By Hans M. Kristensen
With a series of highly advertised sea- and air-launched cruise missile attacks against targets in Syria, the Russian government has demonstrated that it doesn’t have a military need for the controversial ground-launched cruise missile that the United States has accused Russia of developing and test-launching in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
Moreover, President Vladimir Putin has now publicly confirmed (what everyone suspected) that the sea- and air-launched cruise missiles can deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads and, therefore, can hold the same targets at risk. (Click here to download the Russian Ministry of Defense’s drawing providing the Kalibr capabilities.)
The United States has publicly accused Russia of violating the INF treaty by developing, producing, and test-launching a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) to a distance of 500 kilometers (310 miles) or more. The U.S. government has not publicly identified the missile, which has allowed the Russian government to “play dumb” and pretend it doesn’t know what the U.S. government is talking about.
The lack of specificity has also allowed widespread speculations in the news media and on private web sites (this included) about which missile is the culprit.
As a result, U.S. government officials have now started to be a little more explicit about what the Russian missile is not. Instead, it is described as a new “state-of-the-art” ground-launched cruise missile that has been developed, produced, test-launched – but not yet deployed.
Whether or not one believes the U.S. accusation or the Russian denial, the latest cruise missile attacks in Syria demonstrate that there is no military need for Russia to develop a ground-launched cruise missile. The Kalibr SLCM finally gives Russia a long-range conventional SLCM similar to the Tomahawk SLCM the U.S. navy has been deploying since the 1980s.
What The INF Violation Is Not
Although the U.S. government has yet to publicly identify the GLCM by name, it has gradually responded to speculations about what it might be by providing more and more details about what the GLCM is not. Recently two senior U.S. officials privately explained about the INF violation that:
- it is not the R-500 cruise missile (Iskander-K);
- it is not the RS-26 road-mobile ballistic missile;
- it is not a sea-launched cruise missile test-launched from a ground launcher;
- it is not an air-launched cruise missile test-launched from a ground launcher;
- it is not a technical mistake;
- it is not one or two test slips;
- it is in development but has not yet been deployed.
Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. under secretary of state for and international security, said in response to a question at the Brookings Institution in December 2014: “It is a ground-launched cruise missile. It is neither of the systems that you raised. It’s not the Iskander. It is not the other one, X-100. Is that what it is? Yeah, I’ve seen some of those reflections in the press and it’s not that one.” [The question was in fact about the X-101, sometimes used as a designation for the air-launched Kh-101, a conventional missile that also exists in a nuclear version known as the Kh-102.]
The explicit ruling out of the Iskander as an INF violation is important because numerous news media and private web sites over the past several years have claimed that the ballistic missile (SS-26; Iskander-M) has a range of 500 km (310 miles), possibly more. Such a range would be a violation of the INF. In contrast, the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) has consistently listed the range as 300 km (186 miles). Likewise, the cruise missile known as Iskander-K (apparently the R-500) has also been widely rumored to have a range that violates the INF, some saying 2,000 km (1,243 miles) and some even up to 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles). But Gottemoeller’s statement seems to undercut such rumors.
Gottemoeller told Congress in December 2015 that “we had no information or indication as of 2008 that the Russian Federation was violating the treaty. That information emerged in 2011.” And she repeated that “this it is not a technicality, a one off event, or a case of mistaken identity,” such as a SLCM launched from land.
Instead, U.S. officials have begun to be more explicit about the GLCM, saying that it involves “a state-of-the-art ground-launched cruise missile that Russia has tested at ranges capable of threatening most of [the] European continent and out allies in Northeast Asia” (emphasis added). Apparently, the “state-of-the-art” phrase is intended to underscore that the missile is new and not something else mistaken for a GLCM.
Forget GLCM: Kalibr SLCM Can Do The Job
Whatever the GLCM is, the Russian cruise missile attacks on Syria over the past two months demonstrate that the Russian military doesn’t need the GLCM. Instead, existing sea- and air-launched cruise missiles can hold at risk the same targets. U.S. intelligence officials say the GLCM has been test-launched to about the same range as the Kalibr SLCM.
Following the launch from the Kilo-II class submarine in the Mediterranean Sea on December 9, Putin publicly confirmed that the Kalibr SLCM (as well as the Kh-101 ALCM) is nuclear-capable. “Both the Calibre [sic] missiles and the Kh-101 [sic] rockets can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.” (The Kh-101 is the conventional version of the new air-launched cruise missile, which is called Kh-102 when equipped with a nuclear warhead.)
The conventional Kalibr version used in Syria appears to have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). It is possible, but unknown, that the nuclear version has a longer range, possibly more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles). The existing nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (SS-N-21) has a range of more than 2,800 kilometers (the same as the old AS-15 air-launched cruise missile).
The Russian navy is planning to deploy the Kalibr widely on ships and submarines in all its five fleets: the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula; the Baltic Sea Fleet in Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg; the Black Sea Fleet bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk; the Caspian Sea Fleet in Makhachkala; and the Pacific Fleet bases in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk.
The Russian navy is already bragging about the Kalibr. After the Kalibr strike from the Caspian Sea, Vice Admiral Viktor Bursuk, the Russian navy’s deputy Commander-in-Chief, warned NATO: “The range of these missiles allows us to say that ships operating from the Black Sea will be able to engage targets located quite a long distance away, a circumstance which has come as an unpleasant surprise to counties that are members of the NATO block.”
With a range of 2,000 kilometers the Russian navy could target facilities in all European NATO countries without even leaving port (except Spain and Portugal), most of the Middle East, as well as Japan, South Korea, and northeast China including Beijing (see map below).
As a result of the capabilities provided by the Kalibr and other new conventional cruise missiles, we will probably see many of Russia’s old Soviet-era nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles retiring over the next decade.
The nuclear Kalibr land-attack version will probably be used to equip select attack submarines such as the Severodvinsk (Yasen) class, similar to the existing nuclear land-attack cruise missile (SS-N-21), which is carried by the Akula, Sierra, and Victor-III attack submarines, but not other submarines or surface ships.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Now that Russia has demonstrated the capability of its new sea- and air-launched conventional long-range cruise missiles – and announced that they can also carry nuclear warheads – it has demonstrated that there is no military need for a long-range ground-launched cruise missile as well.
This provides Russia with an opportunity to remove confusion about its compliance with the INF treaty by scrapping the illegal and unnecessary ground-launched cruise missile project.
Doing so would save money at home and begin the slow and long process of repairing international relations.
Moreover, Russia’s widespread and growing deployment of new conventional long-range land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles raises questions about the need for the Russian navy to continue to deploy nuclear cruise missiles. Russia’s existing five nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles (SS-N-9, SS-N-12, SS-N-19, SS-N-21 and SS-N-22) were all developed at a time when long-range conventional missiles were non-existent or inadequate.
Those days are gone, as demonstrated by the recent cruise missile attacks, and Russia should now follow the U.S. example from 2011 when it scrapped its nuclear Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile. Doing so would reduce excess types and numbers of nuclear weapons.
- Russian Nuclear Forces, 2015, FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
- Status of World Nuclear Forces, 2015
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.