IN THE SHADOW OF A MISSILE:
ASSESSING THE ARMENIAN MILITARY’S SS-26 ISKANDER DEBACLE
Dr. Can Kasapoğlu, Director, EDAM Security and Defense Program
Sine Özkaraşahin, Researcher, EDAM Security and Defense Program
- Moscow had to follow a careful stance in handling Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan’s controversial SS-26 Iskander remarks. Although Russia has denied the use of – or its encouragement for the use of – the Iskander missiles to force Azerbaijan into a ceasefire, the Russian MoD still emphasized the combat efficiency of the missile. This dichotomy showcased that while the Russian foreign & security policy needs to protect the volatile balance in the Caucasus when establishing a new status quo with the ‘peacekeeping’ mission, Moscow still has to ensure its arms exports clientele and the prestige of its high-end weaponry.
- In league with former top Armenian military figure General Hakobyan’s comments, open-source intelligence evidence suggests limited use of the SS-26 missiles by the Armenian formations during the Karabakh War. Keeping in mind that available writings assess the Russian control over Armenia’s strategic weapons arsenal, it is plausible that Moscow encouraged the Armenian top brass to follow a harsher intra-war deterrence strategy through missile warfare to halt the Azerbaijani advance.
- If true, the big news is that the Israeli Barak-8 air and missile defense system, probably with the help of the Israeli-manufactured sensors network including the Green Pine radar, has managed to intercept the SS-26 Iskander. Although Armenia uses the export variant of the SS-26 baseline, the interception of one of Russia’s prime tactical game-changers is not the best of the news for the Russian defense technological & industrial base.
Backstage of Armenia’s SS-26 Debate
On Thursday 25th February 2021, some 40 military officers issued a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation, due to his ‘failures in foreign and security policy’. In response to the statement, PM Pashinyan called his supporters to rally against this ‘coup d’état’. Since then, Armenia’s political life has not normalized and the country is soon to have elections.
Interestingly, the outset of the crisis overlapped with an exchange between former President Serzh Sarkisyan and PM Pashinyan over the use and combat efficiency of the Russian-manufactured SS-26 Iskander missiles.
So far, open-source intelligence (OSINT) evidence and findings indeed suggest limited use of the SS-26 Iskander missiles by the Armenian military in the closing days of the Karabakh War. However, the debate around the weapon system itself goes beyond intelligence and military-technical aspects. Rather, it shows the Russian patronage over the Armenian security apparatus.
Into Russia’s SS-26 Iskander Missile and the Armenian Military: Why It Matters?
The Iskander missile complex is centered on a command & control vehicle, logistics and life support vehicle, transporter loader vehicle (TLV), transporter-erector-launcher (TELAR), a mobile data processing center, and a maintenance vehicle. The missile complex has two basic configurations that can operate on the same architecture. While the 9M723 remains the principal ballistic missile line, the R-500/9M728 is the cruise missile line.
The ballistic missile baseline has a range of some 480 kilometers, and a circular error probability (CEP) of 5 meters with a terminal phase optoelectronic homing system. In other guidance configurations, the CEP can be as high as 30 to 70 meters. The warhead configuration varies between 480 to 700 kg including penetrators, fuel-air explosives (thermobaric), high-explosive fragmentation, submunitions, and EMP.
Iskander-M, in-service Russian 9M723 Ballistic Missile Variant
While the Iskander line is a dual-use system, its nuclear aspects are not in the scope of this paper as we are assessing a solely conventional case in the Armenian launch.
From a concepts of operations (CONOPS) standpoint, the SS-26 has certain advantages. The TELAR carries two missiles that can be launched within only one-minute cycles. This enables a good firepower when concentrated on a single target. The SS-26 is a road-mobile system that makes it more survivable in the battleground. The combination of a heavy warhead and low CEP also contributes to operational effectiveness. More importantly, the missile can make hard maneuvers during the homing phase and can follow a low quasi-ballistic trajectory which stresses missile defenses.
While the above-mentioned specifications depicted the Russian in-service ballistic missile standards of the Iskander line, one should keep in mind that the Armenian military operates the export version of the system.
The Armenian military first paraded their Iskander missile systems back in October 2016. Some writings suggest that the Armenian Iskander missiles have never been fully controlled by Yerevan, and there has always been Russian oversight on Armenia’s strategic weapons.
The export variant of the SS-26 Iskander, Iskander-E, is mostly similar to the Russian in-service ballistic missile variant. However, the export version, after certain degradations, is reported to offer a reduced payload, less operational range, and a launch weight of 3,8 tons. The Iskander-E enjoys 480 kg combat payload with blast & fragmentation submunitions, anti-personnel / anti-material, high-explosive and high-explosive / penetrator warhead configurations. The export variant has a minimum range of 50km and a maximum range of some 280km. The Iskander-E missile has an inertial navigation mid-course guidance system. This variant is centered on an electro-optical terrain-comparison system used for the terminal homing guidance phase. The missile’s CEP is estimated to be between some 5 to 10 meters which equip the weapon with nearly pinpoint accuracy.
Armenian Missile Warfare Efforts in the Nagorno-Karabakh War
Overwhelmed by Azerbaijan’s superior defense technological edge, the Armenian military had systematically resorted to missile warfare during the Karabakh bonanza. Azerbaijan’s major population centers, such as Ganja, were targeted by the Armenian ballistic missiles various times.
Open-source intelligence reports suggest the use of Tochka-U and Scud-B missiles as well as BM-30 Smerch heavy MLRS in addition to other rocket systems by the Armenian formations during the war. However, the SS-26 Iskander launch allegations have brought the missile debate to a whole new level.
The Iskander dimension remains critical due to certain reasons. First, there is the ambiguous doctrinal order of battle specifically revolving around the SS-26. Some news stories and expert views suggest that the SS-26 Iskander has never been a solely Armenian weapon system after Yerevan’s procurement. Instead, it remains under Russo – Armenian joint control, or Moscow’s oversight to be precise, as the epicenter of Armenian strategic weapons capacity. This vague situation brings us to the following assessments questioning if it was the Russians that encouraged the Armenian military to launch a limited Iskander salvo to pressure Baku into a ceasefire, probably before the Azerbaijani Armed Forces capitalize on the momentum for a decisive push into Xankendi.
General Hakobyan’s Statements and the Video Footage: Tying the Pieces Together
General Movses Hakobyan
General Movses Hakobyan is a top Armenian military officer who served as the commander of the Armenian occupation formations in Nagorno-Karabakh (2007) and the Chief of General Staff of the Armenian military (2016-2018). Later in his career, Hakobyan also served as the Chief Military Inspector of the Armenian Armed Forces between November 2018 up until his resignation in November 2020. He was openly critical of Pashinyan and the amount of disinformation in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Remarkably, he stated that the level of inaccurate information spread by the Armenian officials in the war was at 100% and that this “fueled conflicting information which resulted in a lost war”. Hakobyan had also made remarks concerning the Iskanders during the war, which put him at the epicenter of the debate.
On 24th February 2021, eyes turned to Pashinyan and Sarkisyan amidst a heated exchange on the effectiveness of the Iskander missiles. In an interview, Pashinyan called on Sarkisyan to explain why the Iskander missiles did not explode – reportedly, the warheads exploded only up to 10% effectiveness – during the Karabakh War although it is not clear how the Armenian PM was able to pinpoint the warhead accuracy and lethality of the missiles landing to the Azerbaijani territory.
Against the backdrop of the Iskander exchange, an Armenian top General gave valuable clues to guide open-source intelligence efforts.
In an interview, Hakobyan told that the Iskander missiles were indeed used a day or two before the ceasefire, although he refused to disclaim the exact time and location, and the target-set.
Interestingly, Hakobyan also added that the Iskander was fired on a cloudy day. Unintentionally, with his remarks, Hakobyan gave two hints: first, the Iskander missiles were fired close to the ceasefire, and second, what the weather conditions looked like during the launch.
The weather conditions in and around Baku on the two days before the ceasefire is in line with Hakobyan’s claim. Indeed, for the 8th and 9th November, meteorological sources show that the weather in and around Baku was partially cloudy on both days.
Cloud Mapping in November 2020 in the area of operations. (left to right; clear sky, some clouds, partly cloudy, very cloudy, dark/gray sky)
In tandem with General Hakobyan, an undisclosed senior Armenia officer confirmed that “an Iskander ballistic missile was launched by Yerevan directly into the capital days before the ceasefire. It was concerning for Azerbaijani officials. But a missile defense system operated by the Azerbaijani military, an Israeli-made Barak-8, shot it down”. Some news outlets suggested that similar announcements were also made by Azerbaijani officers.
First, as illustrated below, the Iskander missile’s export variant is able to reach the Azerbaijani territory when launched from Armenia, and the missile can hit the adjacent areas around the capital Baku when launched from the hot zone in the Karabakh frontier.
Firing Scenario from the Armenian Fourth Army Area of Responsibility. Source: EDAM, 29 September 2020.
Firing Scenario from the Nagorno-Karabakh hot zone. Source: EDAM, 29 September 2020.
The second question that one needs to answer is ‘can the Barak-8 intercept the SS-26 Iskander missile’?
Originally an Indian – Israeli joint baseline, the Barak-8 has a 100 to 150km range (the latter falling under the extended-range modernization). The air & missile defense system can be operated on road-mobile TELARs or embarked on surface combatants for naval anti-air warfare missions. Reports on test results indicate that the system, indeed, intercepted ballistic missile mimics before.
A few years ago, Azerbaijan procured Barak-8 extended range systems from Israel. More importantly, the defense transactions between the two nations have extended to advanced sensors, including the Green Pine radars which remain highly capable of detecting ballistic missiles. Therefore, in the given scenario, it is theoretically plausible that the Barak-8 was indeed able to intercept the Armenian Iskander missile strikes with the help of the Barak-8 & Green Pine and other Israeli-manufactured sensors’ help.
There is more than General Hakobyan’s claims and his statements’ overlap with the clouding patterns on the reported launch days. A Facebook footage published on November 9th, 2020, shows Armenian Missile Forces preparing to launch the Iskander. The video showcases the use of the Iskander missile and as it can be clearly identified between 0:20 and 0:30. Initial assessments indicated that the footage was filmed a few hours before the ceasefire agreement. In the video, two missiles were seen launched consecutively, as is the case with the SS-26 CONOPS explained earlier, taking advantage of the TELAR’s two-missile payload and short launch cycle between the two volleys. While the transporter-erector-launcher and the missile before the launch strongly resemble the SS-26, the exhaust confirms a solid propellant missile being fired.
Remarkably, the Armenian top general corps’ call for PM Pashinyan’s resignation overlaps with the Iskander controversy. Resembling the Orsis T-5000 sniper rifle drift between Yerevan and Moscow, the story developed around the SS-26 Iskander once again showcased the Russian patronage as to the Armenian strategic affairs.
Shortly after the bonanza over the speculated combat effectiveness of the Iskander, the Russian MoD issued a statement that the missile system works perfectly – interestingly, by revealing operational details from the Syrian frontier –. Yet, according to the Russians, the Armenian missiles have been stored safely since the acquisition, and more importantly, they were, reportedly, not used in the war. Publicly shunning Pashinyan’s remarks that ‘the Iskanders were fired at Azerbaijan but they either did not explode or exploded with a 10 percent efficiency’, and that ‘they were the 1980s technology’, Russia issued a statement explaining that the Iskander missiles were not ‘from the 1980s— and, in fact, the missile entered into service in 2006 and Armenia purchased the Iskander-E back in 2016’. Tellingly, following Russia’s reaction, Pashinyan quickly backtracked, saying that he was ‘misinformed’ about the operational capacity of the Iskander missiles and that ‘the defense relationship between Russia and Armenia would not be broken by one simple incident’.
The abovementioned discussion showcased two things. First, the Russian military patronage over the Armenian Armed Forces has carefully tracked and even exercised control over the latter’s strategic weapons arsenal, as widely assessed among contemporary writings on the issue. And second, contrary to the OSINT findings, the Russians, in a Maskirovka fashion, have refrained from publicly revealing the use of the SS-26 by the Armenian missile forces, since this would have hindered Russia’s ongoing efforts to build a new status quo in the Caucasus through its ‘peacekeeping’ mission in and around Karabakh.
Finally, the last but not least pillar of the issue pertains to defense economics. The Russian Federation remains a major arms exporter with a worldwide clientele. Moscow tries to secure buyer trust in its military equipment and would not let an Armenian prime minister cast a shadow on the Russian weaponry, especially following the Armenian military’s fiasco in the hands of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces in the Karabakh War.
 For the technical specifications of the Iskander-E export variant, IHS Jane’s, Strategic Weapons Iskander 9M720/9M723, 2016.
 BBC Turkish, “Ermenistan’da neler oluyor? Başbakan Paşinyan ‘Ermeniler darbeye izin vermeyecek’ dedi, ordudan itaat etmesini istedi”, 25 Şubat 2021, https://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-dunya-56194582?at_custom1=%5Bpost+type%5D&at_custom2=twitter&at_custom4=9F901C96-775E-11EB-99F3-1FBA96E8478F&at_custom3=BBC+Turkce&at_medium=custom7&at_campaign=64
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 Weatherspark, Azerbaycan Ortalama Hava Durumu, https://tr.weatherspark.com/m/104871/11/Kas%C4%B1m-ay%C4%B1nda-Bak%C3%BC-Azerbaycan-Ortalama-Hava-Durumu
 Yandex Weather, “Weather forecast in Baku in November”, https://yandex.com/weather/baku/month/october?via=cnav