Key point: The Bastion and Bal really constitute only the final line of defense in Russian maritime strategy, and are not part of some A2/AD master plan to shut down access to large swathes of water.
One of the ubiquitous buzzwords in national security circles the last few years is “Anti-Access/Area Denial,” or A2/AD. This term-of-art refers to the capability of long-range missile systems fielded by China and Russia that could theoretically threaten vast swathes of territory, in theory denying access to those areas.
One common focus of A2/AD anxiety concerns Russia’s Bastion-P mobile coastal defense systems (less impressively designated SS-C-5 Stooge by NATO), which can launch supersonic P-800 anti-ship missiles from a truck-based launcher.
Take this article by Aleksandr Golts:
“Russian analysts write with satisfaction that the Bastion can shoot not only through a considerable part of the territory of Poland, Germany and the Baltic countries, but also it can actually block the entrance to the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic. The situation in the Far East looks even more serious. The Bastion deployed to the Kuril Islands is able to block any naval activity in the area of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Russia’s coastal defense systems deployed in Crimea are also capable, in the opinion of the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, to block the Bosporus.”
But like any popular idea, the concept of A2/AD has incited some backlash in recent years. For example, a 2019 report argued that A2/AD-capable weapons have been over-hyped because they aren’t very effective at their maximum range and are limited more by the range of their sensors than their missiles. Furthermore, the term A2/AD seemingly conflates the ability to inflict losses for the ability to completely shut down access to a region.
In September 2019, security analyst Michael Kofman published a critique of A2/AD on War on the Rocks: in his view, A2/AD was formulated to describe Chinese strategy in the Asia-Pacific, and has been inaccurately extended to Russian capabilities in Eastern Europe. This, he argues, is a result of simplistically assuming that similar technologies fielded by China and Russia will necessarily be used in the same manner. After all, the Russian military doesn’t even have a home-grown term for A2/AD, using instead an English translation.
According to Kofman, Russian doctrine does not seek to maximize geographic coverage of its so-called A2/AD systems, but rather concentrates them on critical areas while leveraging long-range capabilities to selectively support offensive and defensive operational concepts.
Russian military planners, he writes, are under no illusion that their missile systems form an impermeable defensive bubble that can survive indefinitely against attacks by U.S. stealth jets and cruise missiles. Thus, such weapons are intended to be used judiciously to impose costs and delays, protect a small number of key areas and shape adversary operations around them.
Let’s take a closer look at the Bastion-P in that light.
Each battery is composed of four 8x8 K340P launcher vehicles, each carrying three crew and two eight-meter tall P-800 Oniks missiles. A further four K342P transloaders trucks each carry two missile reloads. The battery is controlled by a four-man crew in a K380P 6x6 command vehicle that can be deployed up to 15 miles away from each launcher. The vehicles are all-terrain capable, can deploy for launch in 5 minutes, and are made from a composite material that supposedly reduces their radar signature by a factor of fifteen to twenty.
A Bastion-P unit depends on other platforms to detect the presence of hostile ships, usually a Monolith-B over-the-horizon radar. However, it might also receive targeting data from drones, satellites, Tu-142 and Il-38 maritime patrol planes and Ka-31 naval helicopters.
Once enemy ships are located and identified, the missiles are provided with GLONASS coordinates (the Russian GPS-equivalent) and a solid-fuel rocket-booster propels the 3.4-ton Oniks missile into the air. The booster is then ditched and a liquid-fuel ramjet motor takes over for sustained flight at roughly two-and-a-half times the speed of sound.
The P-800 can either approach at high altitude for a maximum range of 186 to 210 miles, or skim just fifteen feet above the surface the entire way to minimize odds of radar detection, though only out to 75-mile range.
Ships are moving targets, so in the terminal stage, a P-800 dives down and activates a monopulse radar seeker with a search angle of 45 degrees. The seeker has two modes: a passive, anti-radar seeker designed to home in on ‘cooperative’ targets that have turned on their own active radar; and frequency-hopping active radar seeker which can also supposedly identify stationary land targets. The seekers are claimed to be resistant to chaff decoys and radar jamming.
The Oniks’ high speed makes it very difficult to shoot down in the terminal phase, and its 440 to 550-pound warhead could inflict crippling damage upon even a large warship.
The Russian Navy operates an estimated fifty Bastion-P batteries, operating alongside larger numbers of BAL coast defense systems that use smaller, subsonic Kh-35 missiles with a range of 160 miles.
Starting with three batteries of the 11th Missile-Artillery Brigade stationed at Anapa on the Black Sea. A Bastion-equipped 15th Brigade was later employed in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula after it was seized by Russian special forces in 2014. A silo-launched Bastion-S variant is also slated for activation in 2020 in the Utyos Object 100 coastal defense fort on the Black Sea, which is built into the side of a cliff.
Another three units are based around Novaya Zemlya defending Russia’s North Sea fleet. On the Pacific Ocean, the Bastion-P has outfitted the 520th Coastal Artillery Brigade in Kamchatka, as well as units deployed on the Kuril islands of Iturup and Kunashir, which are subject to a dispute with Japan. There are also at least two Bastion launchers in the militarized enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Russia has also exported two Bastion-P batteries each to Vietnam (with forty missiles) and Syria (with seventy-two missiles). India, meanwhile, has developed its own variant of the P-800 Oniks missile, the Brahmos cruise missile, which is deploying on air, sea and truck-based platforms.
Adding a Grain of Salt to A2/AD Hype
In a separate blog post, Kofman argues it’s a mistake to put too much emphasis on the Bastion-P, when maritime strike aircraft (most importantly the Tu-22M3M bomber with the Kh-32 cruise missile, as well as Su-24, Su-30, and Su-34 attack jet) followed by submarines and mines play a more important role in Russian maritime strategy.
After all, these can range further ahead and pose a threat to blue water naval forces that wouldn’t need to enter a range of coastal defense missiles at all. However, he concedes coast defense missiles might still pose a problem for navies based on the Baltic.
The article notes that the Monolith-B over-the-horizon search radar’s range is fairly limited (56 to 155 miles) unless used against a ‘cooperative’ target that’s emitting radar signals, which it can detect up 280 miles away. Therefore, a Bastion-P battery may be highly dependent on targeting data transmitted by an intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.
Russia also has a few larger Podsolnukh-E and Container Over-the-Horizon-Radars (OTHR) which might theoretically assist in targeting, but which are not integrated into the battery’s command structure.
Russia’s Liana maritime reconnaissance satellite constellation could also theoretically provide naval targeting data. However, it currently consists only of three Lotos signals-intelligence satellites, while its Pion-NKS radar satellites have yet to be launched as of February 2020.
Ultimately, Kofman argues that the Bastion and Bal really constitute only the final line of defense in Russian maritime strategy, and are not part of some A2/AD master plan to shut down access to large swathes of water.
Kofman concludes Western strategists should instead focus on countering maritime strike aviation and surveillance assets that Russia’s naval warfare machine depends upon:
“Limitations in ISR make ‘A2/AD’ rather dodgy beyond tactical-operational ranges, and there are legitimate questions about what Russian Over-the-Horizon-Radar can actually deliver without additional sources of target identification…[However] Russian forces are getting more eyes, buying more aircraft, drones, missiles, and upgrading maritime patrol aviation – so the trend line is clear. I think the extent to which ships become cooperative targets as they maneuver will have a significant impact on the ability of these various systems to detect and classify targets at longer ranges.”
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter. This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.