab country bordering on Israel since 2007 when Chinese DF-21 missiles were installed in Saudi Arabia.
The Russian missiles (NATO codenamed SS-26) have a range of 500 kilometers (see map).
The Iskander’s transfer to the Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltic Sea in 2015, putting it in range of Central and Western Europe, was a mark of heightened tensions with the West over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Its deployment in Syria, amid a bloody five-year civil war, is a game changer in terms of the balance of strength in the Middle East. Its range – from the Russian Hmeimim base in western Syria – covers all of Israel up to the southern town of Beersheba, points in Turkey up to the outskirts of Ankara and the eastern and central Mediterranean including Cyprus.
The Russian decision to scale down its forces in Syria was only part of the picture: Warplanes and bombers are being pulled out, but as fast as they leave, they are being replaced by the most advanced missile systems in the Russian arsenal.
On March 15, Moscow announced that the formidable S-400 ground-to-air missiles would stay in Syria after the withdrawal. Ten days later, on March 25, the Iskander-M systems were in place. The Iskander-M is rated the top short-range ballistic missile in the world.
The combination, say debkafile’s military sources, makes the Hmeimim base the hub of the most sophisticated missiles in the Middle East.
Its mobile launching vehicle carries two missiles. It only takes a few minutes to prepare them for launch; each may be fired separately. In flight, its operating team can retarget the weapon, adjusting it if necessary to hit moving targets such as missile launchers, tank columns or supply convoys.
Another special feature of the Iskander-M is the control of its warhead by an encoded radio signal that even UAVs or AWACS cannot intercept. The missile can therefore lock on the target without being shot down. The missile’s computer receives an image of the target, locks on it and zooms toward the target at supersonic speed.
The Iskander-M is adaptable for use against small or large targets and can easily evade air defense batteries. Its targets can be set by satellites, surveillance planes, intelligence mechanisms or even field soldiers directing artillery fire from images scanned to their computers. Furthermore, its independent navigation system is not affected by poor weather conditions, including fog or darkness, like other ballistic missiles. It is moreover almost impossible to pre-empt the launch of the Iskander-M due to the mobility of its launching system.
Introducing the Iskander: The Russian Missile NATO Fears
Despite Moscow’s partial withdrawal from Syria, additional Russian forces have appeared in theatre. One unconfirmed report suggests that Russia  has deployed the Iskander short-range ballistic missile to the region—a potentially worrying development if true. The weapon would allow Russian forces to strike deep into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel with virtual impunity—though Tel Aviv has been actively working with Moscow to de-conflict their forces.
The 9K720 Iskander-M—known in NATO parlance as the SS-26 Stone—is a potent short-range ballistic missile. While export versions of the missile have a range of 280 kilometers and payload of 480Kg, the weapons destined for domestic service have a range 500 kilometers, according to Global Security .
Other sources such as the Missile Threat Project , estimate that the domestic version of the Iskander has shorter range of about 400 kilometers and payload of about 700Kg. Either way, that means that the nuclear-capable Iskander-M complies with the limitations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Nonetheless, the missile effectively replaces the OTR-23 Oka (SS-23 Spider) nuclear-tipped ballistic missile—which was eliminated by the INF treaty.
Both versions of the Iskander have a single warhead equipped terminal guidance systems, but the missile’s accuracy depends on the variant. According to Missile Threat, a purely inertially-guided variant would have a 200m circular probability of error accuracy, but coupled with GPS or GLONASS, that could be reduced to 50m or less. If those systems were supplemented by radar or electro-optical sensors, the Iskander’s accuracy could be better than 10m.
The Iskander can be equipped to carry a variety of warheads types. These include a high explosives (HE) variant, sub-munition dispenser variant, fuel-air explosive variant and a HE penetrator variant. The Russian domestic variant can also be used to deliver a nuclear payload. That means the Iskander is a versatile weapon.
The Iskander was designed to evade missile defenses. According to Missile Threat, the weapon can maneuver at more than 30g during its terminal phase. It’s also equipped with decoys to spoof interceptor missiles. As such, the Iskander is extremely difficult to intercept with current missile defense technologies.
The Iskander is not a strategic weapon—it’s a tactical ballistic missile. During combat operations, it would be used to destroy both stationary and moving targets. Targets would range from surface-to-air missile batteries, enemy short-range missiles, airfields, ports, command and communication centers, factories and other hardened targets.
It’s because of the missile’s ability to overcome missile defenses that Moscow has placed Iskander-M launchers in Kaliningrad. The weapon affords Russia the ability to use its Baltic exclave to threaten U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and more generally to intimidate its neighbors. It’s probably why Russia deployed the weapon to Syria, if the reports of the missile’s presence are correct.
Meanwhile, Russia has not stopped development work on Iskander upgrades—new missiles are being developed for the system. “This system, the Iskander-M, has a great potential for modernization, which is happening in terms of armaments and missiles in particular. That is, the standard array of missiles is growing and new missiles are being developed,” Aleksandr Dragovalovsky deputy commander of Russia’s missile forces told state-owned Sputnik in November 2015 .
A new version of the Iskander would undoubtedly be even more problematic to intercept.