Russia's missiles aren't as capable as they might appear to be, the Swedish Defense Research Agency concluded in a new report.
The purported weakness of Russian weapons, relative to expectations, could have a big impact on Sweden's military planning -- and on NATO's own planning, as well.
"Russia's potential to create 'keep-out zones' or anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) 'bubbles' in its near abroad has become a hot topic and a source of concern in recent years," Robert Dalsjo, Christopher Berglund and Michael Jonsson explain in their March 2019 report "Bursting the Bubble."
"In a land-grab operation against a weak neighbour, it is feared, Russia could keep help from reaching the victim in time by cordoning off the area of operations with a combination of long-range sensors and missiles. Soon, notions of nearly impregnable Russian A2/AD-barriers or bubbles extending far beyond its territory became widespread in the West, as did maps with large circles indicating areas out of bounds."
In fact, the authors contend, Russian missile systems aren't nearly as fearsome as some analysts assume.
The recent claims of far-reaching A2/AD-capabilities are mainly based on three fairly new systems: the S-400 anti-aircraft system, the Bastion anti-ship system and the Iskander ballistic missile system for use against land targets. Most of the rather alarmist accounts of Russia’s A2/AD-capabilities in recent years have been based on uncritical acceptance of Russian claims concerning the range and performance of these systems. Besides uncritically taking Russian data at face value, the three cardinal sins have been:
(i) confusing the maximal nominal range of missiles with the effective range of the systems;
(ii) disregarding the inherent problems of seeing and hitting a moving target at a distance, especially targets below the horizon; and
(iii) underestimating the potential for countermeasures against A2/AD-systems.
Russia's experience in Syria underscored the distance between observers' expectations regarding Russian weaponry and the weapons' real capabilities, the Swedes explain.
Russian and Syrian forces deployed a wide array of Russian-made air-defense systems in Syria, but failed to stop Israeli, American and coalition planes from operating with great freedom over Syria in operations targeting militant and Syrian regime targets.
"The fact that Russian-supplied A2/AD-systems operated by Syrians, including very modern systems such as Pantsir, have repeatedly come up short in Syria does not mean that some of the new capabilities that Russia is deploying at home are not real or not a source for concern," Dalsjo, Berglund and Jonsson write.
"But the track record of actual operations should still give pause for thought; the laws of physics still apply, the Earth is still round and hitting a moving target over long distances is still both complicated and demanding."
Moscow wants foreign analysts to believe Russian weapons are more capable than they really are, the authors explain.
It should be obvious by now that the flurry of announcements in recent years about the new Russian Wunderwaffen, as well as the interventions and demonstrations in Ukraine and Syria, are part of a strategic communications (stratcom) campaign on a massive scale. This campaign is aimed at both domestic audiences and the near and far abroad.
Domestically, the master message is that Pres. [Vladimir] Putin has made Russia great again, as a strong and powerful military actor that dares to stand up for its interests and to challenge the West. To the states in the near abroad, the message is that Russia is a ruthless and powerful great power, and small neighbours had better show it proper respect.
Moreover, small neighbours should not trust guarantees from their friends in the West, because they would not be able to help out in a crisis.
To states in the far abroad, comfortably west of Russia's immediate reach, the message has a slightly different flavor: Don't meddle in our backyard.
But Sweden, the United States, U.S. allies and NATO shouldn't let Russian propaganda warp their planning, Dalsjo, Berglund and Jonsson argue.
In the West, uncritical acceptance and dissemination of far-reaching claims regarding the capabilities of Russia's A2/AD system and their implications for Western freedom of action could feed into these Russian narratives and magnify their effect. Thus, a sense may be fostered of it being futile to try to defend the Eastern European NATO member states, or to reinforce and resupply them in a crisis.
Such an impression could have military consequences, in the form of a reluctance to plan for more than symbolic steps to defend or to reinforce exposed members, or an acceptance of inflated assumptions as a basis for planning. It could also have political consequences in peacetime, as a sense of vulnerability and of being out of reach for help might foster defeatism or accommodation to the wishes of the mighty neighbour.