Russia’s demonstrated capability of launching cruise missiles from small ships calls into question the US’s anti ballistic missile system and alters the nuclear balance in Europe
The article I attach below provides the single best analysis of the Klub/Kalibr cruise missiles the Russians have used in the Syrian conflict.
This article was published on 25th August 2015, before Russia began its military campaign in Syria, and before the possibility the Russians might use cruise missiles was considered by anybody.
That proves that the fact the Russians had deployed cruise missiles on small ships in the Caspian Sea was no secret.
The Russians publicly announced the deployment, and as the article shows it was possible for its implications to be discussed by Western military analysts.
The problem was not that the deployment was secret. It was that its implications were not understood until the capability was demonstrated.
The Buyan corvettes have a displacement of less than 1,000 tons at full load.
That means that they are small enough to sail – and launch their cruise missiles – from Russian rivers such as the Volga, the Don and their many tributaries.
The Volga and the network of rivers that connect to it forms the biggest riverine system in Europe, in places extending far west of Moscow. The Moscow river is part of it.
The Volga is connected to the more westward flowing Don by the Volga-Don canal. The Don flows into the Sea of Azov and extends north as far as Tula.
The Volga flows directly into the Caspian Sea.
Buyan class corvettes based in the Caspian would have no difficulty accessing this system, which was massively enlarged by a network of canals built in Soviet times.
Moscow is itself linked to this system through the Moscow canal, which is why since 1947 it has called itself “the port of five seas” – the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the White Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Baltic. Water craft can in fact access any one of these seas by using the canals and rivers of this system.
The Buyan class corvettes might be too big to access all parts of this system. However Russian rivers like the Volga and some of its tributaries like the Oka, as well as the Don, are huge by European standards and are of a totally different scale to rivers further west like the Danube and the Rhine.
The canals and rivers are therefore big enough, and the Buyan class are small enough, that they can navigate great parts of this system without difficulty.
The deployment options of the Buyan class corvettes are therefore far greater than the author of the article realises.
Since the missiles are vertically launched and can undertake course corrections (allegedly they carried out 11 course corrections to reach their targets in Syria), the corvettes do not need to be facing their targets to launch their missiles. They can launch their missiles even from those parts of the system where the banks are narrow and the currents are strong.
The Russians have therefore demonstrated a capability to launch water borne cruise missiles from a vast expanse of their territory – probably from most regions of European Russia. As missile technology improves it is likely most of Europe will soon be within range.
Since the Buyan corvettes are highly mobile, it will be difficult for the US to keep track of them.
For US planners the problems however only begin there.
The Russians have released pictures that show cruise missiles being launched from what look like standard containers, as demonstrated in this film.
The author worries this means the Russians can conceal anti ship missiles in containers along their coast.
This is actually unlikely. If the Russians ever decide to conceal cruise missiles in this way it is far more likely it is their long range cruise missiles they will conceal.
Containers are used to transport goods by road, rail, ship and river barge. Given that the Russians have demonstrated their ability to launch cruise missiles from small ships, the containers shown in the pictures may in fact be intended for transport on river barges.
The missiles could in that case be moved around the Russian river and canal system in what would look to reconnaissance satellites like standard containers being transported on ordinary river barges that were largely indistinguishable from civilian barges transporting civilian goods.
The barges would in fact carry special communications and processing equipment and be manned by military personnel. However a reconnaissance satellite would be unlikely to pick this up unless it was specifically looking for it.
The US cannot keep track of every one of the thousands of river barges carrying containers that navigate every day on Russian canals and rivers. If the Russians ever were to decide to deploy their cruise missiles in this way the US would quickly lose track of them. Since river barges are flat bottomed, they could also navigate canals and rivers inaccessible to the Buyan corvettes.
It is very unlikely the Russians have in fact deployed cruise missiles on their canals and rivers, whether on Buyan corvettes or on barges, or that they have any plans to do so.
Not only would doing so be extremely provocative and destabilising, but the security implications of transporting missiles with nuclear warheads on Russian rivers and canals, where they would quickly become intermingled with civilian traffic, are mind-boggling.
The point is however that the Russians now have the capability to do this. The pictures of containers they have published are almost certainly intented to drive the point home even if, to deflect criticism, they are only showing anti-ship cruise missiles.
The US’s angry complaints that Russia is violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty probably stem from this. As the article however rightly says, legally speaking the US has no cause for complaint. It was the US that insisted that air and shipborne cruise missiles be excluded from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Deployment of long range cruise missiles in the Caspian Sea and potentially on Russia’s massive inland river and canal system not only potentially negates for Russia the effect of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
It has also compromised – probably fatally – the anti-ballistic missile system the US is building in eastern Europe.
The effectiveness of that system has always been open to doubt. What is no longer in doubt is that it is and always has been directed at Russia.
As the Russians have repeatedly said, the stated rationale of the system – to defend Europe from Iranian nuclear missiles – makes no sense and has now disappeared following the nuclear agreement with Iran. The US is nonetheless pressing ahead with the system, and shows no sign of abandoning it.
The system is however well within range of the cruise missiles Russia is now deploying. The system is not designed to intercept cruise missiles, and has no defence against them. Patriot-anti aircraft missiles could be deployed to defend it. They are however a difficult target and – as they probably cost far less than the Patriot system – the Russians could anyway probably build enough of them to swamp the defences.
The appearance of the long-range Klub/Kalibr cruise missiles and Russia’s proven ability to launch them from small ships is therefore a strategic game-changer, dramatically changing the military balance in Europe.
It will almost certainly lead to pressure from within the US military for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty to be scrapped to allow US land based missiles to be deployed in Europe as a counter.
That however may simply give rise to more problems.
Last time the US sought to deploy ground based missiles in Europe in the 1980s the move triggered angry protests in Germany and Britain.
NATO might be wary of provoking that sort of response again. However if the US tried to get round that by deploying its missiles further east, in eastern Europe where public opposition might be less, it would run the risk of bringing its missiles within range of Russian Iskander missiles launched from Kaliningrad, and air launched Kh-15 missiles launched from Russian TU22M3 bombers based in Crimea.
The US would anyway be unable to duplicate Russia’s potential waterway deployment strategy. Not only is this physically impossible in the heavily congested – and far smaller – European river and canal system. It would also be politically impossible, triggering a furious reaction from the European public.
US land based missiles deployed in Europe would therefore have to be deployed in fixed locations, making it easy for the Russians to keep track of them.
The US might therefore find itself providing the Russians with a clear target, whilst lacking a Russian target of its own.
The best solution for the US might be to try to prevent the spread of Russian cruise missiles by negotiating limits on them with the Russians. Indeed the Europeans might insist on it.
The Russians would however want something in return – on the assumption that they were prepared to negotiate at all.
Quite probably the Russians would demand a halt to the US anti ballistic missile system that is being built in Europe, and a renewed commitment from the US to forego anti ballistic missile defences. Given the immense political capital the US has invested in its anti ballistic system, that might be a concession the US might find very difficult to make.
Regardless of what happens next Russia’s demonstration of its ability to launch cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea shows why the concerns some have expressed that the US might attack the Russian strike force in Syria are not realistic.
The US has far more air assets in the eastern Mediterranean than do the Russians. However the Russians have now demonstrated that they have the ability to launch cruise missiles from their own territory that can reach US bases in the area.
The US air base at Incirlik in Turkey is especially vulnerable as – probably – are US bases in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Any US commander minded to “disarm” the Russian strike force in Syria must now take that capability into account.
That explains why the idea of “disarming” the Russian strike force – if it ever existed – has been abandoned.
It beggars belief that the US military would risk World War III by attacking the Russian strike force, risking a counter strike by Russian cruise missiles on US bases.
Needless to say any idea of attacking Russia’s Buyan corvettes in the Caspian Sea is out of the question.
There may be some fanatical individuals within the US civilian leadership who have pushed these ideas, but the US military will have scotched them.
That explains why the US has instead come to a technical agreement with the Russians to coordinate use of their respective air forces over Syrian air space.
By doing so the US has acknowledged that it cannot interfere with the operations of the Russian strike force.
That is the reality Russia’s long range cruise missiles have helped bring about.
Small but deadly – Klub missile displayed in mock-up container
From the blog Arms Control Wonk
A few days ago Bill Gertz alerted the public to a new Russian sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), SS-N-30A, known in Russia as Kalibr. The new supersonic missile, he said, was tested last month and is ready for deployment. It could reach targets across Europe and represents a threat akin to SS-20 intermediate-range missiles, which the Soviets deployed in the late 1970s – early 1980s and which were eliminated under the 1987 INF Treaty. “A cruise missile variant also is being developed that officials said appears to violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty”, he added.
The disclosure is very interesting, but not particularly informative. The missile is not new – it has been in testing mode for seven years, if not longer, and is based on an even older SLCM. It is not exactly supersonic. The quote above is misleading: all versions of Kalibr are cruise missiles; Gertz probably meant a test flight from land-based launcher, which is the likely reason for the American accusation that Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty. And, although the reported capacity of Kalibrs to reach targets across Europe from submarines is a concern, he missed a significantly greater challenge stemming from the recent versions of that missile.
The history of Kalibr is complicated and designations in Russian open sources are contradictory. Here is a short, simplified version.
Kalibr is a new-generation SLCM, which is based on a Soviet long-range SLCM known as Granat, which, in turn, was a Soviet response to the American Tomhawk (TLAM-N). After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Russian defense industry began to actively seek foreign markets, Novator design bureau, which produced Granat, created a new family of SLCMs. The first to be publicly unveiled was Kalibr 3M-14E, which could have been mistaken for a brand new missile because it was much smaller than Granat. The smaller size achieved two purposes: first, the new anti-ship missile had to fit into standard NATO torpedo tubes (which are shorter than the Soviet standard) and it had to have a range less than 300 km to remain under the MTCR-mandated limit (Granat had the range of 3,000 km). Reportedly, in 2006 3M-14E Kalibr missiles were sold to India.
Novator did not stop there and eventually created a whole family of cruise missiles: in addition to 3M-14E, it also advertises 3M-54E and 3M-54E-1. These three missiles are part of systems known as Klub-S (for submarines), Klub-N (for ships), and Klub-M (land-based anti-ship missiles for coastal defense); Novator also offers a Club-A system for aircraft. All these missiles have the declared range below 300 km, which is natural for weapons intended for export. Designation “E” traditionally denotes the export version of weapons systems.
Part of the Kalibr family, however, is intended solely for “domestic consumption” (known as 3M14, 3M54, and 3M541) and their ranges are many times greater (some sources use the “E” designation for missiles not intended for export, which is an obvious mistake). Depending on the source, their range is either 2,600 km or 1,500 km; some hypothesize that the longer range is associated with missiles equipped with nuclear warheads while conventionally armed Kalibr SLCMs have the 1,500 or somewhat greater range.
All these missiles are subsonic with one important exception: the last stage of the three-stage 3M54 can accelerate to three times the speed of sound 20-40 km before the target (3M541 is a shorter, two-stage subsonic missile that has a more powerful warhead). Acceleration helps penetrate ship defenses and builds inertia to penetrate the body of the target ship. Although all these cruise missiles were initially developed as anti-ship (including basing on submarines, surface ships, and on shore for coastal defense), they have recently also been given capability against targets on land.
Kalibr missiles are designated as high-precision and can travel a complex trajectory with up to 15 turns along the path. For example, if the target ship is on the other side of an island, the missile(s) will fly around that island to reach it.
Kalibr missiles are reported to have dual (nuclear and conventional) capability. The Russian Navy has always stubbornly insisted that it needs nuclear anti-ship missiles to balance the overwhelming power of US Navy and there is no reason to believe it will completely abandon nuclear capability; there is also no reason to believe that it has abandoned the political obligation of Russia under the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI) to store warheads for non-strategic nuclear weapons on shore, even though in 2004 Moscow declared that it no longer considered itself bound by PNIs.
Conventionally armed Kalibr SLCMs deserve much more attention then the “nuclear side” of the family. They fit very well the goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons that was proclaimed in the 2000 Military Doctrine and has been confirmed in its subsequent (2010 and 2014) versions. The value of precision-guided long-range conventional strike assets has been amply demonstrated by the United States in a series of limited wars since 1991. Unlike nuclear weapons, their conventional counterparts are usable and, if necessary can be credibly threatened against a potential opponent.
It appears that the geography of planned deployment of Kalibrs reflects the emphasis on conventional capability. They will be deployed on Project 885 (Yasen) SSNs; they will also be deployed on diesel Varshavyanka-type submarines; there are plans to arm with them Shchuka B-class submarines of the Northern Fleet. Certain categories of surface ships, such as the Project 1155 “large anti-submarine vessel” will also be refitted with these missiles, as well as two large heavy cruisers, including Petr Veliki, Project 1150 destroyers, and the future Project 11356M frigates. Of greatest significance perhaps is the decision to equip missile ships of the Caspian Fleet with Kalibr missiles; moreover, Caspian ships have already flight-tested them several times from different ships.
Overall, the Northern, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Fleets can hold at risk wide swaths of territory in Europe and the Middle East, perhaps reaching as far as parts of the Persian Gulf region. Even assuming the range of conventional Kalibrs at 1,500 km, the reach is truly global. The vast majority of countries within that range do not have nuclear weapons of their own or US nuclear weapons in their territories. Thus, Russia cannot threaten them with nuclear SLCMs, but conventional SLCMs are a whole different ball game.
The new strategic situation goes well beyond the gloomy, but, in truth, pretty timid warnings of Bill Gertz. This is not just about Europe and perhaps not necessarily about Europe: Moscow is on the path toward breaking the US monopoly on conventional long-range precision-guided strike weapons. Kalibr is not the only class of such weapons: Moscow has already started deployment of a dual-capable Kh-101/102 air-launched cruise missile and plans to develop and deploy a liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that, some reports suggest, will be primarily intended for conventional warheads (given the long and successful history of Soviet liquid-fuel ICBMs, this project will hardly encounter any challenges except financial).
Of course, large-scale deployment is still mostly plans. Development of Kalibr family systems has been completed, but deployment takes time and money; the latter is in particularly short supply these days. Thus, the security challenge should be judged as potential, but worth serious consideration. A response in kind would amount to an arms race. Arms control tools seem infinitely preferable, but that would mean breaking one of the long-standing taboos in American arms control policy – putting long-range conventional strike assets on the table. This option remains possible while Russia has not yet embarked on large-scale deployment of the new family of systems; once it has moved reasonably far along that way, it will lose interest in arms control.
The worst news about the continuing improvement and upgrades of the Kalibr family is its new launcher. Russian missile designers apparently have imagination that is allowed to run amok. They have put a launcher with four Kalibr missiles into a standard shipping container that cross oceans by hundreds of thousands loaded onto standard commercial vessels.
Available pictures show two classes of Kalibr missiles in shipping containers – the “export” (shorter) version and also the longer missiles with greater, “non-export” range. In effect, this means that any vessel carrying standard shipping containers that approaches a “country of interest” of the Kremlin could be carrying long-range cruise missiles capable of sinking ships or striking targets on land. Similarly, any part of Russian coastline that appears unprotected can all of a sudden feature anti-ship missiles brought by inconspicuous trucks in inconspicuous shipping containers.
Just imagine what Bill Gertz would have written had he known about this unorthodox basing mode…
Deployment of Kalibr missiles with capability to strike land targets in seas around Europe (including the Atlantic), indeed, could defy the purpose of the 1987 INF Treaty, which eliminated all land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. There is no escaping that, however. It was, after all, the United States and NATO that ensured during INF that sea- and air-launched missiles should be excluded from that Treaty. It was the United States that successfully insisted during START I talks that long-range nuclear SLCMs should be subject only to rudimentary unverifiable confidence building measures and that conventional long-range SLCMs are completely exempted from it. The tables have turned. US monopoly on these assets has lasted two decades and is now on the verge of its end. If one throws into the picture long-range ALCMs and short-range Iskander systems that reach almost the entire Poland and perhaps also a piece of Germany from Kaliningrad Oblast (a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania), the emerging Russian conventional and potentially nuclear capability looks particularly impressive.
Kalibr has apparently affected the INF Treaty in another way – it was the likely source for the recent US accusation that Russia is in violation of that Treaty. US government has only revealed that the reason for the accusation was a test of a long-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM); such missiles are prohibited by the INF Treaty. Russia has denied any wrongdoing and demanded details, which the United States refused to provide (probably to avoid disclosing methods of intelligence gathering). At the center of the controversy is probably a flight-test of an R-500 short-range ground-launched cruise missile for Iskander system from Kapustin Yar range in May 2007. Even then, that test gave rise to speculations that it could have been the test of one of long-range Kalibr-family SLCMs. If the latter is the case, then the situation becomes complicated.
Under the INF Treaty, Russia has the right to flight-test SLCMs from land provided that it is conducted “at a test side from a fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launcher” (Article VII, paragraph 12). The test was certainly from an official test range; the launcher was without doubt not a GLCM launcher (all those were eliminated long time ago). It all boils down to two questions: was this a fixed launcher and was this a launcher that is used exclusively for flight tests?
Indeed, if the 2007 test was for one of Kalibr missiles, a controversy seems possible given the long-standing tradition of Russian defense industry to pay little attention to international agreements. In the past, that propensity created more than one head-ache for both the Foreign Ministry and the military. Is it possible that designers chose not to mess with a unique launcher for a SLCM and used the same that was later used for R-500? The public will not know until US and Russian officials move beyond the current stage of mutual recriminations and graduate to discussing technical details. In any event, it remains possible that Kalibr family had something to do with yet one more source of contention between the two countries.