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Kazakhstan Just Showed Its Ballistic Missiles

October 8, 2022
A Tochka SRBM launch. Via Kazakhstan MoD.

A commemorative video clip published on Youtube to honor the artillery units of the ground forces had an unintended surprise. The edited footage showed various crews performing live fire exercises and includes a volley of rockets and tactical ballistic missiles–one Iskander-M SRBM and multiple Soviet vintage Tochka SRBMs. The footage originated from the Center-2019 exercises held inside Russia and is a recent example of interoperability between allies. According to Kazakhstan’s defense ministry October 4 is the day of the “artillery and missile force” that includes the units responsible for the country’s ballistic missiles, which are limited to Tochkas.

Since 2000 a separate “Missile Force” was organized as a branch of Kazakhstan’s military. Public knowledge about it is scarce and for good reason: Kazakhstan can’t even pretend to be assembling a strategic arsenal as it will be poorly received by its larger neighbors China and Russia who provide their own security guarantees. So far, the “Missile Force” does operate Soviet vintage Tochka SRBMs that are outdated by today’s standards. Aside from Tochkas familiar rocket artillery systems such as the Grad and Smerch are mainstays with the ground forces. A single Tochka missile’s maximum range of 70 km is no better, and sometimes even less, than large diameter rocket artillery.

By comparison, the Iskander-M “complex” (as Russian media describe it) is an extremely lethal transporter-launcher carrying two missiles, each with a range up to 500 kilometers. Of the nearly 4,000 tactical missiles launched against Ukraine since February 24 at least a fifth are Iskanders that have highly maneuverable terminal flight characteristics as they reach their targets. The explosive force of a single Iskander can demolish a three-story building. A direct equivalent of the Iskander-M doesn’t exist among NATO militaries but the Lockheed Martin ATACMS is its competitor although it isn’t categorized as a “ballistic missile”–while it’s launched on a ballistic trajectory its flight performance is varied according to its role, whether armed with a unitary warhead or cluster munitions. Unlike the Iskander-M the ATACMS’ maximum range is limited to 300 km.

A Russian Iskander-M SRBM preparing to launch at the Center-2019 exercises. Note the Tochka SRBMs in the background. Via Kazakhstan MoD.

Iskander SRBMs belong to the figurative top shelf among Russia’s exportable military products. At least two longstanding clients–Algeria and Armenia–have acquired the downgraded Iskander-E whose missiles have an MTCR compliant range of just 280 km. But the delivery of Iskander missiles to North Korea defies analysis. It appears North Korea have a significant stockpile of these and adapted them to various launch configurations. Among the small club of ballistic missile exporters (a roster that is still growing, by the way) the Iskander-E is in direct competition with at least four similar missiles from China, Israel, Iran, and South Korea.

China’s state-owned enterprises are such generous suppliers that, unlike the Russians, they will go the distance for a client. The examples are abundant (Iran and Pakistan built up theirs with unfailing Chinese help) but a recent success was the full transfer of a road mobile launcher called the Polonez for Belarus and a short-range ballistic missile to go with it. The M20 ballistic missile is seen as a direct competitor to the Iskander-E and features many of the same characteristics.

Meanwhile, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) offer its own “Long Range Artillery Weapon System” or LORA that it advertises having a non-compliant range of 430 km. This may seem problematic but considering how no third parties can impose export controls on Israel, except in the most extreme circumstances, the LORA is for sale to whoever can afford it. One happy client is Azerbaijan whose fondness for Israeli military products is record breaking. At least one LORA has been fired in anger when Azerbaijan went to war with Armenia in 2020.

Iran is a far more experienced trafficker of ballistic missiles than Israel and its wares are extremely diverse. The Fateh-series or “family” of missiles has evolved so dramatically in the last 20 years they are now in a distinct niche among contemporary surface-to-surface missiles. By 2018 the “Fateh Mobin” boasted a maximum range exceeding the Iskander-M’s own missile. The design of the airframes and warheads on Fateh-series missiles are so effective when these were applied to larger variants such as the Dezful and the Kheybar Shekan their stated range exceeded 1,000 km.

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