Putin's Missiles Misfire, Kill Iranian Sheep

The Buzz

Unnamed U.S. Defense Department officials are telling U.S. cable news outlet CNN that at least four of the twenty-six Russian Kalibr NK cruise missiles launched during yesterday’s attack on Syria crashed in Iran. The Russian Ministry of Defense immediately and strongly denied the Pentagon’s claims on its official Facebook page. It is not possible to independently verify either side’s claims.

That being said, it is not exactly that uncommon for cruise missiles to go astray—especially since Russia has never fired the Kalibr during actual combat operations until now. But Iranian defense officials, per Russian reports, said that the charges that the missiles fell short were “psychological war.” A Russian defense official stated that “all missiles launched from our ships have found their targets.” Yet before American officials had made the accusation, and before the Russians and Iranians had denied it, multiple local Iranian news sources had reported on crashes of unidentified aircraft in northwestern Iran—in other words, precisely where we’d expect Russian cruise missiles to be flying.

On Wednesday, Golan Saqqez reported on the crash of an unmanned aircraft near a village in Ziviyeh District, Saqqez County, Kurdistan Province, saying that the parts of the aircraft were taken to the local Revolutionary Guards for analysis. And earlier this morning, Takht News reported and published photos related to the crash of an “unidentified flying object” close to a village in Takab County, West Azerbaijan Province—in other words, within the county just north of the other reported crash site. This crash was reportedly accompanied by an explosion that injured two villagers, broke most of the windows in the village, and killed, according to another source, four sheep. The explosion could apparently be heard in other villages nearby. As with the other case, security forces took away debris; photographs showed only a crater.

Both crashes were reported to have occurred at the same time: six in the morning on Wednesday. The local news outlets appeared to believe the aircraft were crashed drones, possibly Israeli ones. Yet the timing, and the massive explosion in Takab County, suggest that these were Russian missiles. If Russia’s defense ministry really does believe that all the missiles found their intended targets, those sheep must have been up to something. Or, perhaps, this was a Russian overture to GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who takes a tough line on Putin—and on sheep.  

In any case, it should not come as a surprise that some number of Russian cruise missiles might have suffered from malfunctions. There are duds in every batch of advanced weapons and most systems—regardless of manufacturer or national origin—never actually perform as advertised in real world settings. In fact, a large number of Raytheon Tomahawks malfunctioned during the initial stages of Operation Desert Storm and later during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. Navy tried to launch 297 Tomahawks. Of those, according to naval analyst Norman Friedman, in his book Desert Victory - The War for Kuwait, 282 started off toward their targets successfully, but some didn’t make it. Nine Tomahawks failed to launch while a further six hit the water after leaving the missile tubes. The Iraqi defended shot down as many as six of the Tomahawks enroute to their targets. Later in 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, at least ten Tomahawk missiles malfunctioned and crashed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Over the years since it was first used in combat, the Tomahawk has been greatly upgraded. Early versions of the missile did not have global positioning system (GPS) correction capability for their navigation system. The Tomahawk is primarily guided by inertial navigation, and prior to the advent of GPS, it used a terrain contour matching radar to correct its course. As such, during Desert Storm, those weapons actually overflew Iran—possibly with Tehran’s tacit consent—before turning back towards Baghdad, because the featureless Iraqi desert didn’t offer enough terrain data to perform course corrections. Later version of the Tomahawk added GPS course correction and even offer the ability to be retargeted in-flight. Overall Tomahawk success rates sit at roughly eighty percent or so.

The bottom line is that while it is not certain that some of Russia’s cruise missiles may have malfunctioned, it would not be surprising. There are duds amongst every type of weapon delivered to every country’s military on Earth, but Russia often does not test its weapons as rigorously as the Pentagon. That means that while Russian weapons might be delivered sooner, there are more bugs to work out after new hardware enters service.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

John Allen Gay, an associate managing editor at The National Interest. He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Shanks


Cruise Missile Strikes in Syria: Russia's Big Ad Campaign?

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The Russian navy’s Caspian Sea flotilla launched a barrage of some twenty-six long-range cruise missiles against eleven targets more than 950 miles away in Syria yesterday. While it’s well known that Russia possesses long-range cruise missiles, the fact that the missiles were launched from relatively diminutive corvettes that caught some by surprise.

While the roughly 1,900-ton displacement Project 1166.1 Gepard-class frigate Dagestan led the Russian cruise missile strike, the rest of Moscow’s fleet consisted of tiny 950-ton Project 2163.1 Buyan-M-class corvettes. Three of these vessels, Grad Sviyazhsk, Uglich and Veliky Ustyug took part in the attack using long-range Novator 3M-14T Kalibr NK land attack cruise missiles.

The Kalibr NK has a range of about 1,500 miles, cruises about 150ft off the surface of the Earth and can hit a target within nine feet of its aim-point with its roughly 1000lbs warhead. The weapon is also purported to have a supersonic terminal phase. The missile is supposedly able to hit speeds of Mach 2.9—but concrete data is hard to come by and it is not certain every variant has that capability. The anti-ship version—called the SS-N-27 Sizzler by NATO—is particularly worrisome because it can pop-up from its usual sea-skimming flight path to drive nearly vertically onto a target, which makes it difficult to intercept.

The Kalibr NK affords even the relatively tiny Buyan-M-class corvettes the kind of long-range land attack punch usually only found on much larger warships. In fact, the Buyan-M’s eight Kalibr missiles give it a heavier long-range punch than the U.S. Navy’s now-retired Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate and certainly much more firepower than either version of the service’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS)—the surface warfare module for which is currently lacking anti-ship missile or any meaningful land-attack capability (it was designed to hunt small boats). A follow-on frigate version of the LCS will have more long-range firepower—but it’s not clear what its armament will look like.

In fact, the only operational U.S. Navy surface combatants that pack that kind of firepower are the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers—which are, of course, much larger and many times more expensive. Those ships carry the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile but only some of them are equipped with the shorter-range Harpoon anti-ship missile. But even with that armament, in recent years, it has become clear that the U.S. Navy has underinvested in anti-ship missiles. The result is that American warships are dangerously “out-sticked” by Russian and Chinese vessels. The U.S. Navy expects to address the problem with the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW)/Increment 2 anti-ship missile while the Tomahawk will also eventually be replaced with a next-generation cruise missile. 

Why the Russians chose to use the Caspian Sea flotilla to launch the attack is unclear. Another mystery is why the lake-based fleet packs so much long-range land attack firepower—who were the Russians expecting to fight? Many will point out that the Project 1164 Atlant Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva is sitting off the Syrian coast along with a number of other vessels. Superficially, Moskva is a more logical choice for attacking Syrian-based targets. But the while the massive 11,000-ton cruiser possesses formidable anti-ship and anti-aircraft capabilities with its sixteen P-500 Bazalt long-range anti-ship missiles and battery of sixty-four S-300 surface-to-air missiles, it does not have much in the way of land-attack capability. The Soviets designed the Slava-class cruisers to attack American aircraft carrier battle groups out in the open ocean rather than to strike land targets (However, the other vessels in Moskva’s task force might be equipped with land-attack cruise missiles). So the Caspian Sea flotilla might have been the closest assets with the right weapons for the job at hand.

While Russia might or might not have had valid military reasons for using the Caspian Sea flotilla against its enemies in Syria, there is an added benefit for Moscow. The cruise missile attack showcases the formidable capabilities of the Kalibr NK—shorter-range versions of which are available for export. Russia also demonstrated that one does not need to own a missile cruiser or destroyer to own a very formidable warship. As this raid amply demonstrated, the Buyan-M offers excellent capability at low cost. The ship is available for export—which buyers who need potent naval capabilities but don’t have a large budget are certain to notice.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.


How Russia Could Win the Battle for Syria

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Some analysts expect that the Russian air strikes in Syria may be more effective than the U.S.-led air campaign for a simple reason, which is that Moscow enjoys close cooperation with the Syrian regime’s ground forces. “The Western campaign against ISIS has failed because there is no human intelligence there,” Royal United Services Institute analyst Kamal Alam said, speaking at an event held at the Center for the National Interest—which is the Washington D.C., foreign policy think-tank that publishes TNI—on Oct. 7. “The Russians are going to be more embedded with the Syrians.”

The lack of ground forces to identify ground targets has palpably bedeviled the U.S. air campaign for over a year since it started in mid-2014. While the U.S. military has a variety of means to gather intelligence in Iraq and Syria—which includes satellites, airborne and other technical means for collecting of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data—precise targeting in densely populated areas with civilians present often poses enormous challenges for analysts trying to differentiate between friend and foe. It’s often a challenge compounded by the fact that U.S. intelligence assets have been stretched thin in recent years as demand far outstrips supply. But it must be noted that Moscow’s forces have not shown  much regard for minimizing collateral damage in previous years—so it may not be as serious an issue for the Russian military.

Meanwhile, Iranian forces have been embedding themselves ever deeper with the Assad’s forces, said American Enterprise Institute fellow Matthew McInnis, who also spoke at the event. Iranian forces provide much of the strategic leadership, tactical guidance and intelligence for the Syrian army even if they don’t fight on the frontlines, he noted. It is unclear if the Iranians will help with coordinating Russian air strikes with the Syrians. The Syrian forces seem to resent Iranian control, McInnis said. Indeed, Russia’s intervention might serve to undermine Iran’s efforts even if they share similar goals for now, he said.

Last November during a visit to the U.S. Air Force’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va., intelligence analysts described the challenges they face working without help from having U.S. boots on the ground. One analyst told me that in places like Syria and Iraq, it is very difficult to tell an ISIS militant apart from a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter or a member of an allied Iraqi or Syrian militia. “Ultimately, that’s where additional intelligence comes in,” she told reporters.

480th ISR Wing Commander Col. Tim Haugh noted that during the occupation of Iraq, U.S. Army units would have been in the area providing on-the-ground reports—and more. “The other things we get in addition to human intelligence is just the presence on the ground,” he said. “So if we were looking at something on a street corner, and we were not sure what that was, there was a possibility at that time that there would have been an Army unit that had gone through that neighborhood.”

With no ground units available, Air Force analysts typically rely on the local U.S. embassy in a targeted country. However, in Syria, there is no U.S. diplomatic presence in Syria to speak of while the U.S. embassy in Iraq is located in Baghdad—far away from ISIS-occupied territory. “You could have a dialogue with them to get context,” Haugh said. “There is no [Army or Marine] captain on the ground to talk to.”

There is no evidence that Russian special operations forces are on the ground providing targeting data, said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, who also spoke at the event. Instead, the Russian air force seems to be relying on Syrian troops for intelligence.

For the Russians, the cooperation with Syrian ground force helps with their targeting, but it also means that Russian forces are likely to engage immediate threats to the Assad’s army first. “What they are saying is that they are unique because they have been invited by the Syrian government,” Saunders said. “They think that their airstrikes are going to be more effective because they are coordinating with Syrian forces on the ground.” Overall, the Russians appear to be positioning themselves to influence a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict once they are assured their interests are taken into account. “The Russian government is not going to commit enough forces to decide the conflict,” Saunders said.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikicommon/Vitaly Kuzmin

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle EastRussia

Russia's Secret Weapon against ISIS: Electronic Spies in Syria

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Russia’s electronic spies have become a key part of Moscow’s surge into Syria. The signal spooks are searching for targets and following up on air strikes.

On Sept. 30, Russian fighter-bombers and ground attackers began launching aerial attacks across the embattled country. On Oct. 7, the Kremlin announced that four warships in the Caspian Sea had lobbed nearly 30 cruise missiles—which zipped through Iranian and Iraqi airspace to reach their final destinations—as part of the ongoing offensive.

And since the beginning, the Kremlin’s spy planes and other intelligence gathering systems appear to have been keeping watch.

“Earlier featured footage of #ISIS vehicles destruction is now confirmed by militants radio talks and other reconnaissance sources,” reads the caption of an official Russian Ministry of Defense video showing an Su-24M Fencer carrying out a strike—seen below—uploaded to YouTube on Oct. 5. “Near Kafar Aouid two Su-25 engaged an ISIS field camp, where radio recon proved presence of foreign militants,” Russian authorities posted on Twitter the next day.

While Moscow has not identified its reconnaissance platforms, pictures of Russian Il-20M Coots flying over the battlefield have popped up on social media. Based on the Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliner, these four-engined planes are rough equivalents to the U.S. Air Force’s family of RC-135 aerial spies.

David Cenciotti, an independent journalist, noted the deployment and explained some of the Il-20’s capabilities on his blog The Aviationist before the Russian strikes actually kicked off:

Along with the 28 combat planes that have arrived at al-Assad International Airport via Iran hiding under Il-76 cargo planes last week, the Russian Air Force has deployed at least one Il-20 Coot surveillance plane to Syria.Even though satellite imagery has not yet unveiled its presence on an apron at the airfield near Latakia, an Il-20 Coot spyplane has already arrived in Syria to reinforce the Russian contingent, according to one of our sources.

The Il-20 is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing, the aircraft is Russian Air Force’s premiere spyplane.

Cenciotti pointed out that the Coots have a habit of flying with their transponders off over the Baltic Sea. This has led to a number of close encounters with civilian planes, and similar habits could be equally dangerous in Syria’s increasingly congested skies.

But flying spooks aren’t the only spy gear Russia is sending to the region. Earlier in October, a number of Russian media outlets reported that the spy ship Vasiliy Nikititch Tatischev was on its way to help in Syria.

Damascus’ official Syrian Arab News Agency eventually picked up on the story:

A Russian military source said that the Russian ship Vasily Tatishchev left the Baltic Sea heading towards the eastern side of the Mediterranean.

The military source told reporters in the city of Kaliningrad on Monday that the ship headed towards the Syrian coast where it will join a group of ships in the eastern side of the Mediterranean to enhance capacities in accordance with their specialized tasks.

The ship’s crew will observe the situation and monitor its details in the Syrian airspace as well as in the spaces of all the surrounding countries and regional water, the source added.

The source stressed that such a trip by ships from the Baltic Sea Fleet is a normal routine mission for monitoring and observing, pointing out that those ships once successfully monitored the war in Yugoslavia.

Despite these assurances, Vasiliy Nikititch Tatischev‘s appearance in the area seems anything but routine. Built for the Soviet navy in the 1980s, the seven Project 864 Vishnya-class vessels are purpose-built to scoop up radio chatter and other electronic information. With Moscow highlighting the use of signals intelligence, it’s unlikely the 3,400-ton ships are there to simply monitor the situation.

Russia has a long history of supporting the Syrian government with signals snooping. In October 2014, the Free Syrian Army fighters uploaded a video to YouTube claiming to show them in control of a shared Russian-Syrian intelligence facility identified as “Center S.”

The Oyrx Blog, an independent entity that monitors and analyzes social media postings relating to the conflict, dug into the video:

On the 5th of October 2014, the Free Syrian Army captured the … Center S SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) facility … jointly operated by the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency and one of the Syrian Intelligence Agencies … Situated near al-Hara, the facility was of vital importance for the Assad regime as it was responsible for recording and decrypting radio communications from every rebel group operating inside Syria, making it likely the Russian-gathered information at this facility was at least partially responsible for the series of killings of rebel leaders by airstrikes.

Translation from 3:08; “A directive issued by the surveillance office on May 31 to eavesdrop and record all radio communications of the terrorist groups, directive signed by Brig. Gen. Nazir Fuddah, commander of the first center.”

The facility was recently upgraded and expanded by Russia to provide Syria and Iran with situational awareness of the Middle East. After the upgrade, which took from January to mid-February, it reportedly covered the whole of Israel and Jordan and a large part of Saudi Arabia. According to the report, the upgrade was a reaction to Iranian concern of the facility being too much focused on the Syrian Civil War, neglecting espionage on Israel. New equipment and additional personnel was thus added to the base. As only static and worn out looking sensors were captured, the more modern equipment and Russian personnel were undoubtedly evecuated [sic] days or weeks before.

The Kremlin’s deployment of the Coots and the Vasiliy Nikititch Tatischev will perhaps make up for the loss of land-based outposts. Whatever the case, Moscow’s electronic spies will no doubt be busy for the foreseeable future.

Joseph Trevithick is a contributing author for War Is Boring.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on War Is Boring. You can find it here.

Image: Flickr/Dmitri Terekhov


Why China's Nuclear Subs Are Subpar

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Over the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China has made great advances in its military capabilities. However, it still lags woefully behind in developing nuclear-powered submarines. The problem for the Chinese is that they lack the necessary quieting and propulsion technologies to build anything remotely comparable to an American or Russian nuclear submarine.

Even the newest Chinese Jin-class ballistic nuclear missile submarines and improved Shang-class nuclear attack submarines are louder than 1970s-era Soviet-built Victor III-class attack submarine or the Delta III-class boomer, according to the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence. In fact, even China’s forthcoming Type 95 will be louder than the Soviet Union’s Project 971 Shchuka-B-class submarines—better know by its NATO reporting name Akula I. Nor is it likely that the Type 96 nuclear-power ballistic missile submarine will be any better. Chinese diesel submarines are, of course, another matter entirely.

But why are the Chinese lagging behind in nuclear submarines when they seem to be advancing in leaps and bounds in almost every other field? I asked several of the best U.S. naval experts why that’s the case.

Jerry Hendrix, a former Navy captain, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security had this to say:

It’s a two-part answer. One, noise-quieting technologies is one area where we have been particularly careful not to let out. Still, the Russians have not made any prohibitions against sharing some particular technologies and their export Kilos are pretty quiet so that leads you to the second answer: The Chinese maritime manufacturing techniques are not yet adapted to submarines.  Their stuff is still pretty noisy. That’s all I can really go into.

Bryan McGrath is the deputy director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower and the managing director of the The FerryBridge Group naval consultancy. He’s also a retired Navy commander. He had this to say:

China's nuclear submarine program lags other areas of its naval prowess for two primary reasons. The first is that until twenty years ago, designing and building nuclear submarines simply was not a priority. The second reason is related to the first, and that is the fact that designing and building nuclear submarines is an extremely difficult technical undertaking. That they decided to feature nuclear submarines twenty years ago did not instantly result in the requisite skills to effectively and efficiently build them. These will take time, focus and very likely, a stepped-up industrial espionage program to attain.

Bryan Clark is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He was a special assistant to the chief of naval operations and was a Navy submarine officer. He offered his take:

Nuclear submarines have not been a priority for China, since the advantages they offer over diesel or air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines (greater endurance, speed, and capacity) are not as significant for the missions they have used their submarines to do, such as coastal defense against enemy surface ships and surveillance. Current Chinese diesel submarines like the Song are not as advanced as their European counterparts, but they are effective in this role and appear to be reliable enough for those missions; China's Kilo-class submarines are able to carry the very lethal SS-N-27 anti-ship cruise missile. China's newest AIP submarine, the Yuan, is reported to have modern combat systems and be able to deploy missiles, torpedoes, and mines as well. The recent increase in emphasis on nuclear submarines is coming as China attempts to increase its reach and role in geopolitical affairs. Today, they are developing an SSBN and a new class of nuclear attack submarine in line with their effort to deploy a “blue-water” Navy and desire to have a second strike nuclear capability on par with other great powers.

Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and frequent TNI contributor, summed it up succinctly: “One word: propulsion!”

“Submarines suitable for comprehensive blue water operations must be nuclear-powered, energy-dense, and quiet,” Erickson wrote recently for TNI. “China has struggled in these and related areas. And it can’t simply draw on its burgeoning civilian nuclear industry because the technologies and skill sets are so different.” China can’t use the lessons learnt on its civilian land-based high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) because those systems lack the energy density for naval applications.