Tue. Apr 16th, 2024
•The United States enjoyed decades of air dominance. Not anymore.
By Jack Detsch

If Russia launches a further invasion of Ukraine, as U.S. officials increasingly fear, its advance deeper into the country is likely to be complemented by missile salvos that would turn the skies above Kyiv, Ukraine, into an effective no-go zone: using short-range missiles to knock out Ukraine’s runways, airports, and fighters on the ground. 

In fact, Russia already appears to be sending its Iskander missiles—precision-guided munitions the Russian military has fired in Syria—to the front lines, covered in tarps, according to videos revealed on TikTok this week. Weapons experts were able to discern the contours of the Iskander missiles from under the tarp. 

The Iskander, which replaced the obsolete Tochka system at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t your grandfather’s fixed missile battery. It can be fired from the back of a modified truck bed and is accurate to within 30 feet when it’s hooked up to the latest suite of Russian radar systems.

But what makes this missile system particularly nerve-wracking in the context of an expanded invasion into Ukraine is its ability to evade missile defenses. It can correct its course mid-flight and has decoys on board to spoof defensive batteries (though those features have yet to be shown off in combat). 

Open-source intrigue about the Iskander system appears to track with official assessments and satellite data. A Ukrainian Ministry of Defence assessment provided to media outlets on Wednesday indicated that Russia has now built 36 Iskander medium-range ballistic missile systems near Ukraine’s border, some of which may have the ability to hit Kyiv. Imagery shared with Foreign Policy by satellite research firm Maxar Technologies showed Russia bolstering tank and artillery deployments to the so-called Pogonovo training area, near the Ukrainian border. 

Iskander batteries can fire both ballistic and cruise missiles, and experts believe Russia is more than capable of saturating Ukrainian air defenses. And the missile systems could have a protective shell of Russian S-400 air defense batteries that the Kremlin could roll toward the front lines. 

“Iskanders are devastating if used appropriately,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who studies Russian military capabilities. “They would target things like airfields or army bases. They’re so destructive.” 

But what has really caught the eye of experts is the collection of firepower alongside which Iskanders could be arrayed, such as self-propelled multiple rocket launchers like the BM-27 Uragan and heavy flamethrowers like the TOS-1 that can be mounted on a tank’s framework. “It would just disaggregate and disorganize the Ukrainian defenses, basically,” Massicot said.

The firepower Russia could bear on Ukraine, like the Iskander, has deep historical roots. Before World War II, Soviet generals envisioned a style of combat they called “deep battle,” which would drive Russian armor behind enemy lines to encircle their opponents. That came to life on the battlefield with the use of Katyusha rockets on the Eastern Front. With rapid technological advances during the Cold War, that idea evolved further, with the Soviets championing precision strikes to attack NATO forces far from the Berlin Wall, marrying the revolution of precision weapons and microcircuitry that had defined the space race. 

But by the 1990s, it was clear the United States had managed to beat the crumbling Soviet Union at their own game. In Operation Desert Storm, during the First Gulf War, the United States used precision strikes from the air, alongside self-propelled artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, to take out most of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s tank forces in a matter of days. 

U.S. Defense Department officials only saw Russia begin to make major strides in precision strike capabilities in the early 2000s, after the seemingly blossoming relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and the West had begun to sour. (The Iskander first entered into service in 2006 and was updated by 2012, but the missiles have seen relatively little use in combat.) In some parts of the U.S. military, this is seen as part of a pattern on the Kremlin’s part: using bigger guns to compensate for relatively inferior training

In contrast to NATO, which primarily drops precision-guided munitions from the air, the Russians are using mobile artillery systems like Iskander to enable infantry to launch deeper surges. The program was also helped along by Russia’s intensive military modernization effort in the mid-2010s. Tests at two of Moscow’s largest exercises—the Kavkaz 2012 and Kavkaz 2016, a mock-up of conflict along Russia’s southern flank—in the Caucasus region and the Vostok 2014—which envisions a conflict in the East—caught the Pentagon’s eye.

Former military officials believe Russia’s long-range fires are ahead of what the United States has in its arsenal. 

“It’s always been part and parcel of the way they fight,” said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who once commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe. “That gives a real advantage when you can shoot from inside Russia or from ships at sea or from vessels in the Sea of Azov. You can hit targets, such as command and control or transportation hubs deep inside Ukraine. That’s a heck of an advantage.”

The Kremlin is in the middle of another modernization plan, set to conclude in 2027, but the effort could be hamstrung by Russia’s worsening economic situation and new outlays that may come with an extended invasion into Ukraine. As part of that effort, Russia has sought to invest in precision-strike capabilities to counter what it sees as serious threats from the United States and make reforms to ground forces, which have seen less attention from the Kremlin in recent years. 

The reverberations of Russia’s military leap are being felt beyond Ukraine too. Russia has repeatedly sent Iskander batteries to the Baltic Sea coast in Kaliningrad, Russia, where they could be used to target NATO forces or dissuade more U.S. military deployments to the alliance’s eastern flank. 

But it isn’t just the firepower or raw destruction that systems like Iskander bring that worries the Pentagon and military experts. Russia’s deployments of accurate missile systems and ranged artillery is the latest sign in a worrying trend—including retaliatory Iranian ballistic missile attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq after the 2020 targeting of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani—that America and its allies are no longer dominant in the skies. 

“This is kind of what we’ve been preparing for since we watched the 2014 conflict and we said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something different,’” said Tom Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s waking up to the fact that air superiority is not a birthright.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Credit | Foreign Policy

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