October 22, 2015: Adam Szczepanik – Strategy Page
Early in the morning on October 7th, the Russian Navy Caspian Sea Strike Group launched 26 cruise missiles against targets in Syria belonging to various rebel groups opposing the Syrian government, chiefly ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra. The missiles, launched from three Buyan-M class corvettes and a Gepard class frigate traveled about 1500 kilometers over Iran and Iraq to reach eleven targets in Syria.
The strike was conducted with Kalibr 3M14T missiles (NATO designation SS-N-30A). These GPS and terminal sensor guidance systems have an accuracy of within three meters. Brought into service in 2012, the new variant of Kalibr is a close equivalent of the U.S. Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile. This was the first combat use of Russian cruise missiles they appeared to be about as reliable as their American counterparts.
The earlier versions of Kalibr can used either an anti-ship or anti-submarine warhead. The older 3M54 Klub missile, which Kalibr is an an improved model of, weighs two tons, is fired from a 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tube or special launch container, and has a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. The anti-ship version has a range of 300 kilometers and speeds up to 3,000 kilometers an hour during its last minute or so of flight. There is also an air launched and ship launched version.
What makes these missiles particularly dangerous against ships is their final approach, which begins when the missile is about 15 kilometers from its target. Up to that point the missile travels at an altitude of about 32 meters (100 feet). This makes the missile more difficult to detect. The "high speed approach" (via the use of additional rockets) means that it covers that last fifteen kilometers in less than twenty seconds. This makes it difficult for current anti-missile weapons to take it down.
The land attack version does away with the high speed final approach feature, and thanks to the saved fuel has a 400 kg (880 pound) warhead and increased range of up to 2,500 kilometers. This is more than the 1,700 kilometer range of most modern non-nuclear Tomahawk, which is not surprising, as despite the same 533mm (21 inch) diameter, Russian torpedo tubes of the same diameter are longer, which allows the Kalibr to be longer than Tomahawk, and thanks to that it has more volume available to carry fuel.
Buyan-M is a 950 ton ship that is 74 meters (243 feet) long and has a crew of 36. Top speed is 45 kilometers an hour and endurance is ten days. Armament consists of a 100mm gun, two 14.5mm heavy machine-guns, two AK-630 multi-barrel 30mm autocannon for close range defense against missiles and aircraft. There are eight vertical launch tubes holding 3K14 Kaliber or older missiles of any variant (anti ship, land attack, anti submarine). There is also a short-range (5-6 kilometers) missile system (Gibkha 3M47) with eight missiles. There is an air/surface radar and optional sonar. The heavily armed Buyan-M provides you with a low-cost patrol vessel that can handle just about anything it runs into during coastal patrols and can even be useful in wartime. Russia has built eight Buyan-M class corvettes so far, and four additional ones are under construction.
The Gepards cost about $200 million each and have been in service for a decade. These ships are 102m (316 feet) long, have a crew of 98, and endurance of 15 days. Top speed is 50 kilometers an hour. These frigates are meant for coastal patrol. They were designed to carry eight anti-ship missiles (usually the 552 kg Kh-35 "Harpoonski", only one Gepard class vessel, Dagestan, carries 3K14 Kaliber missiles instead) and one SA-N-4 twin rail anti-aircraft missile launcher (with 20 missiles). There is a 76mm cannon, two six barreled 30mm anti-missile autocannon, four 533mm torpedo tubes (for anti-submarine operations), and a 12 barrel anti-submarine rocket launcher. The ship also carries up to 20 naval mines. Electronics include navigation and air defense radars as well as sonar. There is an option to provide a helicopter platform (but no hangar). Four Gepard class frigates were built, three used by Russia, one by Vietnam, and two more, intended for Vietnam, are under construction.
This missile attack, even though it might seem small in scale when compared to U.S. Tomahawk strikes in earlier wars that used hundreds of missiles over several days, will have major impact on the strategies and plans of many leaders. Firstly, it proves that Russia now possesses a modern, long range cruise missile, capable of accurately hitting targets in a theater different than the launching vessel is in, and above all, useable by warships much smaller than the usual platforms for such weapons, which will have consequences for NATO planning in Europe too.
Secondly, it shows that Russian military involvement in Syria is not going to be necessarily limited to the rather modest number of Russian aircraft and ground troops stationed there, which is bad news for all the rebel groups fighting Syrian government.
Thirdly, this event was also planned as a show for Russian internal politics too - it is notable that 7th October, the day of the attack, was also president Putin’s 63rd birthday.
This is no coincidence, as it shows the military’s support for the president, gives Russians a reason for national pride on this day because of the new, modern weapon that is being talked about by international media, and all that to assist the Russian intervention in Syria, which is positively viewed by majority of Russian population.